Nurturing Psychological Safety

We are living in a knowledge economy where the next big idea and quick solutions become benchmarks for success. The motto of ‘work hard, work smart’ just doesn’t cut it anymore. Corporates are continually demanding more out of employees, whether it responding to ever-changing business needs or experimenting with ideas. It’s a dynamic as well as a demanding environment.

Amy Edmondson’s The Fearless Organization (2018) is a guide to how one can build up the confidence to share their ideas in pursuit of success. It introduces the concept of ‘psychological safety’ and how leaders can incorporate it in their work culture to encourage openness, experimentation, and questions that will benefit the organization to learn and innovate.

Through examples and research, it helps tackle the fear of failure, unapproachable superiors and judgemental colleagues.

Worrying About Perceptions

How often does it happen where employees keep ideas to themselves rather than risk others thinking that they are no good? The opinions and perceptions of others have, since childhood, thwarted many from sharing ideas and thoughts out of the fear of looking weak, silly, or even not cool enough. By the time one becomes an adult, restricting oneself from sharing ideas, posing questions and even concerns becomes a habit.

Frances J. Milliken, Patricia Hewlin, and Elizabeth Morrison conducted a study in 2003 on people speaking up at the workplace. Their study found that about 85% of participants were unable to approach bosses about work concerns, mainly because they didn’t want their superiors to view them in a negative light.

Business innovator, Nilofer Merchant though labelled a visionary by CNBC and winner of the Future Thinker Award by Thinkers50 in 2013, quoted in a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, ‘“I would rather keep my job by staying within the lines than say something and risk looking stupid.”

The problem of the inability to speak up at work thus can affect even seemingly confident individuals. This problem is a disadvantage not only to individuals but to organizations too. Organizations lose out on innovative ideas, especially in an environment where success is proportional to innovation.

The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmonson
The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmonson

Benefits Of Psychological Safety

Consider an ideal scenario. An employee shares his idea in a meeting with the confidence that the bosses and colleagues respond well to it. They tell the employee if they like the idea, or give constructive feedback if the idea doesn’t hit the mark.

Such an ability to confidently share ideas, make an error and even ask for help from colleagues without fear of negative feelings is psychological safety. The concept was first noticed by the author while studying medical errors in hospitals in the 1900s. While it was surprising to see so many medical errors, even from the best teams, a closer look revealed that they were not making more errors, but were open about them. These reports actually helped the hospitals to discuss better ways of working.

Psychological safety also aids creativity and innovation. In a 2012 study conducted by Chi-Cheng Huang and Pin-Chen Jiang, two Taiwanese researchers studied 60 research and development teams, whose work encompassed creative, innovative and out-of-the-box thinking. They found that teams having psychological safety performed better than those where members were afraid of rejection.

A New York Times article in 2016 shared Google’s research on what factors determined the best teams. The study too found that the most important factor is psychological safety.

Working in a culturally diverse team with different personalities can be a tough order for innovation, which is difficult anyway. However, psychological safety makes it easier to work around these issues.

It all comes down to communication. Professors Cristina Gibson and Jennifer Gibbs of the University of Australia and Rutgers University respectively studied innovation teams all over the world and found that communication was better and more open with psychological safety. The ability to openly share thoughts and work through them together enables teams to tackle challenges better.

The Absence Of Psychological Safety

Sadly fear is considered by many a good leadership quality. Often employees with harsh bosses tend to agree with them and not say anything about their mistakes or even keep mum about something noticeably wrong at the workplace due to fear.

Such an atmosphere can have severe consequences, where people can resort to dangerous or extreme methods to get the work done.

Wells Fargo, in 2015, was a leading bank in America with impressive community banking sales. Every customer had an average of 6 banking products, double the industry standard. However, these numbers were due to sketchy sales tactics and extremely pressurized employees who had a target of 8 products per customer. Open ridicule and even getting fired was the norm for those who didn’t meet targets.

The fear of failure led employees to open accounts for customers without permission or lie about products being package deals. More than 2 million accounts and credit cards were set up in this manner, and when this was found out, Wells Fargo lost $180 million in settlements due to the scandal.

Workplace fear prevents employees from being open about work challenges and stops organizations from finding solutions to them before it’s too late.

While in the 1990’s Nokia was a global leader in cell phone manufacturing. However, by 2012, they had lost the spot in addition to 75% of the market share and about $2 billion in revenue. This happened because the executives in Nokia did not openly communicate the threat from companies such as Google and Apple. The engineers and managers were unable to tell the bosses that their products were unable to compete in the technological evolving market, making the organization miss the opportunity to innovate.

Psychological safety, rather the absence of it can create huge losses to companies.

Reframing And Redefining

We need to change our perspective of failure. All through life, we are told to do our best. From school, university, right down to the workplace, people are encouraged to give it their best shot. No one discusses the virtues of failure.

Being comfortable with failure is often the first step towards creating a fearless environment. People become more comfortable and open to taking risks and coming up with new ideas. Moreover, when bosses and managers encourage the thought of failure as a learning opportunity, employees become comfortable with discussing their mistakes too.

Failure, though, being the opposite of what nay company wants to achieve, many organizations have found success in accepting it as a key part of the process. Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar always tells his teams that every movie is a failure in its early stages. This makes them more open to feedback and reduces fear. Pixar, today, has made 15 of the 50 highest-grossing animated films of all time.

Similarly, Christa Quarles, CEO of OpenTable, a restaurant reservation company, tells her team to fail early and often, so that they can come up with better strategies, quicker.

Some colleges in the US including Smith College even offer courses to students to understand failure and accept it as a step towards learning.

Along with failure, the practices of giving instructions and judging how well they are carried out need to be redefined too. In a fearless workplace, the leaders not only set goals and steer direction but also encourage employees to contribute with ideas.

For example, the former CEO of Anglo American mining company Cynthia Caroll wanted to reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused due to mining. Rather than issue orders top-down, she chose to get insights from thousands of employees about safety. Implementing these ideas helped reduce mining deaths between 2006 and 2011 by an impressive 62%.

Curiosity And Admitting Lack Of Knowledge

The perception at the average workplace is that the boss knows best. Indeed, when leaders and bosses think they know it all, they tend to intimidate employees resulting in unwillingness to share ideas and insights.

Hence, the next key factor of a fearless organization is to have leaders and bosses who are not only curious but also admit to not knowing it all. It shows employees that their bosses are open to learning from them, thus increasing their confidence to share thoughts, opinions, and knowledge.

For example, Anne Mulchay, the former CEO of Xerox was very comfortable admitting to her employees that she didn’t have all the knowledge. This resulted in the employees having more confidence in sharing ideas to tackle challenges, bringing the company back from the brink of bankruptcy.

To encourage such an environment, leaders have to ask questions that will show a genuine interest. Leaders should ask questions that push employees to reflect and think creatively, rather than just giving a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Furthermore, leaders should know and understand which questions suit which situations.

For example, to widen one’s understanding, leaders should ask employees what they think is missing or include people with different perspectives to share thoughts. To gain a deeper understanding of an issue, leaders can ask employees to share the reason for their thinking and even share examples.

Focus groups, workshops, and meetings can be used to create a culture of participation.

Groupe Danone, the food company, started holding regular conferences to encourage idea sharing between different departments. This led to the employees not only get comfortable with sharing and generating new ideas, but they also became comfortable with asking for help.

Feedback And Psychological safety

Once people start sharing and giving inputs, the feedback they receive is essential to maintain psychological safety. If leaders don’t respond well to employees’ suggestions and do not give positive feedback, employees can easily get discouraged from trying again.

Leaders should start with appreciating the courage of the employee who has shared an input, irrespective of whether the idea works or not. Thanking employees for their inputs helps maintain psychological safety.

Just as inputs require the right responses, failure to needs specific and correct responses based on the situation. When a new idea fails, leaders should encourage them to share their experiences and their learning from failure. At Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical company, failures are celebrated with parties. While it may seem extreme, it cements the idea of failure as positive and also ensures that employees don’t pursue the failed idea, wasting time and resources on something that isn’t going to work.

It is also important that people learn to prevent failures. Foreseeing failure and taking steps to prevent it also amounts to learning. Putting certain systems in place and having training help achieve this. However, if failure is caused due to ignoring these set systems and boundaries, or by sidelining company values, fair consequences like suspensions, sanctions, or even firing is a fair response.

Psychological safety is also dependent on employees knowing that certain failures will garner fair consequences and that they will always receive fair feedback.

Anyone Can Help Create A Fearless Environment

Often, not having the authority to change or improve certain things at the workplace, especially if they are visibly incorrect, can be frustrating. However, a fearless organizational culture enables employees to make small changes even if they aren’t in a position of authority.

For example, one can ask colleagues that they are curious to know what their opinions are. One can slowly create a safe space for them to open up. Asking them for opinions regularly, directing questions to specific individuals, will help them speak their minds.

Another tactic is to speak up at a meeting and hand over the baton to a colleague one knows has an opinion to offer, and pointedly ask them what they think.

Actively creating an environment of listening is as important as getting colleagues to speak up. Giving a speaker respect and attentively listening to them, whether one agrees or not, can also help boost psychological safety. Showing interest and appreciation for their inputs helps, as does building on their ideas and giving feedback.

Finally, asking for help when one needs it and letting colleagues know that help is available to them also safeguards psychological safety at the workplace. When people at the workplace know that help is always available and that their help is valued, they will be open to sharing ideas.


Today, sharing ideas to help innovate is one of the requirements to achieve success in the workplace. However, in a work culture where employees are afraid to share thoughts and ideas due to the fear of failure, achieving this can be a challenge.

Therefore, it is essential that leaders and employees alike help create an environment conducive to sharing opinions, thoughts and ideas. Moreover, it is vital to encourage colleagues to accept and learn from failure. Giving positive feedback and letting colleagues know that help is always available and needed in turn will help nurture psychological safety, taking the individual as well the organization towards achieving success and reaching their full potential.