The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmondson — Book Review

The notion of psychological safety first gained traction from Google’s Project Aristotle initiative. Revealing that their highest performing teams are attributed to the teams with the highest psychological safety.

Psychological safety defined by Edmondson is “a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution”.

To me this idea resonates strongly, as the need for solving complex problems through knowledge work and innovation increases, we need workplaces that can provide us with the psychological safety to show up and tap onto our potentials. How can we actualise people in the organisation; allowing them to thrive with their unique talents, but also support them emotionally and spiritually in their times of need? To me the power of this concept is in removing people’s interpersonal fear, giving them an avenue to contribute their unique abilities and perspectives; building resiliency in the system.

Silence and Failure

The book goes into great detail unpacking the topic of silence and failure which are two of the main inhibitors in building psychological safety. As Edmondson elaborates, there is a “voice-silence asymmetry” in the workplace, as many employees would default to silence rather than taking the risk of voicing an opinion. The challenge here is on providing the safety for people to feel comfortable speaking up without the risk and fear of embarrassment or retribution.

The other default narrative is the avoidance of failure. As Ray Dalio puts it “‘mistakephobia’ is crippling” because, we are taught to seek the right answer instead of learning to learn from mistakes as a pathway to independent thinking.” The challenge here is on dispelling the fear of failure as this impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving. There is a great need to dissolve the paralysing fear that surrounds the idea of failure, and to accept that failure will be part of the journey of learning and exploration. In putting a spotlight to these overlooked narratives for silence and the fear of failure, Edmondson hopes to redefine the conversations and expectations of the workplace.

The main ideas of fostering psychological safety that I picked up from this book:

  • Candor — The quality of being open and honest with each other. When candor is part of a workplace culture, people say what’s on their minds and share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. From her interview with Ray Dalio (Bridgwater) he notes that candor needs to be in service to the truth, no matter how painful, because only then can you constructively confront problems. I think to me the importance of this is in framing the environment that both employers and employees need to take risks in communication, in order for this relationship of candor to form.
  • Embrace Messengers — The next true test is on how leaders respond when people actually do speak up. When someone steps forward with bad news or a problem, leaders need to be appreciative, respectful, and give it a positive experience for the messengers. Christa Quarles (OpenTable) notes that “no amount of ugly truth scares me. It’s just information to make a decision.”
  • Feedback — Firstly feedback needs to be framed as constructive to the project and not against the person. There is need to build a shared intention here that the conversation is for the shared progress of the project. Secondly, the comments should come as suggestions and not prescriptions. There should be no top-down mandates, the team lead is ultimately the one responsible for the project and has the permission to take or leave solutions offered.
  • Model Fallibility — As a leader, Eileen Fisher (Eileen Fisher) takes on the idea of not knowing as a positive trait. As she says, “when you don’t know and you’re really listening intently, people want to help you. They want to share.” I think this is a reflection of leaders with enough self confidence to tell their employees: I don’t know, and can we work on it together.
  • Purpose — Leaders need to remind people of why what they do matters to the larger context of society. Sometimes people get bogged down by the everyday challenges, and adding meaning to the work for organisations, brings us back to why we are here and away from being self conscious. To me this has many parallels with Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, and leaders need to rally behind this purpose.

Takeaways

Before getting through this book, to me this idea of psychological safety has always seemed like an idealistic concept that organisations speak of, but not have the details in building an environment that works. Edmondson does an amazing job about unpacking the nuances of what inhibits the development of psychological safety, and tries to provide us with the right examples and frameworks to build up an environment of psychological safety. As teams and enterprises of today need to start solving problems at grander scales, these pursuits come with a greater risk of failure and organisations need to be able to provide an environment that can learn and thrive from these failures.

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Source: The Fearless Organisation

Written by

Programme Manager @ Padang & Co | Architectural Designer | Startups, Participatory Design and Social Enterprise sectors https://www.linkedin.com/in/llqingping/

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