How Psychological Safety Builds Creative Cultures

May 21, 2019

How Psychological Safety Builds Creative Cultures

Innovation, as a field, is rife with myths and beset by bad beliefs. Some of these are merely annoyances, such as the tendency to equate innovation with workshops that overuse sticky notes. Others are directly dangerous, such as the belief that innovation requires digitalization and a preponderance of apps. More importantly is that many come together to blind us to key elements of what actually constitutes an innovation culture.

To many, the hallmarks of such a culture are things such as playful furnishings, ample brainstorming sessions, and other things that ensure that the organization can attract “innovators.” This latter group is assumed to consist of highly creative men and women, often recognizable from their go-getter attitudes, their aptitude to speak up in meetings, and their quirky sartorial sense. Yet this very idea that there exists a specific group, inside or outside the organization, that can be referred to as innovators, might be the most dangerous myth of all. 

In my own research on innovation cultures, a central and defining finding has been that such cultures are NOT built around such “innovators,” nor small groups of particularly creative individuals. Rather, the true sign of an innovative company culture is inclusivity—that everyone in the organization feels that they can give voice to their ideas and that these will be listened to. In contemporary research on teams and cultures, this is known as “psychological safety,” a term coined by Amy Edmonson in her seminal works on the issue.

The term psychological safety is one that seems immediately understandable, yet it contains ample complexity. In its most basic form, it refers to a state where people feel that they can participate and freely share their ideas. The presence of such a state can be measured e.g. by observing whether individuals in a team or a meeting take part and discuss in a roughly even manner. If this is the case, this would indicate a high degree of psychological safety, whereas cases where one or two members of a team or a meeting dominate the discussion would signal the opposite. 

This, however, only addresses a basic level. On a more complex level, a high degree of psychological safety should lead to people not only feeling that they can take part, but also that they can voice dissenting opinions and ideas that might challenge people or frameworks in the organization. On this level, psychological safety is something more than participation, it refers to feeling respected enough to dare to voice ideas that can encounter criticism. The inverse of this is then that a truly deep culture of psychological safety is one where people feel that they are safe to criticize the ideas of others—in a respectful manner—regardless of their place in the hierarchy.

This should go some way to indicate why cultures with a high degree of psychological safety tend to be much more innovative than those with less of the same. Without an environment where diverse individuals can feel safe, we run the risk of having an organization that is only superficially diverse, but where the level of ideation is still dominated by the homogenous few. Psychologically safe organizations are capable of going beyond the superficial creativity that such organizations often engage in, and instead engage with what I’ve come to call “deep creativity,” one where even more difficult and challenging ideas can be engaged with.

The ways in which psychological safety enriches innovation and creative cultures can thus be understood on three overlapping and interconnecting levels. 

1) Psychological safety ensures more and more diverse ideas. By making sure that all of the potential ideas in a team or an organization are brought out and discussed, the sum total of ideas in the organization increases exponentially. Today, many organizations routinely kill ideas by not ensuring that there is a culture that is prepared to nurture and develop them. More ideas do not automatically translate to more innovations, but a richer set of ideas still ensures a more promising foundation for the same. 

2) Psychological safety ensures more robust critique. Ideas alone do not innovations make, so an organization that wishes to become more innovative needs to pay attention how proposed ideas are developed. Here, critique plays a critical role in discovering weaknesses in ideas and in finding ways to move beyond these. Psychological safety is a great way to ensure that an organization doesn’t succumb to groupthink and to also see to it that even ideas coming from an executive level are critiqued and challenged. 

3) Psychological safety deepens creative cultures. Psychological safety can help more and more people in the organization engage with creativity and innovation and to do so in a sustained manner. By removing the fear of speaking up and speaking out, organizations can develop their overall creative culture towards an inclusive one. 

How can HR help organizations develop their psychological safety and deepen their creative cultures? 

Respect is fundamental—and tricky. Modern organizations are complex, and this complexity also means that there are many ways in which people may come to feel less than respected. Many organizations are rife with exclusionary practices (such as only allowing certain people to participate in meetings and share in information) and micro-behaviors that can make people feel disrespected (such as being ignored or having your ideas yawned at in meetings). In order to support psychological safety, HR must pay attention to the overall behavior in the culture and to make sure that people feel respected. Having an open discussion about what makes people feel less than respected is a first step, training that emphasizes being present and showing respect is another. Ensuring a zero-tolerance policy on sexism, racism, ageism, and other exclusionary practices should be a given.

Leaders must learn to listen. A key reason people feel disrespected and organizations lack psychological safety is because there has been too little focus on mindful listening. There is no point in encouraging people to take part in discussions if the necessary reciprocity from management isn’t present. The reason psychological safety can dissipate in organizations often stems from members feeling that they are not listened to, which can lead to dejection and disengagement. Leaders must work on their listening skills, and also be guided to ensure that all team-members are given an opportunity to voice their opinions, regardless of whether they’re seen as being able to contribute or not. Encourage leaders to let their teams surprise them with insight. 

Teach critique as a skill. The art of productive criticism is often talked about but seldom actively worked on. In developing your creative culture, realize that critique has a critical role in ensuring that good ideas are developed and less good ones do not survive just because “the right people” put them forward. Good critique focuses on ideas rather than persons, asks respectful questions, and aims to turn ideas into their best versions of themselves. By emphasizing how being a good, respectful critic can be just as important for innovativeness as the capacity to ideate, HR can show how creative cultures require many roles. Further, by focusing on critique as a competency, some of the destructive power-games of ideation can be counter-acted.

See psychological safety as an ongoing process. Creative cultures and psychological safety are both things that have no finished end-state. Rather, they are living things that require continuous nurturing and support. HR should see itself as the guardian of psychological safety, both today and tomorrow, and remind the organization how quickly disrespectful behaviors can turn a culture toxic. 

The Authors: 

Alf Rehn is professor of innovation, design, and management at the University of Southern Denmark, and the author of Innovation for the Fatigued – How To Build a Culture of Deep Creativity.