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Psychological safety pioneer, Dr. Amy Edmondson discusses the difference between psychological safety and courage at work

Psychological safety pioneer, Dr. Amy Edmondson discusses the difference between psychological safety and courage at work, and why both are so critical in our teams right now. An excerpt from her foreword of Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins, Karin Hurt and David Dye).

You can download the entire foreword and the first few chapters of Courageous Cultures for free here, or learn more about our research here. 


Dr. Amy Edmondson

Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management Harvard Business School

Even before the welcome publication of this book, courage has been gaining attention in the management literature. We can safely say that courage at work has never been more desirable—or more challenging, and, as a growing number of people contemplate the challenge of speaking up at work, the related concept of psychological safety has received an explosion of interest in both the academic and practitioner management literature.

Mentions of “psychological safety” have grown exponentially.  My own recent book on the subject, The Fearless Organization, has been unexpectedly popular. This interest reflects, I believe, a growing recognition that today’s workplaces require people to collaborate, solve problems, and respond to unexpected challenges. Doing all of those activities well requires speaking up openly and without hesitation. Whether leading a team in the office or caring for patients in the hospital, psychological safety helps people communicate, experiment, and speak up.

Within this active conversation about speaking up, we find understandable confusion about the relationship between psychological safety and courage. Does psychological safety take away the need for courage? Or does courage take away the need for psychological safety?

The answer to both questions is a resounding “no.”

Psychological Safety and Courage: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Amy Edmondson Quote - psychological safety and couragePsychological safety and courage are simply two sides of the same (immensely valuable) coin. Both are—and will continue to be—needed in a complex and uncertain world.

Karin and David define a courageous culture in Chapter 1 of this book as a place where people speak up (Chapter 1). I’ve defined a climate of psychological safety similarly—as an environment where people believe they can speak up.

In short, candor is as vital as it is challenging in the modern workplace. And fostering it will take a village-like multipronged effort. Because of what we know about human psychology in hierarchies (and frankly, what social system isn’t a hierarchy?), we cannot avoid the simple truth that speaking up is difficult. And so, facilitating voice requires working both sides of the equation. A climate of psychological safety is, for all practical purposes, one and the same as a courageous culture. Both terms describe workplaces where everyone understands that their voices are welcome. In these workplaces, speaking up is still not effortless (that could be asking too much!). But, in these workplaces, people nonetheless understand that voice is expected and valued, despite the pull toward silence.

The difference in emphasis between psychological safety and courageous cultures may be a meaningful one. When we emphasize psychological safety, we risk putting the burden squarely on the shoulders of leaders—whether of teams or organizations—to do what they can to create environments where others’ voices can be heard.

When we emphasize courage, in contrast, we put the spotlight on individuals—inviting them to step up and share what they see, wonder about, and worry about—despite the anxiety they may have about doing so—because of what’s at stake. Here the risk could be seen as asking for heroics on the part of undervalued and at times under-rewarded employees everywhere.

Everyone Doing Their Part

It seems to me that any earnest effort to foster a direct and timely voice at work will require emphasizing both sides of this precious coin at the same time. Leaders must do their part to encourage and invite voice. Everyone must do their part to speak up despite fear.

Yet, it’s undeniable that courage is more compelling. Who doesn’t want to be seen as courageous?

For this reason alone, I’m excited about Courageous Cultures.

The academic research is overwhelming: when people believe they can speak up at work, the learning, innovation, and performance of their organizations is greater. Teams and organizations in which people believe that their voices are welcome outperform their counterparts.

Making it Real

Courageous Cultures offers a model for building energized teams of learners and problem solvers—a model that is desperately needed in today’s workplace.

At the very core of this model is a mindset that welcomes voice, whether it brings good news, bad news, or a puzzle. This mindset starts with curiosity and is fueled by passion about a compelling purpose. It naturally fosters the leadership behaviors that inspire and invite others’ voices.

As you will read in the pages ahead, building a courageous culture starts with your own passionate commitment to doing so. You must start by sharing (and speaking often about) a clear, compelling mission. With that foundation, you can continue to nurture a courageous culture through issuing repeated and genuine invitations for voice—explicit requests in both formal team meetings and informal interactions. But without a commitment to responding in appreciative, productive forward-looking ways, courage is quickly stifled.

This book shows you how to do all three of these vital leadership activities, starting tomorrow. The framework offered by Karin and David mirrors the high-level advice you can find in prior writings on this topic and, fortunately for readers, breaks this framework down into practical, sequential, actionable steps that can be taken in any workplace today.Amy Edmondson Quote - psychological safety and courage

Fortunately, even if voice will always be challenging, leaders have access to a formula that works. Courageous Cultures offers such a formula, and leaders who adopt it with passionate intent will be poised to build the kinds of workplaces companies need and employees want.

Why People Don’t Speak Up at Work

Courageous Cultures Research in Collaboration with the University of North Colorado.

  • Employees feel ignored. (56% say they won’t get credit.)
  • No one asks. (49% report that they’re not regularly asked for ideas.)
  • Lack of confidence (40% lack the confidence to share.)
  • No feedback  (50% say nothing will happen with their ideas.)
  • Employees think their boss doesn’t want new ideas. (67% say leadership has operated around “this is the way have always done it.”)
  • Lack of training (45% say they’ve never been trained on critical thinking and problem-solving.)

why people do not speak up at work

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Karin Hurt and David Dye

Karin Hurt and David Dye help human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results. As CEO and President of Let’s Grow Leaders, they are known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. Karin and David are the award-winning authors of five books including, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. David Dye is a former executive and elected official. Karin and David are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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Be More Daring


Get the FREE Courageous Cultures E-Book to learn how

7 Practical Ways to be a Bit More Daring

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