The Fearless Organization is the title of an article that Amy Edmonson and Karen Christenson wrote for the Harvard Business Review in 2019. Edmonson went on to further elaborate on the impact of fear in organizations in a book entitled “The Fearless Organization- Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning. The idea of failure and how it is viewed is integral to Burke’s Learning Agility. In my experience, fear was a common component in organizations where I worked. The definition of learning agility that I use when speaking with groups is, “Learning Agility is finding yourself in a situation where you have never been before, you don’t know what to do, and you figure it out.” Furthermore, “It doesn’t mean that you don’t fail. You will, and then what?” In addition to Burke’s definition of learning agility, one needs to look at context and risk. In Burke’s research on learning agility, he examined the work of Scott DeRue at the University of Michigan in 2012. DeRue’s model of learning agility identified context as a key modifier. Some organizations recognize the value of learning agility displayed by employees, promoting it accordingly, while other organizations do not. That is part of the psychological safety described by Edmonson and Christenson.
Burke’s model of learning agility identifies two types of risk: Performance and Interpersonal. Performance Risk-Taking is defined as seeking new activities that provide opportunities to be challenged. Interpersonal Risk-Taking is defined as discussing differences with others that lead to learning and change. Each of these dimensions has four behaviors that collectively define it. Performance Risk-Taking consists of 1) Taking on challenging roles, 2) Engaging in ambiguous tasks, 3) Embracing risky work; and 4) Volunteering for projects that involve the possibility of failure. Interpersonal Risk-Taking consists of 1) Bringing up tough issues with others, 2) Asking others for help; 3) Discussing mistakes with others; 4) Challenging others’ ideas even when they are shared by many.
In our second book, “Developing Learning Agility- Using the Burke Assessments,” I wrote a chapter on each of the nine dimensions with the exception of Risk-Taking. I discussed Performance Risk Taking and Interpersonal Risk Taking in one chapter. It does not matter if risk-taking involves activities or people; the central issue involves defining the level of risk. Virtually all situations within an organization involve a component where risk needs to be determined. In the rare event that someone acts as a “lone wolf,” they will eventually be asked to address the risk issue. My point here is this: If the person being asked to take the risk says it is a high risk and the supervisor identifies the situation as low risk, what do you do then? Who is right? How do you move the discussion forward? In my chapter (Risk-Taking) mentioned earlier I indicate that each side must describe their assumptions and then place their position on a scale of 1 to 10, with “1” being low and “10” being very high. Upon completion of this exercise, both sides can better understand each other’s assumptions, possibly modifying their individual assumptions to get to a set of shared assumptions. Additional resources may need to be introduced, and/or the time frame involved may need to be amended as ways to increase or decrease the risk level.
Edmonson defines psychological safety as the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. I did not see a further definition of interpersonal risk-taking. If we look at Burke’s Interpersonal Risk-Taking, we find it is: 1) Bringing up tough issues with others; 2) Asking others for help; 3) Discussing mistakes with others; 4) Challenging others’ ideas even when they are shared by many. In the previous paragraph, we looked at reaching a shared definition of risk level, addressing some of Burke’s components. This definition of risk level is a challenging issue, and getting to agreement on that is difficult. We said that once you have a shared definition of risk, there are resources you could introduce (people and financial) that exhibit asking for help. That leaves discussing mistakes with others. It may be necessary to dialogue around the size of mistake that is acceptable. If that is not clear to the people making the mistakes, then they won’t tend to volunteer them. Burke addresses this issue when he says, “If you put someone in a situation and they can’t tell you what they learned, then they didn’t learn anything.” One must be able to describe “what” was learned and how that learning will be used to move the project forward.
Edmonson says that the focus on psychological safety should exist at the team level. I believe that organizational climate at the senior level is the accumulation of the climates of the entire organization from the lowest to the top. Some climates (which include psychological safety) may vary across the organization. Ultimately, it is the climate set at the top that will create the prevailing level of psychological safety throughout the organization.
In conclusion, if you want a learning agile organization, it is difficult to think why this type of environment would not be desirable. For an organization to create an environment or context that supports learning agility, it must promote psychological safety. People must be allowed to fail without fear of negative consequences for those failures. It is a reasonable expectation that learning will result from those failures. This is a delicate but essential balance to attain between the individual and the organization.
About the Author
David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®. E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.