30 January 2019
The book is organised in three parts: the power of psychological safety, psychological safety at work, and creating a fearless organisation. Chapters focus on, for example: why fear is not an effective motivator, an epidemic of silence, an environment that supports learning, avoidable failure, dangerous silence, a culture of silence, caring for employees, worker safety, a leader's toolkit, decision- making, and when humour isn't funny. There are many, many more. Endnotes are given for each part. There is an Appendix and a list of tables, and a list of illustrations. it is a very comprehensive account of the subject matter, written with passion.
The author's thesis is that today growth has to be driven by ideas and ingenuity. Hence, it is important that talent must be utilised to the full. Interesting but hardly new. However, the author adds that few managers in many organisations ever stop to think about the implications. The environment can, for example, be a key determinant of employee motivation. The aim, therefore, of this book is to equip managers and others in authority with some new ideas and practices to make knowledge -intensive businesses perform better. The workplace must it is argued be one that encourages employees to share their knowledge, concerns, errors, and half-formed ideas.
Today, teams are increasingly dominating the workplace.. Hence, individuals need to be able to work with others. What the author calls 'psychological safety' is, it is argued, what explains performance differences in a very wide variety of workplaces. Her views are based on field research over many years. Decisions are increasingly interdependent based , depending on teamwork. 'Teaming' is the buzz word. In a 'safe workplace' interpersonal fear is absent. Risks are taken. The fearless organisation is one that maximises motivation and minimises fear. At the heart of Amy's thesis is the need to communicate openly, and without regard to the consequences. Opinions need to be listened to, and mistakes reported without fear. This is a big ask.
Much of Amy's research began in the1990s studying medication errors in hospitals. The errors were potentially devastating. Along the way she stumbled into the importance of what she calls psychological safety. Today, studies of this can be found in many business sectors. The academic literature is replete with studies. Key findings from the studies are summarised in this book. Some are very interesting.
As a result, practitioners such as managers, consultants and clinicians are endeavouring to create psychological safety in order to foster innovation and learning. The nature and composition of teams is being further studied. This book essentially argues that to be innovative, efficient and effective an organisation has to encourage its employees to speak up without fear, share information, take risks, and contribute expertise. However, this is far easier said than done. Fear does stalk all too many organisations for a number of well entrenched reasons: poor leadership that believes the stick is preferable to the carrot, personal attributes, past experience, fear of being sacked, fear of being regarded as a trouble maker, fear of being seen as too clever by half, fear of failure, and so on. All of these are unfortunately commonplace. Very, very few managers encourage ideas that are opposed to their own for fear of losing their status.
This a very informative and well- meaning book by an author who has spent years immersed in her subject. Having read all too many books about teamwork, motivation and leadership, my reaction to Amy's book is I agree her views, or most of them. My problem is that having experienced a number of very different organisations I am very doubtful that her prescriptions will work in practise. The barriers, the firewalls are far too solid, and the culture of too many organisations is set in cement. Unfortunately, I also know of far too many individuals who have politely spoken out and suffered for it.
I sincerely hope Amy's views win but I have strong doubts unless she has a secret formula for changing humankind. At the heart of this problem is the psychological make-up of humans. Fear, uncertainty, the unwillingness to take risks is inbred in us, the result of centuries of evolution.
Amy might like also to consider the effect on the workplace of the present revolution that is increasingly resulting in AI replacing people, particularly in knowledge-based organisations. Will teamwork still be relevant? Will robots speak out? Will they feel fear? Can they be programmed to use carrots instead of sticks? Such questions will not sound so silly come 2035.