Feb 20, 2019

Author and educator Amy C. Edmundson on creating a company culture that banishes fear and invites openness.

Want results? Banish fear of failure from the workplace.

That was the core message that Amy C. Edmundson, educator and author of The Fearless Organization spelled out in a Spark presentation to Viacom employees.

Too many workers are afraid to ask questions, admit weaknesses or mistakes, offer ideas, or criticize the status quo, Edmundson says. These simple raise-your-hand acts often fall victim to what Edmundson calls “impression management.”

“Nobody at Viacom woke up this morning and jumped out of bed because they could not wait to be ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative,” she said. “Most of us would so prefer to look smart, helpful, capable and positive. We are socialized to care about what people think of us.”

But problems can quickly infect an organization in which no one feels comfortable challenging a boss. Whether a patient dies because a nurse fears challenging a doctor’s prescribed dosage of medicine or a multinational auto company is fined billions because an engineer hides vehicles’ environmental shortcomings from management, the consequences can be severe and irreversible.

But both the individual and the organization can take steps to encourage a culture of risk-taking and banish fear, Edmunson says, and introduce a “belief that the workplace is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, and even mistakes.”

Defining ‘intelligent failures’

Individual workers can reorient their posture so that they take on “small and meaningful” – but not reckless or counter-productive – risks.

Leaders, on the other hand, should create a culture in which people feel comfortable speaking up, Edmundson says. They can do this by creating an “innovation culture,” a workplace that values free thought and novel ideas, and tolerates failure in the service of improving the final product or process.

Failure, it turns out, is in vogue. In particular, “intelligent failures,” which Edmundson describes as the “undesired results of thoughtful forays into novel territory.” In other words, when failure is accepted as an unavoidable part of a larger problem-solving process, it loses its stigma. Some companies, such as the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, even host “failure parties” to reinforce that it’s OK to get things wrong in service of a greater goal.

3 steps to expel fear from company culture

According to Edmondson, there are three steps any organization can take to create a fearless company culture:

  1. Eliminate the fear of failure by reframing it as part of any serious process, rather than as a negative outcome to hide and avoid.
  2. Invite employees to engage. “Ask good questions that help us focus on something that matters,” Edmundson says. This will broaden and deepen the discussion – and make it more honest.
  3. Respond productively to setbacks and bad news. CEOs should welcome bad news, as it exposes where things aren’t working and offers an opportunity to solve a real problem.

Companies that do this, Edmundson says, are far more likely to succeed, sometimes dramatically more than their competitors. She cited a study of 23 North American intensive care units that demonstrated an 18 percent decrease in morbidity and mortality rates within those operations that instituted a culture of open communication.

Still, it is important to retain high standards, Edmundson says, so that employees don’t become anxious or apathetic.

“What you want is a learning zone and a high-performance zone,” she says. “You need high standards, and employees who are engaged and willing to raise their hands.”