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Gráinne Millar

Gráinne Millar

27th Jul 2021

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Gráinne Millar: Psychological safety as a catalyst for innovation

In today’s highly competitive environment, innovation has become the key to a company’s survival. One of the most effective ways to achieve greater innovation is through collaboration. Why? 

Because it unlocks the benefits of diversity where individuals bring their knowledge, skills and creativity to the table to help organisations improve, learn and enhance their innovation efforts. 

Whether an organisation is working on product development, service design, economic clusters or R&D projects, all these activities call for collaboration, requiring people to work together across disciplinary and other boundaries to accomplish organisational goals. This has led to an increase in teamwork in which employees are expected to integrate perspectives, share information and ideas, and collaborate to achieve shared goals. 

The best teams were effective not so much because of who was on the team, but rather because they collaborated and worked together well.

Though many businesses recognise collaboration as central to their innovation efforts, many leaders and employees find it difficult and there are often unaddressed obstacles that discourage it in the workplace.  

So, what can we learn from one of the world’s most successful innovation companies like Google, which continues to grow exponentially while remaining innovative?  

In 2019, Google embarked on Project Aristotle, a research study which set out with the goal of answering the question: What makes a team effective at Google? 

Taking an evidence-based approach, Google analysed data from executives, team leads and team members to determine the key dynamics of what makes a successful team. The research found that the best teams were effective not so much because of who was on the team, but rather because they collaborated and worked together well. 

Of the five elements they discovered that “Make a Great Team”, the first was psychological safety.  

Psychological safety is about environment. It’s about creating a safe culture in which team members feel safe enough to take an interpersonal risk. Psychological safety has been a topic of considerable interest and activity over the past two decades, particularly in the fields of management, organisational behaviour and health-care management, championed by leading thinkers such as Amy Edmondson, Laura Delizonna and Zhike Lei.  

When teams promote psychological safety, there is a free flow of ideas, which can lead to better outcomes. It creates a climate where people can ask for help without fear of retribution or adverse impact to their reputation. Team members also feel comfortable suggesting ideas, speaking up with questions and are not afraid to challenge the status quo – all of which can lead to healthy debate and allow the teams to thrive.  


Why is psychological safety important for innovation? 

Innovation, by definition, is about doing something new and different. And when you begin the process, no-one is sure of the outcome. Therefore, the innovation process requires considerable amounts of trust because of the risks for both the organisation running the process and the employees participating in the process. Albert Einstein is credited with saying: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”  

For many people, the thought of being absurd in front of their colleagues, and especially their superiors, is a scary thing. Unless they trust superiors and other colleagues to take all ideas seriously rather than laugh, criticise or worse, most people will keep their more absurd (and hence creative) ideas to themselves. And without creativity, innovation simply will not happen. 


What are the implications for leadership development?  

Today’s leaders and managers have a responsibility to create a climate of psychological safety in order to facilitate the kind and openness and sharing of ideas that is essential for successful collaboration and teamwork. 

Managers must encourage employees to be brave, speak up and voice their opinion and not respond by expressing anger, disapproval or criticism and run the risk of losing out on those essential creative ideas and opportunities for improvement.  

Research from Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School shows, however, that even when employees are embedded in an organisation with a strong culture, their perceptions of feeling safe to speak up, asking for help, or providing feedback tend to vary from department to department, and team to team.   

When teams promote psychological safety, there is a free flow of ideas, which can lead to better outcomes

This can be a result of different management styles and behaviours that give different messages about the consequences of taking the interpersonal risks associated with willingly contributing. 

In order to become better at “collaborative leadership”, managers must learn to value employees who engage in such behaviours – even though they may instinctively prefer employee silence and agreement with the status quo.  

New behaviours and skills are necessary to confidently and comfortably lead collaboration and teamwork. Some of these include emotional intelligence to build trust and respect so employees will share, not hoard, information; open-dialogue skills to allow leaders to explore disagreements and talk through tension in a team, and situational humility to develop a personal-growth mindset and curiosity. 

When managers value the employee who speaks up, who is not afraid to question existing practices and suggest new ideas, organisations are better able to improve, learn and enhance their innovation efforts. As these behaviours are interpersonally risky, psychological safety is needed to enable them, leading ultimately to greater innovation. 

Gráinne Millar has over 20 years’ experience leading and facilitating collaborative projects and networks across the creative industries, culture, tourism, science and agri-food sectors. She holds a Master of Business from the IMI and is a faculty member on the Leading Strategy Execution programme. 

More IMI Insights on psychological safety:

  • Edmondson, Amy C. (2004). Learning From Mistakes is Easier Said Than Done; Group and Organizational Influences on the Detection and Correction of Human Error, The Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, Vol. 40, No. 1.
  • Edmondson, Amy C. (2011). Strategies for Learning from Failure, Harvard Business Review.
  • Delizonna, L. (2017). High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It, Harvard Business Review.
  • Edmondson, Amy C. & Lei, Z. Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance and Future of an Interpersonal Construct, Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour.
  • Baumgartner, J. (2020). The Critical Role of Trust in the Innovation Process, Innovation Matters.
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