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Safe Spaces and Risky Business

How not to ruin your company’s innovation with a lack of psychological safety.

Ah, “psychologically safe workplaces”. Just the phrase alone probably conjures up images of corporate retreats where everyone sits around a campfire singing Kumbaya and sharing their feelings. But the reality is, creating a psychologically safe workplace is more than just a fluffy feel-good exercise. In fact, it’s been found to be key to fostering innovation within an organization, the work that generates unique ideas, produces original solutions to complex problems and encourages teams to be bold and dive into (constructively) risky business.

Let’s start with a basic definition. A psychologically safe workplace is one in which employees feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks without fear of negative consequences to their status, career, or well-being. This means that people can speak up, share their ideas, and challenge the status quo without worrying about being punished or ostracized.

At first glance, it might seem like a psychologically safe workplace would be a breeding ground for groupthink and complacency. After all, if everyone is just nodding along and agreeing with each other, how can anything truly innovative happen? In reality, the opposite is true, and it has a lot to do with how the human brain works.

Our brains are wired to avoid risk and uncertainty, which can be perceived as threats to our survival. In a workplace where employees do not feel safe to share their ideas, they will be less likely to take risks and try new things. They may be more likely to stick to the status quo and avoid challenging the way things are done, even if they believe there is a better way.

When people feel safe to express their thoughts and ideas, it creates an environment of trust and openness. This, in turn, allows for a free flow of information and a diversity of perspectives. When people feel like they can be themselves and speak their minds, they are more likely to share their unique insights and experiences. This can lead to breakthrough ideas that might never have been considered in a less transparent environment.

I’m sure you’re now thinking to yourself that this reads like a perfectly good pop science article, but what about reality? How does this play out in the day-to-day of a busy corporate organization? Well, I’m glad you asked; contemporary research in businesses has shown that psychological safety is closely linked to innovation across several organizations.

In a study published in Harvard Business Review, Amy C. Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, found that psychological safety was the most important factor in creating high-performing teams. She notes that teams that felt safe to speak up were more likely to generate new ideas, experiment, and take risks.

Another study conducted by Google, known as Project Aristotle, found that psychological safety was the key factor in creating high-performing teams. The study found that teams that felt safe to express their opinions, take risks, and make mistakes were more likely to generate innovative ideas and produce better outcomes.

The link between psychological safety and innovation can also be seen in the startup world. Startups are often praised for their innovative culture, but they can also be high-pressure environments where failure can lead to the end of the company. However, some of the most successful startups have been able to create a psychologically safe environment where employees feel free to take risks, learn from their mistakes, and share their ideas.

For example, Airbnb has a culture that encourages experimentation and risk-taking. Employees are encouraged to try new things, even if they fail, and the company’s leadership has publicly recognized and celebrated failures as learning opportunities. This culture has led to the development of new products and services, such as Airbnb Experiences, which have helped the company stay ahead of the curve in the competitive travel industry.

So how can organizations create a psychologically safe workplace that fosters innovation? Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Lead by example: Creating a psychologically safe workplace starts at the top. Leaders need to model the behaviors they want to see in their employees. This means being open to feedback, admitting mistakes, and treating others with respect and kindness.
  • Encourage feedback: Make it clear that feedback is not only welcome but encouraged. Provide multiple channels for employees to share their thoughts and ideas, whether it’s through regular check-ins, suggestion boxes, or anonymous surveys.
  • Listen actively: When someone does share their thoughts or concerns, make sure you’re really listening. Practice active listening techniques like summarizing what they’ve said and asking clarifying questions. These approaches will make it clear to those around you that you’re listening and engaging with what is being said. Small behaviors like these communicate a big message: “I hear you, I’m actively considering your contributions, and I’m present in this conversation.”
  • Take action: If someone raises a valid concern or suggests an innovative idea, take action on it. This shows that you’re listening and that their contributions are valued, while also building a sense of trust. When employees feel that their feedback or input is being heard and acted upon, they become more engaged driving a greater sense of contribution and innovation.
  • Hold people accountable: Finally, it is important to hold people accountable for their actions. If someone is behaving in a way that’s not conducive to a psychologically safe workplace, address it directly and provide consequences if necessary.

Creating a psychologically safe workplace is essential for fostering innovation within an organization. When employees feel safe to share their thoughts and ideas, they are more likely to take risks, experiment with new approaches, and engage in constructive conflict. This can lead to better decision-making, problem-solving, and outcomes. By embracing strategies that promote open communication, constructive conflict, and continuous learning, organizations can create a culture of innovation where safe spaces allow for (constructive) risky business.

About the Authors

Alasdair James Scott

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