Psychological Safety drives innovation

Since the pandemic, and especially after, risk – all kinds of risk including economic, supply chain, geopolitical etc.– has made a comeback. This comeback underscores the necessity for companies to foster a culture of innovation among their employees.

Innovation is essential for growth. Companies that don’t innovate will eventually be left behind by their competitors. So, how can companies foster a culture of innovation? This is where psychological safety comes in.

Our recent whitepaper on psychological safety in the workplace identified that 89% of HR leaders believe that psychological safety is crucial in achieving creativity and innovation. However, there is a challenge.

The misnomer

Just as vague bodily pain can hinder a doctor’s ability to accurately diagnose and treat the underlying medical condition, the current loose and contradictory definition of psychological safety hinders diagnosis and nurturing, a challenge too often raised by decision-makers.

Indeed, psychological safety is in some ways a misnomer, with the emphasis on ‘safety’. In addition, its current definition is fundamentally contradictory – how can it be safe to take risks?

In response to this challenge, at Behave we define psychological safety as “an environment where employees balance comfort and discomfort to take well-calibrated risks” (Dobra-Kiel, 2023).

Correctly defining psychological safety is not just a question of being pedantic. Armed with a better understanding of the concept, companies start to see its value and can start to truly measure and nurture it.

The hacks

By balancing the tension between comfort and discomfort, employees can drive innovation. When employees learn to balance comfort and discomfort effectively, they become more resilient in the face of uncertainty and change. This resilience enables them to persevere through challenges and drive innovation even in the most adverse conditions.

But this balancing requires time. Time is increasingly lacking, as we keep hearing from employees “I am so busy”. Putting aside the observation that most of this busyness is the result of a lack of proper strategic planning, this makes the challenge of fostering a culture of innovation all the more difficult. But adopting a few hacks could help with this.

  1. Provoke. Leaders should emphasise the importance of contradiction, tension and conflict in driving intellectual progress and innovation.
  2. Prioritise. Encourage employees to prioritise tasks effectively, focusing on high-impact activities rather than getting caught up in ‘busy work’. This can create space for innovative thinking. Relatedly, dedicate specific time slots or days for employees to work on innovative ideas.
  3. Stretch. Encourage employees to set ambitious yet attainable goals that push them outside their comfort zones.
  4. Recognise. Acknowledge and reward employees who contribute innovative ideas and/or solutions.

The journey towards fostering a culture of innovation within companies is not a short one. By redefining psychological safety as an environment where employees navigate the tension between comfort and discomfort to take well-calibrated risks, companies can catalyse their trip on this journey.

Written by Dr Alexandra Dobra-Kiel, our Innovation & Strategy Director. Contact us today to see how we can help nurture psychological safety to ignite a culture of innovation and drive business performance.

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Dr. Alexandra Dobra-Kiel - Innovation & Strategy Director

Author:Dr. Alexandra Dobra-Kiel - Innovation & Strategy Director