Project Description

The Fearless Organization

I met Amy Edmondson more than 30 years ago when I was getting started on my peacebuilding career and she was beginning her own as a business consultant. She then moved on to get a PhD and now teaches at the Harvard Business School, where her work on teams has had a profound impact on corporate life.

Now, in The Fearless Organization, she has expanded her focus from hospitals and other corporations to organizations in general. Which means her work is filled with implications for peacebuilding.

From page 1 onward, Edmondson stresses the importance of providing psychological safety to the people you live and work with. She defines it as a “climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves.”

Like many analysts, she starts by showing us what happens when people don’t feel that sense of safety. They don’t speak up. They don’t take risks in general. Mistakes get made. Growth opportunities are missed.

In her early research on teams, she discovered that high performing teams seemed to make more mistakes. Then, she realized that they only seemed to. Because members felt comfortable raising problems, the problems themselves could get solved, and longer term problems could be made while other potential mistakes are avoided.

She is also clear that psychological safety does not mean simply being nice. At times, you have to raise tough issues and even bruise some egos or fire some people. It is also not another term for trust which happens between two people, where psychological safety permeate and entire institution and even a society’s culture.

What started as an unexpected finding in her doctoral research has spawned a cottage industry in organizational studies. That, in turn, has created a growing literature on structural and leadership mechanisms that create safe spaces in which people can work comfortably and express their points of view without fear of punishment. These are also the kinds of companies that do best in today’s hyper-competitive corporate world.

My interest lies less in the corporate world than the peacebuilding one I work in. So, rather than go into her examples in detail, let me leave you with the three questions I took away from her most recent book:

  • Most peacebuilders try to create what she calls psychological safety in our relationships with the parties to a dispute with whom we work. What would happen if we did so more explicitly and intentionally than we do today?
  • How much effort do we put into creating psychological safety in the organizations we work in? In other words, how “safe” are the environments in peacebuilding NGOs themselves?
  • Most importantly, how do we go about creating a society that is permeated with and even defined by psychological safety? We certainly need it in this time of gotcha politics, populism, and nationalism.

That is farther than Edmondson tries to go in this book, but these are key questions we should all be asking after we read this wonderful summary of her thirty years of research and practice.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.