The impact of psychological safety on innovation – and why HR and L&D hold the key

Being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative outcomes may seem like a small liberty, but many employees do not feel empowered to do so. The consequences of this are not just personal, but economic too, which is why businesses look at the importance of psychological safety.
Bevan Rees
Jun 25, 2019

For those organisations not already taking mental health seriously, the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) recent reclassification of burnout as a workplace phenomenon should be a decisive call-to-action.

The message is clear: unlike charity, burnout does not begin at home. It begins at work. And, like associated mental health disorders depression and anxiety, which the WHO estimates to cost the global economy US$1 trillion per year, it has a significant impact on human and business prosperity.

Increasingly, companies are assuming ethical responsibility for the mental wellbeing of their employees. But these interventions also have strategic value.

According to Dr Audrey Tang, Chartered Psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness, research confirms that a focus on wellbeing leads to organisational self-reports of a healthier work-life balance, improvements in resilience, and performance benefits for leaders.

Though much of that focus has been on behavioural, social and environmental interventions, none of these will deliver its full potential unless employees feel the psychological safety to share their personal views and experiences. Not only is this sense of security essential for the authentic development of greater mental wellbeing, it is a prerequisite for team creativity.

The key to sustainable innovation

Positive psychologist and happiness guru, Dr Andy Cope, says psychological safety in the workplace is the equivalent of what child psychologists call a ‘secure attachment’.

“Too many people are terrified of making a mistake or taking a risk. In times of change, we need what I call ‘positive deviance’: employees who are willing, able and encouraged to test the boundaries of what’s possible. That’s the key to innovation, productivity and growth.”

An internal Google study appears to corroborate Cope’s view. The two-year assessment of more than 180 Google teams revealed five key dynamics that are common to high-performing teams. Number one on the list was psychological safety, which Google summarised as the confidence to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed.

The amygdala, the part of the brain that commands the fight, flight or freeze response, is highly sensitive to potential threats in the environment. In times of risk – physical or psychological – our brain prioritises self-preservation over strategic and creative thinking. People who feel unsafe simply cannot innovate successfully.

As Chief Curator at leading strategy and innovation consultancy co:collective, Kit Krugman has invested much of her time in building cultures that allow individuals to fully express themselves in the service of common goals.

“Without processes and systems new organisations have a lot of chaos, but they also have a lot of creativity. As organisations scale, vital roles and systems come into play, which is great for productivity and efficiency but often bad for creativity.”

Krugman’s work has focused on striking a balance between structure and innovation, building a culture that “walks the line at the edge of chaos”. Maintaining such a space stimulates the generation of ideas without triggering anxiety.

“Psychological safety is critical because if you have any fear of ridicule or the fear of an idea being shot down, the likelihood of sharing goes down dramatically.”

Creating an intentional culture

However, employees do not magically develop this mindset. Nor can it simply be recruited – even the most confident, motivated and creative individual can be beaten down by fear-based organisational management.

No, psychological safety has to be cultivated as part of what Krugman calls an intentional culture.

“Most organisations have a mission, most have a set of values. But very few organisations think about how those values translate into behaviour. That’s what culture is: values translating into behaviour.”

“If you’re designing an intentional culture, you want to think very carefully about this. If you have a value like creativity, what does that mean you need to do? How does that mean you need to behave?”

For Steve Preston, Managing Director of Heat Recruitment, that began with a reversal of mindset. Preston remembers spending the business’ early days anxious about staff retention. But then he inverted his approach. Instead of obsessing over the one or two people who might leave, Preston decided to focus on improving the wellbeing of the talent who were already in the team.

Within a couple of years Heat Recruitment became the first recruitment company in Bristol to achieve the Workplace Wellbeing Charter status. Foundational to this success is a responsive attitude to mental health concerns. The organisation’s numerous wellbeing initiatives have emerged from the workforce, as identified through power sessions run by volunteer employee experience champions.

These interventions, which have led to higher retention, productivity and morale, represent a culturally-embedded approach to wellbeing, rather than a corporate policy. They have also become established traditions.

Krugman maintains that this is a critical feature: “Rituals that are adopted by organisations and upheld create the space for psychological safety.”

Key role players

In building Heat’s culture, Preston has relied heavily on HR to influence the social DNA of the organisation. This includes open-door drop-in sessions during which employees can meet an HR representative to discuss anything that they need support with, personally or professionally.

“But,” says Preston, “who’s looking after HR?” In his organisation that responsibility falls to him and the other directors, providing a useful example of the role of leadership in establishing workplaces that foster psychological safety.

“The people in authority are the ones that people look to to model behaviour,” says Krugman. “This is why the role of leadership in setting up psychological safety is imperative. That can be authority based on your role, authority you’ve assumed, or even authority based on your social identity. You have to be conscious of those things because your actions are going to set the tone for how people respond.”

“There’s a big difference between saying it and actually modelling it.”

Of course, for a culture to truly promote psychological safety, there needs to be broad spectrum support at all seniority levels. However, the successful creation of such a climate requires a palette of skills, many of them soft, not always taught in the course of conventional business.

L&D are thus vital to any campaign directed at building a culture that support mental wellbeing.

Dr Tang believes that learning and development professionals should prioritise the growth of core skills through mindfulness-based trainings.

“By incorporating mindful practice to build resilience and wellbeing, you will refine and enhance the skills you already have rather than place an extra demand on your multi-taking self.”

Andy Cope takes a more radical view: “L&D needs a major rethink. Too much corporate training is still about how to work harder. It needs to morph into ‘how to come alive’. People need to be given training to rethink how they think.”

“Mindfulness workshops are great. But there’s so much more to wellbeing than mindfulness! Try some strengths, positive psychology, resilience, gratitude, and purpose workshops too.”

Tang warns against seeing employee wellbeing as a “tick-box” exercise, or the introduction of “wellbeing fads” without any real understanding of the activity’s potential benefits.

“Whatever the final approach to embedding wellbeing, it must always be additional to good basic organisational procedures already in place.”

Tang also advises careful consideration of interventions in a multi-cultural workforce.

“It is worth recognising that sometimes coping styles can be misinterpreted as mental illness. For example, commonly the Asian culture is one of saying little, in comparison to the US, but that doesn’t mean that the quiet Asian is depressed and the expressive American has ADHD. So, the more people talk about mental health, the more that the diagnostic symptoms are discussed, the more we all begin to understand.”

“L&D and HR roles would do well to learn more about the cultural diversity in thinking of their workforce to best support everyone.”

At Heat Recruitment, Preston says L&D are as integrated as possible into the general operation of the workforce.

“L&D teams are coaching as well as training, walking the floor and engaging with people in the flow of work, assisting them with necessary capabilities.”

“We’re always talking to people about how to look after each other. And remove the stigma. As a team we’re stronger. ”

That shame surrounding mental health is one of the greatest challenges to building mental wellbeing in the workplace. Eroding that stigma requires psychological safety, a fundamental ingredient in the businesses of the future.