November 13

Attention all Leaders – You Need to Create Psychological Safety if You Want Your People to Innovate

As a leader, you need your people to perform at their best if innovation is going to happen. But as essential players in that process, people need psychological safety, i.e. when they feel they can comfortably express ideas and opinions without fear of repercussions or judgement. If you want your organisation to be able to innovate repeatedly, protecting the environment for healthy dialogue around differing views must become a regular part of the culture you create. So, here’s why creating psychological safety should rank highly on your priorities when building a culture of innovation.

What is Psychological Safety and How Does It Affect Team Performance

Psychological safety is the belief that team members will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is an integral aspect of people and team performance, as it creates an environment conducive to collaboration, creativity, and, ultimately, innovation. Psychological safety gives people the confidence to express their opinions, share their unique perspectives, and challenge one another’s assumptions, eventually leading to better decision-making and problem-solving. In contrast, teams without psychological safety may have members who hold back their thoughts or ideas, leading to groupthink, missed opportunities, and low innovation capability. Building a culture of psychological safety takes time and effort. Still, the rewards are well worth it, as teams that feel safe communicating and taking risks are more productive, engaged, successful and innovative.

Harvard Business School has pioneered the overwhelming evidence for all this: Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management Amy Edmundson has led the most influential and compelling research on psychological safety as a critical factor in team performance.

The Impact of a Lack of Psychological Safety on Innovation

In today’s fast-paced world, innovation is critical to remain competitive. However, a lack of psychological safety in the workplace can hinder innovation. Psychological safety is the belief that one can take interpersonal risks without fear of negative consequences. When employees fear ridicule or judgement for speaking up about their ideas, they are less likely to suggest them and, thus, less likely to contribute to your organisation’s innovation agenda. 

Amy Edmundson recently said, “Innovation by experimentation is ‘NOT bumping around in the dark, crashing into things” which will resonate with those who know how innovation works. Edmundson outlines in her link between Psychological Safety and Innovation that innovation requires organisations to understand the context of failure. In her book The Fearless Organisation [1], Edmondson unpacks three types of failure:

  • Preventable – caused by lack of skill, lack of attention, or wilfully not following procedures.
  • Complex – the result of dealing with new or unpredictable things/circumstances.
  • Intelligent – an inevitable risk of deliberate experimentation.

The third one is a fundamental component of the innovation process and, more importantly, something that organisations wanting to drive innovation should view as learning, not failure. But the environment people operate in has to be designed to allow this.

Otherwise, failure or fear of failure leads to a lack of trust and decreased collaboration between people and teams. Therefore, organisations must create a safe environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas without fear of ridicule. When psychological safety is prioritised, innovation can thrive, resulting in increased productivity, competitive advantage and growth.

Strategies for Leaders to Create Psychological Safety Among Their Teams

As a leader, it’s critical to prioritise creating a psychologically safe environment for your people. This involves fostering open communication, encouraging feedback, and promoting a culture of respect and inclusivity. Ways to do this include: [2]

  • Soliciting Criticism – To solicit criticism, first, figure out what questions to ask, making sure that questions suggest an open mind to learn what others think or observe. It’s also important to listen with the intent to understand, not to respond. 
  • Giving Praise – When people know that their manager and peers notice their excellent work, it’s far less threatening when they point out flaws.
  • Giving Criticism – Letting people know when they’re making a mistake so that they can fix it, improve, and grow in their careers. 
  • Gauging Your Feedback – When giving praise or criticism in a way that fosters psychological safety, you need to gauge how it is landing. Intentions don’t matter. Impact does.

Some other strategies to accomplish this may include actively listening to your team members, modelling vulnerability, and recognising and addressing any micro-aggressions or discrimination. It’s also essential to provide opportunities for team building and relationship building and promoting continuous learning and growth. By prioritising psychological safety, you can create a team that feels valued, respected, and empowered to be creative.

Common Misconceptions About Psychological Safety

Unfortunately, many misconceptions surrounding psychological safety can hinder its successful implementation. One common misconception is that psychological safety means everyone must always be friendly to each other. In reality, psychological safety is not about avoiding conflict but rather about creating an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up, asking questions, and expressing their opinions without fear of retaliation. In essence, it’s about embracing discomfort and having open dialogue.

There’s also considerable confusion about Radical Candor and psychological safety. Author Kim Scott outlines something in her fantastic book ‘Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.’ [3] The misconception is that they are at odds with each other, and in many cases, Radical Candor is confused with brutal honesty, i.e. expressing one’s thoughts with no or little care about how they might be heard. However, Radical Candor is actually about caring personally and challenging directly. Another misconception is that psychological safety is solely the responsibility of leaders. While leaders play a significant role in creating a psychologically safe environment, it is also the responsibility of every individual within an organisation to contribute to this culture.

Psychological safety and candour matter most when teams face uncertainty and must work together to solve new problems. By recognising and addressing these misconceptions, organisations can create an atmosphere of trust and openness. And with practice and proper use of the right tools—candor becomes typical and expected, and in time, learning, creativity, collaboration and innovation follow. 

How to Measure the Success of Your Efforts to Create Psychological Safety in Your Team

Creating a psychologically safe team environment can tremendously impact employee motivation and productivity. So, as a leader, it’s essential to measure the success of your efforts across your organisation. One way to gauge whether or not your people feel safe to share their thoughts and ideas is to look at team communication. Are team members actively participating in discussions? Are they engaged in team meetings? Another measure of success is team morale. Do team members feel valued and respected? Do they feel comfortable approaching you with their concerns or issues? It’s essential to assess these factors to improve organisational psychological safety regularly. You can help your people thrive individually and collectively by fostering a safe and open environment.

To conclude, fostering a culture of psychological safety is critical to enabling high-performing teams and promoting innovation within an organisation. Leaders need to recognise that by investing time and resources into their people, they are creating a better working environment and helping their organisation thrive. Of course, there will be challenges along the way, and leaders need to ensure these are quickly addressed to maximise psychological safety. Leaders can also measure their success in creating this kind of safe workplace by continually assessing the overall atmosphere. Ultimately, it is through dedication that leaders can create psychological safety among their teams to drive innovation on all levels.



Innovation Culture, Innovation Leadership, Psychological Safety

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