Safety Fosters Innovation

  • A Player-Coached Team Stimulates Improvements
  • Trust is the Foundation for Psychological Safety
  • Innovation relies upon well-focused, risk-taking Strategies

Innovate or Die?  Today’s disruption comes from organizations and their teams that took the risks to innovate.  What stimulates innovation?  A culture that prizes proactive behavior, appropriate risk-taking and engagement across the enterprise.  What makes this type of climate possible?  Psychological Safety.  Leaders who create this climate have a leg up on fostering exponential growth.

Patrick Lencioni’s leadership fable, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, takes a deep dive into the best practices for improving organizational performance.  In his book, the author paints the picture of a leadership team that engages in improvement commentary among the members as a group.  In it, the group members openly share with each other what they believe other team members need to do to optimize performance.

In today’s world, these types of constructive improvement conversations can be very risky.  As Lencioni notes, such conversations cannot succeed unless there is a strong level of trust among the members.  Ego coupled with an aversion to being perceived as less competent or making mistakes, makes it difficult to execute these exchanges properly. Leaders must foster a mindset among the members that welcomes the information as an opportunity to improve, not as calling someone out with competitive criticism. When teams operate in this fashion, it is what Michigan State’s Head Basketball Coach Tom Izzo refers to as a “player-coached team.”  This takes time and repetition; the payoff is worth the effort.

What can leaders do to create such an environment?  They must develop a climate of psychological safety.  Members need to believe that they can wholeheartedly contribute without being ignored or criticized — to be able to take risks and admit mistakes.  This is a vital component that must exist deep within a company’s culture to create an environment of innovation and growth.

Organizations that emphasize “being right” or “making no mistakes” run the risk of shutting down psychological safety. In this setting, perfect is certainly the enemy of the good. Interestingly, these organizations usually report fewer mistakes in their operations.  That statistic, however, can be illusory. It may well be that because of the lack of psychological safety, people are unwilling to acknowledge errors for fear of retribution or shaming.

Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School, found in her research on teams in hospitals that charge nurses in a hospital who were judged by their teams as being better leaders often had higher rates of documented errors than those who were reported to be inferior leaders.  The increased error reporting reflects the sense of trust in their leaders and the space they provide for them to take risks and admit mistakes in order to learn and improve from them.

Today’s competitive environment requires all the collective genius teammates can muster.  Organizations require innovation and proactive thinking from everyone in the enterprise.  If they do not have the psychological safety to advance unconventional thinking, the business model risks being disrupted by more forward-thinking competitors in the market.

What creates this sense of safety?  Language followed by action that matches.  In a prior blog, I discussed Dr. David Rock’s SCARF model.[1] When communicating with others, leaders need to be alert to five key areas: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.  Using this approach, leaders can focus on areas that are of key interest to team members and their security.   In addition, a great deal has been written about authenticity in leadership.  A key attribute of authenticity, according to Lencioni, is vulnerability.  It is the foundation for the creation of trust.  Leaders who demonstrate their willingness to be vulnerable encourage others to do likewise and thus build psychological safety.

Leaders need to be role models for what they expect to see in others.  There are some simple ways in which a leader can signal vulnerability.  One is acknowledging and owning mistakes.  Another is in how feedback is handled.  In his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, noted executive coach Marshall Goldsmith counsels simple strategies for acknowledging a mistake: Say “I’m sorry, I’ll do better next time.”  When someone provides constructive feedback: Say, “Thank you.”  No more, no less. By acknowledging one’s errors, a leader encourages and models the type of behavior that is expected.  By acknowledging the feedback without necessarily giving it sanction, the leader encourages honest and open feedback and displays continued vulnerability as well as being open to alternate ideas.  Repeated to the point of habit, these kinds of trust-building actions become embedded in the culture.

Consistent application of these approaches will aid leaders in developing the proper climate.  In coming blogs, we will explore the connection between psychological safety, engagement and culture.  Stay tuned, there’s a lot more to come.



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