“Why doesn’t anyone bring me ideas?”

“Why doesn’t anyone ask questions during my meetings?”

“How can I get people to challenge my ideas?”

If you have asked any of these questions, you are not alone. 

I hear these questions from managers to C-suite executives in every industry imaginable because they know that sharing ideas, asking questions, and challenging others are core behaviors in innovation.

The answers vary by person and the company, but all tend to fall under the umbrella of “Lack of Psychological Safety.”

No one wants to hear that the culture of their team or their organization isn’t “Psychologically Safe.”  Does that mean that the culture is “Psychologically Unsafe?”  That doesn’t sound good.  That sounds like a lawsuit.  And even if the culture isn’t “unsafe,” what does “safe” look like?

These are some of the questions that Timothy R. Clark sets out to answer in his book, “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

What is “Psychological Safety?”

Academics have studied Psychology Safety since the 1960s, but Amy Edmondson’s 1999 paper ushered it into daily use.  Today, Psychological Safety is commonly defined as a shared belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Clark goes a step further to identify four types, or stages, of Psychological Safety:

  1. Inclusion Safety: People feel safe and accepted for who they are, including the different and unique aspects of themselves
  2. Learner Safety: People engage in the learning process by asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes
  3. Contributor Safety: People use their skills and abilities to make a difference in the team and/or organization
  4. Challenger Safety: People speak up, challenge the status quo, and pursue opportunities for change or improvement

Each type builds on the other, which means that, as a leader, you can’t have a culture in which people challenge your ideas (Challenger Safety) if they don’t feel that they belong (Inclusion) AND comfortable asking questions AND are willing to work to improve or change things.

That’s a tall order as far as culture goes.  Add to that the common belief that all four types of Psychological Safety are required for innovation, and it’s no wonder you feel overwhelmed by the task of creating an innovative organization.

How much Psychological Safety is required for innovation?

That depends on what you mean by “innovation.”

(sorry, I know that’s a lame “consultant” answer, but it’s true, so stick with me)

If what you mean by “innovation” is something that improves what you already do and how you do it (core innovation) or changes one element of what you do or how you do it (adjacent innovation), then you don’t need all four stages. 

Contributor Safety is Required

Core and Adjacent innovation aren’t sexy.  But, for most companies, they are sufficient to inspire and grow the business for at least 5-10 years.

As a leader, of a large existing business, with hundreds or thousands of employees and customers, multiple sites, and complex operations, you can’t possibly know everything that’s happening everywhere.  So you rely on your employees to work hard, do their best, and bring all their skills and experiences to bear for the organization.  You need them to ask, “How can we do this better?” and develop an answer.  You need them to contribute.

To ensure that your employees contribute to operations AND innovations, you need to build and sustain a culture where people feel they belong, are encouraged to learn (even from mistakes), and contribute their thoughts based on their knowledge. 

Challenger Safety is a Red Herring

Radical, breakthrough, and disruptive innovation are sexy.  But it’s insanely hard because it requires the creation of a new business model AND the destruction of the existing one.

The good news is that most companies don’t need to destroy their existing business and replace it with something new.  As a result, they definitely don’t need employees constantly challenging the status quo.  Questioning the status quo by asking, “How can we do this better?” is fine.  Asserting that everything needs to be changed or else is counterproductive.

As a leader, it’s a good idea to cultivate Challenger Safety with a small circle of trusted advisors.  Even one person who has permission to challenge you is sufficient.  That is how you get to the best idea and create the most value.

You don’t need an entire organization challenging each other and everything they do.  That is how you get frustration, chaos, and destroy value.

It’s And, not Or

Psychological Safety is an innovation requirement AND a red herring. 

If you know the type of innovation you want, what results you need, and when you need them, you can focus your efforts on creating and sustaining the right level and scope of psychological safety required to deliver on those goals.

Which makes me wonder….

What type of Psychological Safety does your team need?

What do you do to build Psychological Safety?

How do you encourage people to share ideas and ask questions?

Share your answers in the comments. I promise to respond to each one AND I’m certain your fellow innovators will thank you.