Psychological Safety in The Fearless Organisation

In Amy Edmondson’s The Fearless Organisation she adds her weight to explaining why psychological safety is the secret sauce of good culture

While the phrase was used by MIT professors Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis in the 1960s, the notion of what we now style ‘psychological safety’ was first coined by William Kahn in 1990s as he explained how the condition led to the fostering of ‘Employee Engagement’. Kahn felt that psychological safety was not only the ability to speak up to the boss but the expectations that employees had to be given ‘the benefit of the doubt’ when things went awry.

But it was Amy Edmondson’s research work that helped to turn it into a familiar academic term with her study of hospital teams in the late 1990s. As she points out in her new book The Fearless Organisation the concept only really saw an acceleration into something close to common parlance with a Charles Duhigg article on Google’s Project Aristotle in 2016. Duhigg’s article explained how Google’s People Analytics team had pinpointed that the best performing teams in the company had little in common other than demonstrating a common trait of having psychological safety running through them.

As the term is now cruising towards the mainstream Amy Edmondson has written a new book ‘The Fearless Organization’, to partly reclaim the concept for herself.

Edmondson reminds us that the future of work is dependent on us mastering knowledge and mastering innovation. But the challenge of modern work is that employees worry of the consequence of their actions: “they’re reluctant to stand out, be wrong, or offend the boss”. “Yet a 2017 Gallup poll found that only 3 in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work” – whereas we’ve all come to understand that “no one has ever been fired for silence”. Edmondson points out that good workplaces engender an environment liberated from these fears: “in a psychologically safe workplace, people are not hindered by interpersonal fear”. “For jobs where learning or collaboration is required for success, fear is not an effective motivator”.

Edmondson is suitably proud of the Google endorsement, citing Julia Rozovsky the head of the Google analytics team: “Psychological safety was by far the most important of the five key dynamics we found. It’s the underpinning of [everything else]”.

“Psychological safety was by far the most important of the five key dynamics we found. It’s the underpinning of [everything else]”

‘I am tired of all these lousy body fits. You have six weeks to achieve world-class body fits. I have all of your names. If you we do not have good body fits in six weeks, I will replace all of you”.

Edmondson recognises we adapt ourselves at work.

“Don’t want to look ignorant? Don’t ask questions. Don’t want to look incompetent? Don’t admit mistakes or weaknesses. Don’t want to be called disruptive? Don’t make suggestions”. Edmondson had been confronted with an enigma when first research performance in hospitals, she had discovered in her original research that the best performing medical teams hadn’t been making fewer mistakes. Indeed she was confounded to discover the opposite. “Indeed, there was a 10-fold difference in the number of human errors per thousand patient days from the best to the worst”. “And then came the eureka moment. What if the better teams had a climate of openness that made it easier to report and discuss error? The good team, I suddenly thought, don’t make  more mistakes; they report more”.

Edmondson goes on to explain what workplaces look like when they lack psychological safety, explaining that if workers struggle to speak up to their bosses they often find they need to work round managerial misjudgments. “Workarounds can occur when workers do not feel safe enough to speak up and make suggestions to improve the system”. Whereas the better teams did appear to have better results: “the data showed that teams with psychological safety also had higher performance”.

Understandably Edmondson’s work seemed to suggest that the relationship works both ways: researchers “showed that trust in top management led to psychological safety, which in turn promoted work engagement” 

The best part of the book, though, comes when Edmondson delves into some of the case studies of the phenomenon. Winding back the clock on the Dieselgate saga at VW, Edmondson paints a vivid picture of a culture of demanding standards and perilous consequences for failure.

She avoids planting all of the blame on CEO Martin Winterkorn despite him having “a reputation as an arrogant, perfectionist martinet with an obsessive attention to detail”. As one VW exec explained: “If you presented bad news, those were moments that it could become quite unpleasant and loud and quite demeaning”.

But Edmondson suggests that this climate of fear was hothoused by the leadership of Ferdinand Piech, VW’s former Chairman, CEO and top shareholder. “A brilliant and visionary automotive engineer, Piech had been convinced that terrorising subordinates was the way to achieve profitable design”. But Piech for Edmondson demonstrated textbook behaviours to create a lack of psychological safety. In Piech’s words: “I called all the body engineers, stamping people, manufacturing, and executives into my conference room. And I said ‘I am tired of all these lousy body fits. You have six weeks to achieve world-class body fits. I have all of your names. If you we do not have good body fits in six weeks, I will replace all of you”.

A competitor observed that Piech helped create “a reign of terror and a culture where performance was driven by fear and intimidation”.

Edmondson goes on to pair this history with the saga of the decline of Nokia. There, the Nokia supremo Olli-Pekka Kallusvuo was reportedly fiery, seen “shouting at people at the top of his lungs”. Additionally “it was very difficult to tell him things he didn’t want to hear”.

How to build Psychological safety


Invite Participation

“I may miss something, I need to hear from you”


Pro-active inquiry


Responding productively


Further stories (like Wells Fargo driving their banking staff to dizzyingly unachievable sales numbers with no tolerance of falling short) helps to embed the understanding of Edmondson’s concept.

Overall the book is a thoughtful guide to the ideas of psychological safety, filled with 20 helpful illustrative examples. It is richest when it’s shining a light on why organisations like Uber failed to create psychological safety (in their case the company value of ‘toe-stepping’ “meant that employees were incented to work autonomously, rather than in team, and cause pain to others to get things done and move forward, even if it meant damaging some relationships along the way”).

Where Edmondson is lighter is the ‘how?’ saving the final 50 pages for suggestions like ‘inviting participation’ or ‘framing the work’. This is where the suggestions at times feel rather tired, Edmondson quotes a leadership development specialist: “What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s a feature”. Edmondson lists why we should celebrate failure without acknowledging the reality that most organisations will quickly develop fatigue if the ‘failure parties’ (even one ‘failure czar’) come to dominate work.

Some suggestions that do seem effective:

Invite participation: Working hard to get people to speak up seems like a constant consideration for leaders – and that often means moderating their own ego: “Research shows that when leaders express humility, teams engage in more learning behaviour”. Effective results follow leaders who says things like ‘I may miss something; I need to hear from you”.

Proactive inquiry: “Contrary to what many may believe, asking questions tends to make the leader seem not weak but thoughtful and wise”. One leader gives her secret:

“Often in meetings, I will ask people when we’re discussing an idea, ‘What did the dissenter say?’ The first time you do that, somebody might say, “Well, everybody’s on board.” Then I’ll say, “Well you guys aren’t listening very well, because there’s always another point of view somewhere and you need to go back and find out what the dissenting point of view is.”

Edmondson’s guide to helpful phrases:

“I would like to suggest a few simple, uncommon, powerful phrases that anyone can utter to make the workplace feel just a tiny bit more psychologically safe:

I don’t know

I need help

I made a mistake

I’m sorry”

“Similarly powerful in shaping the climate even if you are not the boss are words of interest and availability. For example, most of us fave many opportunities to say things like these:

What can I do to help?

What are you up against?

What are your concerns?”

Responding productively:

“Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, whose celebrated research on mindset shows the power of learning orientation for individual achievement and resilient in the face of challenge, notes the importance of praising people for efforts, regardless of the outcome. When people believe their performance is an indication of their ability or intelligence, they are less likely to take risks – for fear of a result that would disconfirm their ability. But when people believe that performance reflects effort and good strategy, they are eager to try new things and willing to persevere despite advertisity and failure”.

Playing not to lose and playing to win:

“Playing not to lose is a mindset that focuses, consciously or not; on protecting against the downside; playing to win, in contrast, is focused on the upside, seeks opportunity, and necessarily takes risks”.

Amy Edmondson’s The Fearless Organisation is out now.