Psychological safety at work – a driver of innovation

Joy

By Brett Roberts, Associate Director, Digital, Customers & Collaboration

How’s the culture in your company? Does it enable you to thrive? Or are you simply surviving? Worse yet, is it toxic?

While the world of work is changing rapidly, people still sit at the very heart of it. How do we get the best out of these people? And how do we ensure they get the best out of their roles?

A critical factor in this discussion is the concept of psychological safety in the workplace. If you as a leader can create an environment in which even the newest hire feels safe to voice their thoughts and opinions, then you are far more likely to get the best ideas out of your staff. This is incredibly important given that one of the underpinning requirements of an innovation culture is ideas and creativity.

Linda Hill, a Professor at Harvard Business School, is an expert on managing for collective creativity, and firmly believes that getting the best out of people requires a safe environment. She also comments that innovation is not about solo genius, rather it’s about collective genius and it’s collaborative and messy. Pixar took a very collaborative approach to the development of their first full length CG (computer graphics) movie, Ratatouille. It took nearly 20 years from inception to release, but CG films have really taken off since then!

Innovation requires imagination, but imagination can be stifled in a negative workplace. People can’t innovate in an environment where they feel fear (of embarrassment, of ridicule, of not being heard), so it’s crucial that business leaders foster an environment where people feel entirely safe to speak up. New junior staff members are sitting at the bottom of the pile, but giving them a platform to speak their mind in safety will help grow them – and quickly.

Professor Hill’s research concluded that leaders needed to stop giving answers, or providing solutions. They needed to look to people at the bottom of the pyramid, the young sparks, those that were closest to the customers as an often untapped source of innovation. Organisations need to invert the pyramid, transfer growth to lower levels, and unleash the power of many by loosening the stranglehold of the few.

For the full Linda Hill TED Talk, see here 

Workplaces need to create an environment where there is a marketplace of brainstormed and debated ideas, and where it’s ok to have strong – yet constructive – views. Asking good questions, actively listening and advocating for their point of view are also critical skills for leaders and others to foster.

Psychological safety and teams

Google’s Project Aristotle showed that psychological safety is the number one determinant of highly effective teams. A culture of psychological safety enables everyone in the group to contribute regardless of hierarchy, role, or expectations. In this instance, we can draw upon the total collective intelligence of the group.

Author Dr Amy Silver commented that “If we don’t have psychological safety, we use fear to mediate our contributions to a team. We are not able to contribute whatever’s in our heads as we limit ourselves through the fear of judgment, the fear of being ridiculed, the fear of being discounted, or the fear of going against expectations. Without psychological safety, we don’t have collective intelligence. We have fear-based intelligence.”

Creating psychological safety through hackathons

Datacom has been using hackathons for the last seven years as a way to create environments where people from different backgrounds and experiences feel safe to ideate, experiment and create.

There are many ways in which we create a sense of safety during a hackathon, such as rituals around welcoming which leads to greater levels of understanding amongst team members, many of whom may never have met before. There is a strong need to take the time to meet, greet and understand each other as this fosters a sense of safety and empathy which ultimately leads to better outcomes. Having seen it many times, we also understand the need to support those people who feel strongly about a topic or issue. Having support around them is what makes their dream reality.

We’re seeing real examples of how psychological safety impacts on how people participate in hackathons. Just this year we had a number of tertiary students join our main internal hackathon. They felt so safe that two of them got up and pitched an idea to an audience of hundreds only a short time after arriving. In a regional hackathon we were involved in earlier in the year, one of the businesses brought along several of their own staff but instructed them to go into separate teams.

Datacom might not be experts in the science of psychological safety – we’ll leave that to Professor Hill and Doctor Silver – but we are huge believers in its importance and ability to fundamentally influence organisational culture and innovation not to mention improving employee engagement and retention.

Today, every company is thinking about and investing in workplace safety measures. The benefits are obvious and the downsides of not doing so are clear. We believe the same applies to the concept of psychological safety and would encourage your organisation to do the same if you’re not doing so already. The benefits are too clear to ignore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s