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BOOK REVIEW: Fear can crash anything from planes to banks - how fearful is your workplace?

Feb 14 2019 06:00
Ian Mann

The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.By Amy C. Edmondson

In 1756 the Irish statesman Edmund Burke wrote: "No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear."

A work environment where fear is present is a hangover from the organisational culture of the Industrial Revolution. Its debilitating effects were identified by MIT professors Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis in 1965. Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard has added an important feature this chain of insights – what to do about this.

Growth and competitive advantage today is a function of knowledge and innovation in nearly every industry. "The goal of this book is to help you do just that – and to equip you with some new ideas and practices to make knowledge-intensive organisations work better," writes Edmondson.

For knowledge work to be successful requires a workplace where people feel able to share their knowledge and have no reason to hold back.

This book is based on a plethora of research over the past 20 years into "psychological safety" and it goes a long way to explain the differences in performance in workplaces across hospitals, factories, schools, and government agencies.

In psychologically safe workplaces, people are aware they might fail, and they might be told they are not meeting expectations. However, in a psychologically safe workplace, people are not held back from contributing by interpersonal fear.

In a safe workplace they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution; rather they are comfortable expressing and being themselves. In this environment, mistakes are reported quickly so that quick corrective action can be taken; there is seamless coordination across teams and potentially game-changing ideas for innovation are shared.

In 2017 the Gallup poll found that only 3 in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work. If you could improve that score to 6 in 10, it would yield a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity.

Consider a young nurse who observes a very senior doctor omit a procedure in his treatment of a child. He is known for his violent temper and humiliation of junior staff. So she doesn’t say anything and the doctor moves on. The next day the child dies.

The effect of fear is that it freezes the brain, so it focuses on the immediate issue – to confront and be humiliated, or to say nothing and maybe all will turn out okay. This freezing leads to discounting the important commitment to the patients' health. At that moment the employee "couldn’t" speak up – literally – and, as we know, failure to speak up in a crucial moment cannot be seen.

"Airplanes have crashed, financial institutions have fallen, and hospital patients have died unnecessarily because individuals were, for reasons having to do with the climate in which they worked, afraid to speak up," Edmondson reports. These are obviously extreme examples, but they do highlight the importance of the issue.

No one goes to work to look ignorant and incompetent. This is called interpersonal risks and is to be avoided in most workplaces. The moments, and no one is the wiser except the person who held back.

A work environment is psychologically safe when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able – even obligated – to be candid. Dozens of studies show greater learning, performance, and even lower mortality as a result of psychological safety. Research in neuroscience shows that fear consumes physiological resources, diverting them from parts of the brain that manage working memory and the processing of new information.

Psychological safety is the responsibility of immediate leaders. It is not about being ‘nice’: it is about candour, about making it possible for productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas. It is not about lowering performance standards, on the contrary, an environment of mutual respect and psychological safety is conducive to setting ambitious goals and working toward them together.

"In any challenging industry setting, leaders have two vital tasks," Edmondson explains. "One, they must build psychological safety to spur learning and avoid preventable failures; two, they must set high standards and inspire and enable people to reach them."

Your greatest fear as a manager at any level is that people aren't telling you the truth. In so many environments the unspoken rules are: Don't criticise something the manager may have helped create. Don't speak unless you have solid data. Don't speak up if the manager’s manager is present. And so on. Speaking up has career consequences.

Careful studies of failures from Nokia to Wells Fargo, from VW’s emissions fraud to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, were all clearly manmade. The direct causes of the accident were all foreseeable. All these disasters happened in environments of fear. All were environments in which speaking up was belittled and warnings go unheeded.

The book describes environments that are deliberately and carefully constructed to be ever more psychologically safe. These include the remarkable Pixar Animation Studios, Ray Dalio’s extraordinarily successful Bridgewater Hedge Fund, and more.

These cultures are a function of time and consistency, and there is no quick fix. But you have to start the journey.

Feedback must be constructive – and about the project, not the person. Comments are suggestions, not prescriptions. Candid feedback is not a "gotcha" but must come from a place of empathy. Discussion about issues is build on each other’s ideas to creating new value.

It is okay to make mistakes, but unacceptable not to identify, analyse, and learn from them.

You might start by changing your language, as they did in one hospital. Instead of an "investigation" into an adverse event, the hospital would use the term "study;" instead of ‘error’ they suggested people use the words ‘accident’ or ‘failure’. They asked staff: "Was everything as safe as you would like it to have been this week with your patients?"

The question is genuine, curious, and direct. It is respectful and concrete: "this week," "your patients."

Your journey as a manager will start when you appreciate the economic value of a psychologically safe workplace, and the economic cost of an unsafe one.

Then read this book and scour it for ideas that will work for your people.

Readability         Light ---+- Serious

Insights                High +---- Low

Practical               High -+--- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and ‘The Executive Update.’ Views expressed are his own.

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