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Permission to Leap: Creating the Conditions for Creativity and Innovation
November 5, 2021

A team works on a creative project in the workplace.
Courtesy of Wharton Interactive.

Psychological safety is a feeling of safety within a team, and it is the best indicator of innovative team performance. Studies have shown that employees with teams that have high psychological safety are more likely to be creative, to take risks, and to be innovative. In that environment team members:

  • Feel obligated to speak out if they have information and they know they will be listened to
  • Feel that it’s ok to make a mistake and learn from that mistake
  • Know that they can voice their opinion and that they can take risks 

To promote this on your team you should:

Ask questions. Admitting you don’t know something sends a powerful signal. When we have expertise, we tend to do a lot of telling and not a lot of asking. To promote psychological safety, team members and particularly team leaders, should show that they don’t know everything and ask genuine questions that are open ended. Asking open ended questions prompts others to voice their opinion and models a norm: no one person has all the answers; to succeed, everyone needs to feel that they should contribute. To reinforce learning, admit to not knowing something and ask others to share their expertise; and reward this same behavior when you see it. Your team will follow your lead. 

Give people the benefit of the doubt. People either bring their best selves to work or they don’t. Researchers have shown that for people to engage and make an effort, they need to feel supported, trusted, and capable. In psychologically safe environments, people aren’t held back by fear of failure. The environment pushes them to try something new, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. While it may be tempting to judge team members based on successes or failures, trying something new means taking a risk and possibly failing. And fear inhibits learning. Promoting an environment in which team members feel that they can try (and perhaps fail) but that they will be rewarded for the effort, makes for a more successful team.

Promote open dialogue. In environments that are not psychologically safe, team members are often afraid to speak up, even when the stakes are high. In any organization, employees may be too afraid to speak up if they see something wrong and they may be too worried about their reputation to say something unpopular. It’s often much easier to stay silent than to take a risk. In psychologically safe workplaces however, people feel free to express concerns, to a colleague or to a supervisor. In both cases, leadership is the key: leaders can reward team members for speaking up and expressing unpopular opinions; they can deliberately ask members of the team to play “devil’s advocate” by asking challenging questions, even after an agreement has been reached; and they can help people overcome a lack of confidence by creating a psychologically safe space. 

Promoting psychological safety is an ongoing process. To help your team overcome challenges, be intentional about your actions and set the stage for a psychologically safe environment in which team members have what all high performing teams need: the freedom to take a risk and the knowledge that the team will support their efforts.

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1 Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of management journal, 33(4), 692-724. 2 Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons. 
3 Edmondson, A. C., & Roloff, K. S. (2009). Overcoming barriers to collaboration: Psychological safety and learning in diverse teams. Team effectiveness in complex organizations: Cross-disciplinary perspectives and approaches, 34, 183-208.