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How Fearless Organizations Succeed

A 2017 Gallup poll found that only three in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work. Gallup calculated that by “moving the ratio to six in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents, and a 12% increase in productivity.” That’s why it’s not enough for organizations to simply hire talent. If leaders want to unleash individual and collective talent, they must foster a psychologically safe climate where employees feel free to contribute ideas, share information, and report mistakes.

It’s important to note that working in a psychologically safe environment does not mean that people always agree with one another for the sake of being nice. It also does not mean that people offer unequivocal praise or unconditional support for everything you have to say. Psychological safety is not an “anything goes” environment where people are not expected to adhere to high standards or meet deadlines. It is not about becoming “comfortable” at work. Psychological safety enables candor and openness and, therefore, thrives in an environment of mutual respect.

In any challenging industry setting, leaders have two vital tasks. 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. In other words, today’s leaders must motivate people to do their very best work by inspiring them, coaching them, providing feedback, and making excellence a rewarding experience.

Setting the Stage

Whenever you are trying to get people on the same page, with common goals and a shared appreciation for what they’re up against, you’re setting the stage for psychological safety. The most important skill to master is that of framing the work. Leaders in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, who understand that today’s work requires continuous learning to figure out when and how to change course, must consciously reframe how they think, from the default frames that we all bring to work unconsciously to a more productive reframe. How leaders present the role of failure is essential. The reframe shows that leaders must establish and cultivate psychological safety to succeed in most work environments today. The leader is obliged to set direction for the work, to invite relevant input to clarify and improve on the general direction that has been set, and to create conditions for continued learning to achieve excellence.

Inviting Participation

The second essential activity in the leaders’ tool kit is inviting participation in a way that people find compelling and genuine. The goal is to lower what is usually a too-high bar for what’s considered appropriate participation. Realizing that self-protection is natural, the invitation to participate must be crystal clear if people are going to choose to engage rather than to play it safe. Two essential behaviors that signal an invitation is genuine are adopting a mindset of situational humility and engaging in proactive inquiry. The bottom line is that no one wants to take the interpersonal risk of imposing ideas when the boss appears to think he or she knows everything. A learning mindset, which blends humility and curiosity, mitigates this risk. A learning mindset recognizes that there is always more to learn. Frankly, adopting a humble mindset when faced with the complex, dynamic, uncertain world in which we all work today is simply realism. The termsituational humilitycaptures this concept well (the need for humility lies in the situation) and may make it easier for leaders, especially those with abundant self-confidence, to recognize the validity, and the power, of a humble mindset.

Responding Productively

To reinforce a climate of psychological safety, it’s imperative that leaders — at all levels — respond productively to the risks people take. Productive responses are characterized by three elements: expressions of appreciation, destigmatizing failure, and sanctioning clear violations. When people believe their performance is an indication of their ability or intelligence, they are less likely to take risks — for fear of a result that would disconfirm their ability. But when people believe that performance reflects effort and good strategy, they are eager to try new things and willing to persevere despite adversity and failure.

The practices described here are dominated by complex interpersonal skills and thus not easy to master. They take time, effort, and practice. Perhaps the most important aspect of learning them is to practice self-reflection. Building psychological safety is a good place to start building your fearless organization.

To read the full HBR article from Amy Edmondson, please click here.


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