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E169 | How to Build Psychological Safety in Your Workplace with The Fearless Organization Author, Amy C. Edmondson

If you want to be better at leading a team. If you want to know how to lead a good decision making process. Or how to engage and inspire people to bring their full self to work. If you want to improve the culture in your business, then don’t miss Amy Edmondson on this week’s episode of Mind Your F**king Business Podcast. 

Amy hasn’t just written the book on psychological safety in the workplace, Fearless Organization, she’s a global expert in organisational development. She’s taught the topic to countless Harvard MBA students for the last 25 years, in her role as Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School.

But why did Amy write the book and how did that Google project lead to one of the most globally revered books about the importance of psychological safety in the workplace? And why does Amy consider Pixar to be the poster child for psychological safety?

Download and listen to find out what it takes for an organisation to build great leaders and psychological safety. And learn how you can develop and roleplay psychological safety while developing as a leader. 

This is a really fantastic conversation, we hope you enjoy it as much as we did. 

On today’s podcast:

  • Amy and Google’s Project Aristotle
  • What is psychological safety?
  • The 3 elements required to build psychological safety
  • Why responding positively is so hard
  • The industrial age issue that persists today


How to Build Psychological Safety with The Fearless Organization Author Amy Edmondson

Amy Edmondson is an expert in teaming, psychological safety, and organizational learning. She’s also the best selling author of the globally renowned business book – The Fearless Organization

As Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, Amy researches organisational behaviour, and for the last 25 years she’s been teaching MBA students how to lead a team, how to lead a good decision making process, and how to engage and inspire people to bring their full self to work to get the job done. 

The case method

How does Amy teach her students? By using the case method. A style of teaching that’s more often found in law school or in medicine. She believes it’s a better way to teach adults (and probably children too), because she’s not lecturing per se, rather she puts students in a situation where they have to discover the solution for themselves, by role playing through the scenario. 

“Students are responsible for reading a case, a factual description of a managerial situation. And they come prepared to discuss it, to argue it, to figure out what to do in a very action oriented way to be pushed back upon by me, by their colleagues.”

Teaching organisational behaviour this way, Amy says, is as close as you can come to being put in action without actually being in the action, which makes it a much safer way to learn, because you’re in a classroom where even if you make the most wrongheaded decision possible, nothing will really go wrong. 

The case method is essentially learning through simulation.

Google’s Project Aristotle

Amy’s book, The Fearless Organization, was actually written 20 years before it was published. She didn’t think anyone would be interested in reading it, until, she says, Google said it was interesting to other people. 

Google conducted a study called Project Aristotle, whereby a small team studied 180 teams over several years, testing a very large number of variables to see what best explained performance or performance in teams. And the answer they came to, or at least the number one most important factor was psychological safety. Which is precisely what Amy’s earlier dissertation had discovered and tested. 

All of sudden, she found her dissertation garnering interest on the internet, which led her to  write The Fearless Organization: creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth

The Fearless Organization

Amy’s definition of psychological safety is:

“I define it as a belief that one will not be penalised for speaking up with work relevant information, like ideas, questions, concerns, and even mistakes. Not mind you that that will be easy, but that one has confidence that it’s welcome. That it’s valued [and] that it won’t be penalised and held against you.”

Which sounds obvious, why would your work be penalised and held against you? But, says Amy, too many people at work hold back with relevant thoughts, worried about what others think of them. 

“A shorter way to say that is it’s a sense of permission for candour. So it is not comfortable. It’s not easy. It’s not being nice. It’s not emotional acceptance. It’s permission for candour.”

How to build psychological safety

There are three things you need to build psychological safety: before, during and after. 

  1. Before. This is the stage where you set the scene. Where you inform people that what you’re about to do has never been done before. Doing this explicitly highlights that you don’t have a pre-existing formula to fall back on. You’re framing the work as in, whatever happens, you need people’s input. It’s high stakes, and all input is welcome. 
  2. During. Ask more questions. While you’re building psychological safety you need to be continuously asking questions and encouraging team members to ask more questions. In work, there simply isn’t enough of that, says Amy. There are frighteningly few genuine questions asked. Treat team meetings like opportunities for learning from one another and ask more questions. The during phase is all about being proactive in seeking and engaging input. 
  3. After. ‘After’ isn’t really after, because you don’t ever stop working on building psychological safety. But while you’re ‘maintaining’ your gains, you should aim to respond productively, even if you don’t like what you hear or agree with it. You need to respond with a productive response or you won’t ever hear from your colleagues (or your boss), ever again. And your productive response has to be two things: appreciative and forward looking. 

What does forward looking mean? It means asking ‘how can I help?’, ‘where do we go from here?’, ‘what ideas do you have?’

Which, does Amy think is the most challenging of the three stages?

“I think technically the most challenging is the third one, respond productively. Because the first one you can plan, you can think about it: how am I going to make clear that I really, really value and want people’s input? I can make a sticky note to remind myself to ask questions. But responding productively requires you to stop, breathe, and in the moment have a productive response when your natural inclination as a human being may not be to have a productive response.”

Also, while psychological safety takes time to build, even in an organisation like Google which has a very strong corporate culture, a robust and reasonably diagnoseable corporate culture, you still get variants in psychological safety. 

And, says Amy, that tends to be the case for any company that’s larger than 20, definitely larger than 100. 

It’s OK to fail

Amy’s takeaway? It’s OK to fail. 

“It’s okay to be wrong, it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to try things that don’t work out. In fact, it’s almost essential to try things that don’t work out. But emotionally, it’s still hard, right? I was over trained in the school system mentality of got to get the good grade, you got to get it right. You’ve got to get the A, you’ve got to get 100 on the test. And that somehow is a reflection of what you’re worth, which of course, nothing could be further from the truth because that mindset will lead you to take the easy classes.”

Book recommendations

Culture Code – Daniel Coyle

Leadership And Self Deception – The Arbinger Institute

Meltdown – Chris Clearfield & Andras Tilcsik

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