Review: The Fearless Organization
Psychological safety in organizations is crucial. Amy Edmondson makes the case for it.
A few years ago, the term “Psychological safety” gained popularity.
Google had announced their results of Project Aristotle. In Project Aristotle, Google set out to discover what makes teams effective. Their most striking finding: Psychological safety is essential for high-performing teams. But Google was not the first to make that finding. Tremendous research on this topic has been conducted for over 20 years.
One of these researchers, Amy Edmondson, authored the book “The fearless organization” (affiliate link).
About the author
Amy Edmondson is probably the most important researcher on psychological safety.
She is a professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School. In her career, she devoted large parts to researching psychological safety. In 1999, she published a paper, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” In that paper, she already emphasized the importance of psychological safety. Her finding was that psychological safety contributes to learning behavior in teams. Learning behavior, in turn, leads to improved team performance.
What’s in the book?
In short: psychological safety is important for companies that want to thrive. The book is the most complete guide to psychological safety.
It covers everything from the description of the concept over case studies to practical advice.
What does it take to thrive in a complex, uncertain world?
That is where Edmondson starts her book in the introduction. She explains how she came to research psychological safety, and it turns out she stumbled into the topic by accident. She gives reference to Project Aristotle and the lead researcher Julia Rozovsky. Google found five factors for effective teamwork. Rozovsky coined psychological safety as “the underpinning” of the other four factors. Edmondson found this so “wonderfully concise” that she named a chapter that way.
After the introduction, the book is divided into three parts.
Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able — even obligated — to be candid.
— Amy Edmondson in “The fearless organization”
In the first part Edmondson introduces the concept. She explains what psychological safety is and how it differs from other concepts. She discusses that psychological safety is not a different word for trust and not a personality trait. It’s a group phenomenon, she explains. Furthermore, she gives a solid overview about research on that topic. She calls the overview about the research “the paper trail”.
In the second part, she takes a look at some real world cases. She presents cases of several companies. Cases, where psychological safety or the absence of it shaped business outcomes. The case studies include companies such as Pixar Animation and Volkswagen, to name a few. She explains that psychological safety played a role in the famous Dieselgate. For Pixar, she points out how psychological safety contributes to their success.
Finally, she concludes the book with practical advice on how to establish psychological safety. Some things that she describes as part of “the leader's toolkit” seem like common sense. Like, when she recommends, being appreciative towards people raising concerns or sharing ideas. Yet, it is striking how often people deviate from that in reality.
The book by Amy Edmondson helps to understand why psychological safety is essential. It helps to know how psychological safety contributes to success or failure. She makes clear that psychological safety is not a perk for employees. It’s a necessity for organizations that want to thrive.
It’s written in an easy-to-read, easy-to-digest form. Yet, it makes a case for psychological safety in a tangible way. She goes the extra mile to underpin her writing with references to other sources. In fact, I haven’t read many books with so many footnotes.
Overall, I can recommend the book to anyone interested in leadership. It becomes clear that Amy Edmondson knows her stuff, and there is a lot to learn from the book.