Teams willing to speak up are not only fearless, but they are also more successful. Learn what it takes in the summary of "The Fearless Organization".
It’s not always comfortable to speak up, especially at work. You don’t want to challenge your boss’s authority. You think you might be wrong anyway. You’re afraid you’ll be punished. It seems safer to stay silent and keep your thoughts to yourself. Better safe than sorry.
If you think so, you just don’t know the true price of silence.
In “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth”, Amy C. Edmondson highlights why it’s so important to be brave and speak up. Providing evidence from her research, she proves that in psychologically safe workplaces, where people feel free to express their opinion, and even fail, performance is higher, and employees are more committed.
Without further ado, here’s our summary of “Psychological Safety”.
A young neonatal nurse practitioner Christina Price was concerned, looking at the babies at the hospital. She knew prematurely born babies were not always ready to breathe independently. But Dr. Drake, her boss, did not issue medicine, a prophylactic surfactant. Christina was about to remind him about it. But stopped herself.
We, humans, tend to overweigh things that happen immediately, underweighing those which will happen in the future. This is why we eat an extra piece of chocolate we don’t really need. And this is why Christina held back her response – because the immediate reaction of her boss, probably aggressive, seemed more important than the future outcome. Fortunately, this story didn’t have a sad ending.
No one wants to look ignorant – so we don’t ask questions. No one wants to look incompetent – so we don’t admit mistakes. We do not express a different viewpoint at a meeting. We do not ask for feedback. We simply do not speak up. And when we dare do it, it often happens after trepidation.
These are clear signs we do not feel safe.
But what environments are psychologically safe? Edmondson provides the following explanation:
I have defined psychological safety as the belief that the work is safe for interpersonal risks. The concept refers to the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns.
As a first-year doctoral student, Edmondson joined a team that was studying medical errors in hospitals. She hypothesized that the most effective teams would make the fewest errors.
However, the results showed that the best teams were making more mistakes. Further research showed that in better teams, people would talk openly about the risk of error and how to prevent it.
Psychological safety is not a personality trait. This is a feature of the workplace. And it is not the result of some random processes. Psychological safety, or its absence, is the result of the leader’s actions – because it is the leader who creates conditions for it.
Many managers think that when people are scared, of a manager personally or of underperforming, they will work harder. It may be true for jobs involving repetitive tasks. But for jobs that require collaboration or learning, it is not.
Fear inhibits learning. Research in neuroscience shows that fear consumes physiologic resources, diverting them from parts of the brain that manage working memory and process new information. This impairs analytical thinking, creative insight, and problem-solving.
This is why hierarchy reduces psychological safety. Lower-status members feel less safe.
Edmondson mentions common misconceptions about psychological safety:
Together with her colleagues, Edmondson reviewed academic literature on psychological safety. Based on the evidence, she organized the studies into 5 categories and discussed the implications:
Even when people believe that what they want to say is important, they still hold back. A manufacturing technician in one of the US plants didn’t share the idea for speeding up the production process. When asked why he explained, “I have kids in college.” He was afraid to lose his job. Yet, when he was asked if anyone had lost a job for speaking up, the answer was – no. His fear was irrational.
As Edmondson points out, these situations are “painfully common.”
No one gains from the silence. Teams miss out on insights. Those who fail to speak up often report regret or pain.
A study of over a hundred project teams in 23 American hospitals demonstrated two ways in which people behaved – learn-what (independent activities like reading literature) and learn-how (team-based learning). It appeared that psychological safety improved learn-how behaviors, as it helped people overcome their fear to take risks while learning in a group.
“Workaround” is a short path you take to bypass a problem. For example, if you need something, you may find it in another unit. You fix your problem – but also create a problem for your colleagues, who will not find what they need later.
In psychologically safe environments, such situations do not occur. People discuss issues openly and provide suggestions to solve them.
A study of teams at Google (project “Aristotle”) demonstrated that psychological safety was the main factor influencing performance. Other factors – clear goals, colleagues, meaningful work, and a belief that work has an impact – also influence it, but psychological safety is the main one.
Employee satisfaction doesn’t necessarily mean emotional commitment. Committed employees are willing to put extra effort into work – and it means taking risks. This is not possible in an unsafe environment.
Psychological safety can also impact other things within a group:
The failure of an employee to speak up in a crucial moment cannot be seen. This is true whether that employee is on the front lines of customer service or sitting next to you in the executive board room.
In this part the author provides case studies from different organizations to show how psychological safety impacts performance and what consequences it may lead to. We will briefly go over some of them.
Before its fall, Wells Fargo was one of the most valuable banks. In the early 2000-s, the bank adopted a cross-selling campaign, which meant employees had to sell, on average, eight products per customer. Their progress was thoroughly tracked.
People who could not reach their sales goals were coached. If they still struggled, they were terminated from the company. Managers were publicly criticized.
In 2013, it was noticed that Wells Fargo employees used “questionable practices” to hit their numbers, like opening accounts for customers without their consent.
Wells Fargo tried to fix the issue, firing over 5,300 employees for unethical violations. But by selling services and opening accounts under false pretenses, employees just were making sure they would receive a paycheck. The root of the evil, obviously, was the system that put people in this situation.
Could this be avoided? Of course, if people were not scared to talk. But the scandal went public. Wells Fargo was fined and ordered to pay $3 billion dollars.
The 1977 air crash is still considered the worst accident in the history of civil aviation. 586 people died. And silence, which was the result of psychological unsafety, played a big role in this tragedy.
The captain of one of the jets, the KLM Boeing, was Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten, who was flying with first officer Klaas Meurs and flight engineer Willem Schreuder. Ready for the takeoff, van Zanten was moving too soon. Meurs mentioned that air traffic control had not given them clearance yet. Van Zanten said, “We’re going,” sounding irritated.
Schreuder asked if the other jet would not be blocking their way. Van Zanten did not take this remark seriously and continued the take-off.
It was too late when they noticed Pan Am in front of them.
This tragedy could have not happened. But neither Meurs nor Schreuder felt safe enough to prevent it.
Since 1995, when Pixar Animation Studio released “Toy Story”, it has produced 19 films, each of which was successful. What is Pixar’s secret? Its leadership that creates conditions for both creativity and criticism.
This is done through “Braintrtust”. Braintrust is a group of creative leaders who observe the development of a movie. They have rules: criticize a project, not a person; give suggestions, not prescriptions; feedback must be candid.
In this environment, people do not fear. They know they cannot be defensive or take criticism personally. But they also know their failures are a necessary part of the creative process.
The slogan of DaVita Kidney Care is “All for One and One for All.” It perfectly expresses the company value of shared responsibility and support. Even though the majority of workers are low-skilled, hourly workers, DaVita offers them many health and welfare benefits.
There is a logic behind it. Patients who come for dialysis treatment often feel depressed, and if the clinic personnel feel psychologically safe, they will provide them with better support. This, in turn, will contribute to positive clinical outcomes.
In this chapter, Edmondson provides practical advice which can help build psychological safety in your organization. The framework she suggests consists of three elements:
Psychological safety starts with setting common goals and developing a shared appreciation for what people do.
Fear of failure means a low level of psychological safety. This is why it’s very important how the leader treats failures. If leaders don’t make it safe to fail, people will avoid failure by any means.
This is a problem because failure can be a great learning experience. Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist, points out that a failure “is not a bug of learning, it’s a feature,” characteristic of the learning process.
But there are different kinds of failure – because there are different kinds of work. Repetitive work requires you to thoroughly follow the procedure. Sometimes a failure to do so may lead to horrible consequences. For example, plugging a patient into a dialysis machine is a repetitive, yet very responsible, process.
In creative work, however, you are not given any algorithms. To achieve the desired result, you have to be innovative. This is how movies are made and new technologies are developed. In this case, failures are not only inevitable – they are necessary, and need to be celebrated.
There is also work that falls in between these two categories, involving both repetitive actions and a creative approach. The majority of the work we do belongs here.
Taking the nature of work into account, Edmondson divides failures into the following types:
As we can see, some failures are “good news”, and some are not. But each of them is an opportunity to learn.
It’s not enough to know what type of failure you’ve just gone through. Leaders must make it clear why it’s so important to speak up. Edmondson recommends discussing the following three dimensions:
Typically, bosses are expected to give orders and know all the answers. In this case, it’s very natural to fear your boss and think twice before saying something.
To cultivate psychological safety, bosses must treat employees as contributors who have the necessary skills and knowledge. Then there is no need to give orders – you just set a direction.
It may seem obvious that the work is meaningful, yet leaders should constantly emphasize the purpose. Anyone can get tired or distracted.
People must feel they are genuinely welcome to speak up so that playing it safe stops being an option altogether. Edmondson mentions some techniques that may invite people to talk:
Frankly, adopting a humble mindset when faced with the complex, dynamic, uncertain world in which we all work today is simple realism.
According to Edmondson, a powerful question is thought-provoking, stimulates a conversation, and invites new possibilities.
When a person takes a risk and speaks up, a leader needs to respond appropriately. Edmondson mentions three characteristics of a productive response:
Let’s get back to different types of failures and see what responses will be productive in each case:
There will always be psychological and social factors that would make us favor silence over voice. But as Edmondson underlines, there is a difference between victories gained through self-protection and those gained through voice – it’s like the difference between playing not to lose and playing to win.
For this reason, we should pay attention to which mindset we are at when we work. Are you playing to win? Or not to lose? Remember that an easier way leads to missed opportunities to grow.
Perhaps the best way to experience psychological safety is to act as if you have it already. See what happens! The chances are you’ll be creating a safer and more energizing environment for those around you as well.
In this chapter, Edmondson also answers the most common questions about psychological safety:
Psychological safety is not a panacea. If you feel safe, it doesn’t mean you know what to do. You cannot have too much safety, but you can have not enough discipline.
Yes, you can. You don’t have to be a leader to exercise leadership. You can ask someone a question that would give them a voice. You can actively listen to people and respond with interest. You can let yourself be vulnerable, this way letting others do likewise.
Whistle-blowers are people who expose the wrong things they’re observing to external authorities or even to the press. Yet, whistle-blowing is a direct indicator of the absence of psychological safety. If you cannot express concerns inside your organization, it’s not safe.
More psychological safety doesn’t mean more transparency. It all depends on the situation. In a surgical operating room, full transparency will be perfect. But sharing your thoughts about every aspect of work is not necessary.
Creating psychological safety is not an overnight process. You may feel inner resistance preventing you from breaking old habits. But you should fight it. Speak up. Let your voice be heard. It can make a difference.
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