Why a Culture of Innovation Doesn't Work When People Are Afraid

Why a Culture of Innovation Doesn't Work When People Are Afraid

Speaking up at work and saying what you think can be difficult. Most of us care what the rest of the team thinks and many people are worried about making suggestions that are wrong or that aren’t in line with their boss’ or colleagues’ expectations; they may laugh at us or we could be left out.

There are work environments that condition people to keep quiet and do their work strictly according to guidelines, without deviating in the slightest from what was dictated. In these organizations, employees are more preoccupied with not seeming ignorant, nosy, or incompetent. Therefore, they don’t ask questions, offer information or insights, and sometimes won’t even admit to their mistakes.

Even those in the upper echelons of the organizational hierarchy are not exempt from fear of speaking out, especially when they have recently joined a project.

As a result, people keep everything—from big ideas to good questions—inside.

If everyone keeps quiet, organizations lose opportunities for change, for improvement, or for preventing disasters (that everyone saw coming but nobody dared talk about).

Interpersonal risk—when people don’t feel comfortable sharing their opinion or ideas—is a huge obstacle to collaboration and good decision-making. It’s also a barrier to developing a true culture of innovation.

Psychological safety

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career”. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected (Source).

Lack of psychological safety is the cause of many mistakes within organizations. Reluctance to offer ideas or experiences undermines many decisions and harms the execution of projects that require good judgment or collaboration.

However, a climate of psychological safety makes it easier for people to express their thoughts or perceptions and for team members to share ideas, respond respectfully to others’ points of view, and generate a healthy debate, which is the seed for exploring new paths and ways of doing things.

It is essential that this psychological safety is perceived by all, as it is a trait of the group in general; it isn’t enough for only some members to feel comfortable talking

Innovative leaders who want to foster a culture of innovation have to be less worried about their own comfort when speaking and focus on the way they respond when other members express their worries. They must pay more attention to the patterns that they create from the beginning, taking into account that actions speak louder than words. If, for example, at a critical event, a leader criticizes, dismisses, or rejects the concerns of the rest in a way that is not very constructive or police, he or she could create a precedent for the entire team, increasing the perceived risk of bringing up concerns or expressing ideas. And once the rule of “it’s better to keep quiet” becomes entrenched, it’s complicated to rout it out.

Nevertheless, the responsibility of encouraging and articulating a climate of psychological safety doesn’t have to fall only on the leader. All team members can actively contribute to normalizing participation. For example, if a team of people only venture to speak with the safest of suggestions, any member of the team can break with this trend and change this climate to one that is more open to alternatives.

Starting small is the way to create an environment of psychological safety that promotes a culture of innovation. For example, take ‘small risks’, such as contributing a new idea, challenging a stance, or asking another person to influence the discourse with their experience (even when we think that it could be contrary to our own thinking).

When all members of the team think that their experience is valued, good things happen. Those small risks that turn out to be positive experiences end up being emulated. Recognizing and appreciating another person who offers a new idea, admits to an error, or asks a question is key to inspiring others to follow the example.

Little by little, these actions build a climate of safety and paves the way for more significant contributions. It is important that people aren’t afraid to express positive or negative ideas at work. Not being afraid of being fired or being excluded is vital to people deciding to propose new paths or new visions.

Today’s self-reflection: the team cannot perceive participating as being riskier than remaining silent.


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