The Fearless Organization

Edmondson, Amy. (2019). The Fearless Organization. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

The main point of this book is psychological safety is critical for learning. If the culture is not safe, people will withhold their best ideas, the culture becomes less creative, and the results will invariably be less than optimal.

“The one best way” to get almost any task done, growth today is driven by ideas and ingenuity. People must bring their brains to work and collaborate with each other to solve problems and accomplish work that’s perpetually changing.“

Whether the organization is a school, a non-profit, or a business, innovation is going to be the difference between success and failure. Things change, duh. As General Shinseki said years ago, “if you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance a lot less.”

If we are reluctant to make suggestions for fear we will be ridiculed, we withhold ideas even if we are sure they would be helpful. Think of classrooms or meetings we have been part of. Is it safe to express yourself? Are the risks of being made fun of greater than the contribution to solving the problems? If so, we stop promoting novel ideas. This takes its’ toll because today’s employees, at all levels, spend 50% more time collaborating than they did 20 years ago. Hiring talented individuals is not enough. They have to be able to work well together.
This dynamic collaboration is called teaming. Teaming is the art of communicating and coordinating with people across boundaries of all kinds – expertise, status, and distance, to name a few.

The fearless organization is one in which interpersonal fear is minimized so that team and organizational performance can be maximized in knowledge-intensive work. 2017 Gallup poll found that only 3 in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work. Gallup calculated that by “moving that ratio to six in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 27 percent reduction in turnover, a 40 percent reduction in safety incidents and a 12 percent increase in productivity.

Leaders are an important linchpin for setting the tone. Leaders can help create and sustain a psychologically safe environment to ensure the best thinking and to encourage the best ideas to come to the forefront. A change is a mistake for learning, playing it safe is for the status quo.

Google created a program called “Project Aristotle.” They concluded, “psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found.” Other behaviors were setting clear goals and reinforcing mutual accountability, but unless team members felt psychologically safe, the other behaviors were insufficient. So, the question I ask is how is your organization? Do you have psychological safety as a base? Is that concept something to get better? “Psychological safety was by far the most important of the five key dynamics we found. It’s the underpinning of the other four.” —Julia Rozovsky,

‘The five keys to a successful Google team.”
A case study. Goffman studied the fascinating micro-dynamics of face-saving. The nurse investigators collected error data over a six-month period. Going into the study, I hypothesized, not surprisingly, that the most effective teams would make the fewest errors.

First, the good news – Error rates across teams were strikingly different, there was a 10-fold difference in the number of human errors per thousand patient days (a standard measure) from the best to the worst unit on what I sincerely believed was an important performance measure. The direction of the correlation was exactly the opposite of what I had predicted. Better teams were apparently making more — not fewer – mistakes than less strong teams

The eureka moment. What if the better teams had a climate of openness that made it easier to report and discuss errors. The good teams, I suddenly thought, don’t make more mistakes; they report more. People in the better teams (as measured by my survey, but unbeknownst to the research assistant) talked openly about the risks of errors, often trying to find new ways to catch and prevent them.

Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis wrote about the need for psychological safety to help people cope with the uncertainty and anxiety of organizational change in a 1965 book. Schein later noted that psychological safety was vital for helping people overcome the defensiveness and “learning anxiety” they face at work, especially when something doesn’t go as they’d hoped or expected. Psychological safety, he argued, allows people to focus on achieving shared goals rather than on self-protection.

There is a lot of leadership by fear and intimidation these days. Guilt and Shame supposedly will increase test scores. As knowledge workers (educators and businesspeople) continue to improve, we find that Guilt and Shame may get a short-term bump at the cost of long-term sustainability. Why Fear Is Not an Effective Motivator. many managers – both consciously and not – still believe in the power of fear to motivate. They assume that people who are afraid (of management or of the consequences of underperforming) will work hard to avoid unpleasant consequences, and good things will happen. There is another way.

This might make sense if the work is straightforward and the worker is unlikely to run into any problems or have any ideas for improvement. But for jobs where learning or collaboration is required for success, fear is not an effective motivator. 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 analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem-solving. This is why it’s hard for people to do their best work when they are afraid.

Psychological safety is not about being nice, although civility is a plus. It also does not mean positive praise every two minutes. It is not a personality factor, strict adherence to rules and deadlines or a laissez faire environment. The chart below helps organize what it is and is not.

How Psychological Safety Relates to Performance Standards.
Low Standards High Standards
High Psychological Safety Comfort Zone Learning & High Performance
Low Psychological Safety Apathy Zone Anxiety Zone

Here is a survey that helps determine whether or not your organization has Psychological Safety

A Survey Measure of Psychological Safety.
1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you. (R)
2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different. (R)
4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help. (R)
6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

Psychological Safety Is Not Enough Leaders have two vital tasks.
1. they must build psychological safety to spur learning and avoid preventable failures,
2. they must set high standards and inspire and enable people to reach them
“Your greatest fear as a CEO is that people aren’t telling you the truth.” Mark Costa

There are five basic research findings.
1. Silence by people. They hold back even if they think they have a good idea. Other team members won’t benefit from their expertise or ideas. There is:
• fear of being viewed or labeled negatively
• fear of damaging work relationships.
Taken-for-granted Rules for Voice at Work.
• Don’t criticize something the boss may have helped create.
• Don’t speak unless you have solid data.
• Don’t speak up if the boss’s boss is present.
• Don’t speak up in a group with anything negative about the work to prevent boss from losing face.
• Speaking up brings career consequences.
“No one was ever fired for silence.”

2. How does the workplace support Learning – A growing number of studies find that psychological safety can exist it work and, when it does, that people do in fact speak up, offer ideas, report errors, and exhibit a great deal more than we can categorize as ‘learning behavior.
Learning from Mistakes, discussing those mistakes so everyone can learn can help people know what and how to address problems in the future. People also learn how to work around problems which expands their own repertoire for solving problems.

3. Why Psychological Safety Matters for better results. Data showed that teams with psychological safety also had higher performance Research also shows a relationship between psychological safety and innovation.

4. Psychologically Safe Environments Engage Employee – a study in a Midwestern insurance company found that psychological safety predicted worker engagement

5. Psychological Safety adds value to the organization. -Psychological safety has been found to help teams overcome the challenges of geographic dispersion, put the conflict to good use, and leverage diversity.

Osterloh wrote, “we need in the future a climate in which problems aren’t hidden but can be openly communicated to superiors. We need a culture in which it’s possible and permissible to argue with your superior about the best way to go.

Building a safe place to work helps avoid avoidable errors because of the sharing of information and identifying obstacles. Ironically, pushing harder on “execution” in response to early signals of underperformance may only aggravate the problem if shortcomings reveal that prior market intelligence or assumptions about the business model were flawed.

A couple of examples of dangerous silence are the NASA Space Shuttle Columbia issue with O-rings. Another example is the collision of two Boeing 747 jets on an island runway in the Canary Islands. If the co-pilot would have spoken up, it might have avoided 583 people dying.

When senior officials or leaders do not listen to team members, disasters can happen. Atul Gawande (2007) wrote a book titled Better. Even though he is the chief surgeon at Harvard, team meetings and being able to speak up are critical elements of a successful team resulting in successful operations.

Sometimes the Cassandra figure is looked like an outcast. They may be seeing things that others don’t. Who are your Cassandras? Are they taken seriously?

A couple more resources identified by Edmondson were the work of Ed Catmull at Pixar (2014) and Ray Dalio of Bridgewater (2017). I will offer the work of Kim Scott (2017) in the book Radical Candor and the book by Lazlo Bock (2015) Work Rules which talks about the project teams at Google.

Scott describes strategies for conversations that include Care Personally and Challenge Directly. See a summary at Lazlo Bock, the former HR director at Google describes how teams operate, making meeting safe to generate creative solutions, and building positive relationships.

In the book Creativity by Catmull, he says success in part due to the candor and truth-telling of the individual team members that contribute to the positive results of their movies.
When candor is part of workplace culture, people don’t feel silenced. They don’t keep their thoughts to themselves. They say what’s on their minds and share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Ideally, they laugh together and speak noisily. Catmull encourages candor by looking for ways to institutionalize it in the organization. Pixar calls it the “Braintrust.”

The braintrust recipe is fairly simple: a group of directors and storytellers watches an early run of the movie together, eats lunch together, and then provides feedback to the director about what they think worked and what did not. But the recipe’s key ingredient is candor. And candor, though simple, is never easy.

Pixar’s Braintrust has rules.
1. feedback must be constructive – and about the project, not the person the filmmaker cannot be defensive or take criticism personally and must be ready to hear the truth
2. the comments are suggestions, no prescriptions. There are no mandates, top-down or otherwise; the director is ultimately the one responsible for the movie and can take or leave solutions offered
3. candid feedback is not a “gotcha but must come from a place of empathy. It helps that the directors have often already gone through the process themselves. Praise and appreciation, especially for the director’s vision and ambition, are doled out in heaping measure;

Trying to avoid the pain of failure in learning will lead to far worse pain. Catmull: “for leaders especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it – dooms you to fail.’

Ray Dalio, who wrote the book Principles, believes extreme candor begins with leaders who “create an environment in which no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it. No holding back. It’s better to know the truth, no matter how frightening, because only then can one figure out what to do. In framing silence as an unethical choice.

Dalio’s views on the need for error and smart failures as a part of the learning process are consistent with what we know about how growth and innovation occur. He believes that “our society’s mistakephobia’ is crippling” because, beginning in elementary school, we are taught to seek the right answer instead of learning to learn from mistakes as a pathway to innovative and independent thinking.

At Bridgewater, “it is okay to makes mistakes, but unacceptable not to identify, analyze, and learn from them.”

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” Naguib Mahfouz
Research shows that when leaders express humility, teams engage in more learning behavior. “Instead of people losing confidence, they actually gain confidence [in you] when you admit you don’t know something,

“The greatest enemy of learning is knowing.” John Maxwell

By now it should be clear that psychological safety is foundational to building a learning organization. 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.
Each of these is an expression of vulnerability.
For example, most of us face many opportunities to say things like these:
• What can I do to help?
• What are you up against?
• What are your concerns?


Bock, Lazlo. (2015). Work Rules. New York: Twelve

Catmull, Ed (2014). Creativity, Inc.ˆ New York: Random House.

Dalio, Ray. (2017). Principles. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gawande, A. (2007). Better: A surgeon’s notes on performance. New York: Picador.

Scott, Kim. (2017). Radical Candor. New York: St. Martin’s Press