Counterbalancing psychological safety to boost innovation

As Google and IDEO’s research shows: “Psychological safety is the biggest distinction in innovative teams”. Psychological safety feels great and comfortable but is not about being nice. Psychological safety allows you to be brutally honest and open with each other which is crucial for an innovative culture’

Innovative cultures are generally seen as desirable, pretty fun and inspiring. When we ask leaders about the traits of these cultures they readily provide a list of similar characteristics: learning from failures (‘Fuck up Nights’ are a trend), psychological safety, collaborative and a flat structure. Research on innovative performance confirms this. However, these kind of cultures are not easy to create and sustain. And often people forget about the difficult, tougher behaviors needed to be counterbalanced. Let me give you some examples, if you want a tolerance for failure you need an intolerance for incompetence, focus on collaboration asks for personal accountability and psychological safety requires candid feedback.

Let’s zoom in on the latter, as many see this as a key success factor. Psychological safety isn’t about being nice, Amy Edmundson, professor at Harvard Business School, says. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other, without fear of reprisal.  All essential elements to support an innovative culture. Psychological safety feels great and comfortable. But what many people fail to remember is that the counter part of psychological safety seems to be extremely hard. The majority of people struggle to confront others, challenge each other of give constructive feedback, even more so in a hierarchical relation. Sometimes out of fear, sometimes because they like to be nice, or they think it is a way to show respect in a specific (cultural) context. But remember, without candor no real psychological safety. To promote psychological safety, leaders can be vulnerable and role model what trust looks like. And at the same time get out of your comfort zone and stop compromising for the sake of social coherence, even when doing so is uncomfortable or difficult.

Would you like to know more on how you can use psychological safety to boost innovation at your organization contact our experts: Leonie Arkesteijn  (l.arkesteijn@samhoud.com), Roosmaryn Spliet (r.spliet@samhoud.com) or Koen Husmann (k.husmann@samhoud.com).

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