Risks are all around us – in every decision we make and/or do not make. Naturally, we have two options, taking the risk or play it safe. Playing it safe is comfortable and gives us a sense of security and assurance that all will be okay. However, not taking risks can constrain our creativity. Stability, security, and assurance do not guarantee fulfilment. Taking risks can be described as how you become better at what you do.

Taking risks often leads to failure. Amy C. Edmondson stated that “the wisdom of learning from failures is incontrovertible… Yet organisations that do it well are extraordinarily rare”. She explained that the reason for this was not a lack of commitment or managers not assisting team members with failure and learning from it. The reason was and remains that people believe failure is bad! And learning from it is simple – a reflection session of what you did wrong and what to do to avoid it in the future. She further explains the concept of intelligent failures. This type of failure can be considered as a good failure because together with the failure comes new knowledge that can help organisations with growth and gain competitive advantage. To learn from failures, it is essential to understand beyond the obvious root causes and ensure that the right lessons and remedies were learned and applied. This process of deeper understanding is a leader’s responsibility. A leader should ensure that failures are repositioned as learning opportunities and that the right wisdom has been taken from the situation. But what can leaders do to encourage risk-taking and learning from failure?

Think about it… would you want an in-depth discussion about your failures and what you have done wrong? Emotionally it is an unpleasant experience. Your self-esteem can get a chip or two and analysing failures usually requires openness, patience, inquiry, and tolerance for ambiguity. The very opposite that we get rewarded for (being decisive, efficient, and action-orientated).

Google did a study “Project Aristotle” on what makes a team great and found that psychological safety as one of the most important and vital factors in creating successful teams. “Psychological Safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes” What Google and Amy both found in their separate studies are that creating an environment in which members feel safe and comfortable to take risks is essential to fostering innovation in the working-environment. Furthermore, psychological safety allows moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, and sticking your neck out without the fear of getting it cut off, the behaviours that lead to breakthroughs. Paul Santagata suggests the following six steps to increase psychological safety.

  1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not as an adversary. People hate losing and the perceived feeling of losing something can trigger attempts to create a sense of common ground of fairness through competition, criticisms, disengagement, which are all forms of learned workplace helplessness. Santagata found that true success is a win-win outcome and is best to avoid fight-or-flight reactions. Instead, he asks questions such as “How can we achieve a mutual decoder outcome?”
  2. Speak human to human. Recognising someone’s deeper needs like respect, social status, autonomy, and competence can naturally elicit trust, positive languages, and positive behaviours. Santagata taught his team members a self-reflection exercise “Just like me” which prompts them to consider certain statements such as:
    1. This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
    2. This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
    3. This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
    4. This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
    5. This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.
  3. Anticipate reaction and plan countermoves. Santagata explained that “Thinking through in advance how your audience will react to your messaging helps ensure your content will be heard, versus your audience hearing an attack on their identity or ego.” In other words, to skilfully confront difficult conversations by preparing for different reactions. Ask yourself questions such as “If I position my point in this manner, what are the possible objections, and how would I respond to those counterarguments?”
  4. Replace blame with curiosity. If your team members perceive that you are trying to blame them for something, they will feel like they must protect and defend themselves. Gottman’s research at the University of Washington indicates that blame and criticism can lead to conflict and ultimately disengagement. However, if you replace blame with curiosity. Engage in a collaborative conversation by stating the problematic behaviours. Then engage team members in exploring possible behaviours, factors etc that could have caused this. Finally, ask for solutions. Often the people that caused a problem have a solution to solving it.
  5. Ask for feedback on delivery. This asking for feedback on your delivery. This illuminates’ blind spots in communication skills and models fallibility, which in turn can increase trust in leaders. Santagata suggests the following questions:
    1. What worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?
    2. How did it feel to hear this message?
    3. How could I have presented it more effectively?
  6. Measure psychological safety. Ask your team how safe they feel or what can enhance their feeling of safety.

If you create this sense of psychological safety you can expect to see an increase in levels of commitment, motivation, tackling difficult problems, more opportunities for learning and development, and overall better performance.

To conclude Edmondson suggested the following tips for fostering a psychologically safe workplace:

  • Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
  • Make it known what there is going to be a lot of uncertainty and that as a team we have never been here before.
  • Make it clear that we need all hands-on deck, everyone’s opinions and voices are necessary. This can create the rationale for speaking up.
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility. This creates more certainty for speaking up.
  • Model curiosity that creates a necessity for people to speak up.


Thomas Oppong. (2017). The Fear of Taking Risks Never Goes Away (Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway). Retrieved from https://medium.com/personal-growth/the-fear-of-taking-risks-never-goes-away-feel-the-fear-and-do-it-anyway-32fbf10d973f

Amy C. Edmondson. (2011). Strategies for Learning from Failure. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2011/04/strategies-for-learning-from-failure

Impraise. (n,d). What is psychological safety and why is it the key to great teamwork? Retrieved from https://www.impraise.com/blog/what-is-psychological-safety-and-why-is-it-the-key-to-great-teamwork

Laura Delizonna. (2017). High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. Retrieved From https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it?registration=success

Impraise. (n,d). Project Oxygen: 8 ways Google resuscitated management. Retrieved frm https://www.impraise.com/blog/project-oxygen-8-ways-google-resuscitated-management

Amy C. Edmondson. (2014). Building a psychologically safe workplace. Retrieved form https://youtu.be/LhoLuui9gX8

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