What if we worked safely? It could thrive to both our companies and ourselves. A not so crazy assumption that Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School explores in her book Fearless Organization.


Hi Amy, so why did you write this book… now?


Amy C. Edmondson: I wrote this book now for two reasons. First, the urgency of psychological safety at work has never been greater because of the high levels of uncertainty today. When work is straightforward – programmed, or clearly prescribed, and essentially a matter of pure execution – psychological safety matters little to the quality and experience of work. But with uncertainty comes a need to speak up openly with questions, ideas, concerns, and even mistakes, if the right things are going to happen to ensure the quality of the work, as well as the quality of the work environment.


Second, a few years ago Google conducted a well publicized study that showed that psychological safety was the most important factor in predicting team performance. I had been studying psychological safety for many years at that point, but with the attention that Google’s study gave it, many more people became aware of the concept and why it mattered for team performance. And so, the time felt right to write this book. I wanted to make sure people really understood the concept and the research behind it. It also allowed me to show how and why psychological safety matters across kinds of work environments, not just tech, but healthcare and financial services, and automotove, consumer products, and so much more.


An extract from your book that best represents yourself?


A. E.: I guess I could answer that in two ways. I could tell you about the way I discovered psychological safety, in the beginning of my research career, by accident. Or I could share a story from the book that I identify with, related to someone else’s experience. I suppose I might as well share the former story, from Chapter 1.

“…it was a puzzle.

Did better teams really make more mistakes? I thought about the need for communication between doctors and nurses, to produce safe, error-free care. The need to ask for help, to double-check each other’s work to make sure, in [the] complex and customized work environment of hospitals, that patients received the best care. I knew that great care meant that clinicians had to team up effectively. It just didn’t make sense that good teamwork would lead to more errors. I wondered for a moment whether better teams got overconfident over time – and then became sloppy. That might explain my perplexing result. But why else might better teams have higher error rates?

And then came the eureka moment. What if the better teams had a climate of openness that made it easier to report and discuss error? The good teams, I suddenly thought, don’t make more mistakes, they report more. But having this insight was a far cry from proving it.

I decided to hire a research assistant to go out and study these patient care teams carefully, with no preconceptions. He didn’t know which units had made more mistakes, or which ones scored better on the team survey. He didn’t even know my new hypothesis. In research terms, he was “blind” to both the hypothesis and the previously collected data.

Here is what he found. Through quiet observation and open-ended interviews about all aspects of the work environment, he discovered that the teams varied wildly in whether people felt able to talk about mistakes. And these differences were almost perfectly correlated with the detected error rates. In short, people in the better teams (as measured by my survey, but unbeknownst to the research assistant) talked openly about the risks of error, often trying to find new ways to catch and prevent them. It would take another couple of years before I labeled this climate difference psychological safety. But the accidental finding set me off on a new and fruitful research direction – to find out how interpersonal climate might vary across groups in other workplaces, and whether it might matter for learning and speaking up in other industries – not just in healthcare.”


The trends that are just emerging and that you believe in the most?


1) Blurred boundaries between work and life are creating a need for honest conversations about work arrangements (so called hybrid work).


2) Race and gender inequities are also giving us a greater need to have thoughtful, compassionate, honest conversations about differences and fairness.


3) Coming to terms, for real, with the difficulty of measuring knowledge work productivity. This means getting comfortable with trusting people to use their ingenuity and creativity to make progress, together, in the pursuit challenging goals, for which straightforward recipes do not exist. This new reality challenges our “KPI-thinking” – the tendency to equate effort with results in simple ways, rather than recognizing the actual complexity and uncertainty of the relationship between effort and results.



If you had to give one piece of advice to a reader of this article, what would it be?


A. E.: Ask more genuine questions.



In a nutshell, what are the next topics that you will be passionate about?


A. E.: Failure! What forms it takes, and when it’s appropriate to seek to avoid it, when to welcome it, and how to learn the right lessons from it, no matter what.


Thank you Amy


Many thanks Bertrand


The book: The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson, Wiley, 2018.