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The term ‘psychological safety’ has recently captured the interest of many in the business world. But what exactly does it mean in terms of how our brains work? Why psychological safety is the key to creativity and innovation in the workplace? What does it have to do with unlocking greater creativity and innovation? And what can we as leaders and managers do to establish it in our organisations? I recently spoke to Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience (PR) to answer these questions.

But first, what is psychological safety?

Before diving into the practical side of psychological safety, we need to understand what it means from a neurological perspective. It all starts with feeling physically safe, PR explained. There are parts of the brain [including the amygdala and the cingulate cortex that keep us alert to physical dangers, but in a modern age where we aren’t likely to be eaten by a giant carnivore on a daily basis, those parts have been commandeered to keep our identity – and therefore our emotional well-being and sense of self – safe as well. Essentially, the same parts of the brain work to keep us physically and psychologically safe.

In a workplace setting, psychological safety means knowing that you can turn up and be yourself without facing negative outcomes. On hearing this, it made complete sense: it’s about feeling safe in an environment so that I can do my best. But speaking further to PR, I realised that it’s so much more than that: psychological safety is fundamentally important to people being able to be creative and innovative. This fact set lightbulbs off in my own brain about how important this really is in the business world, particularly when the mission of the vast majority of organisations is – in some way – about innovation and business growth.

The key to this lies in the word ‘identity’. PR put it simply: “In order to be able to be creative or to be able to offer a brand-new idea that is useful, you’ve got to be able to feel that there’s a potential that it will be accepted: that someone will actually listen to you. And if you, at this identity level, feel that people are going to laugh at you or judge you, that you’re going to get mocked, or that people will just say ‘Well, that’s rubbish,’ then clearly, you’re not going to be able to offer the ideas.”

Therefore, central to psychological safety is feeling that it’s okay to make a mistake. “It gives people that freedom to say ‘I want to tell you what I’m thinking at the moment. It may be great, it may be rubbish. But can we just talk about it and see what we get out of it?’ That’s creativity. The real joy of creativity is throwing up ideas that seem completely off the wall and then realising that actually, we could do it. We could make that happen,” PR said. That’s innovation.

What happens when psychological safety doesn’t exist?

When I begin working with organisations, the thing I hear them say time and again is that they need organic growth: they need to come up with fresh ideas, and they need to drive their business forward. So, while they want people to move out of their current way of thinking, a lack of psychological safety often prevents this from happening. Many traditionally ‘hard-nosed’ industries that eschew emotion (for example finance or construction) may view psychological safety as too complicated, ‘soft’ or ‘psychobabble’. But with innovation top of mind, I wonder how they can unblock that perception, and what the cost will be if they don’t.

I posed this question to PR, whose response was: “I think it’s important for people to understand that if you do not feel safe then a lot of your energy goes towards protecting your identity at work.” For example, you may regularly go into work knowing that your boss is likely to get cross if you do something wrong, or you’re unsure of what kind of response you are going to get back from an idea. In this case, you will go in already expecting that you could be in a situation which is likely to trigger an intense negative emotion, but you aren’t going to be able to let it show, meaning that you will need to use a lot of energy just to keep that emotion in check. If you do that day in, day out, then there’s no energy left to be inventive or productive.

“I think this is why psychological safety is so important. It’s because you’re effectively locking up a lot of resources that people could otherwise use to be more creative take another risk or do something different… Once you’ve unlocked that, then you’ll find you’ll get more productivity, you’ll get better ideas, you’ll get more creativity,” PR explained.

What practical ways can we foster psychological safety and unlock creativity?

We know what it is now, and why it’s so important, but what can we do about it?

Acknowledge responsibility for psychological safety

PR believes that it’s critically important to understand where the responsibility for creating psychological safety lies: “A lot of the research initially has been around psychological safety in teams. And if you think about it on the level of a team, then clearly the organisation has a role to play, and leadership has a role to play in providing the situation that’s needed. But, you could create the safest environment you want and not everybody will feel psychologically safe,” she said. So, in addition to the organisation and leaders, PR impressed on me that individuals need to take responsibility for making sure their team understand what they need to feel psychologically safe.

Firstly, individuals need to ask themselves: ‘What do I need to feel psychologically safe?’; ‘How can I help the organisation to give me that?’ and ‘How can I make it apparent when I don’t feel safe so that I can be helped?’ Yes, it’s time to have those uncomfortable, revealing conversations. PR recommends that managers sit down with their team and ask each member to share their thoughts to make sure that they are supporting one another. Scary? Yes. But then creativity can flow as people are no longer devoting energy to protecting their identity and keeping their ideas to themselves for fear of psychological damage.

Listen. Really listen

I think we as humans are brilliant lie detectors: we know when we are not being listened to. That, in turn, focuses our attention internally to protect our status and ego state. Listening means being open to what the other person has to say and offering respectful comments and criticisms. At the start of a project, team leaders need to establish clear ground rules about listening when others share, thanking them for their contribution and offering ways to build on other’s ideas – it’s essentially the old ‘No idea is a bad idea’.

Accept that with creativity comes risk

Providing a psychologically safe environment that allows people to be freely creative means that some ideas will be risky. This fear of risk may stop organisations from truly embracing psychological safety, but PR says that it’s all about acceptance and planning: “I think that organisations have to accept that there will be times when things go wrong and that that’s okay…So, one of the things that neuroscience is telling us is that there is really a need for people to be confident enough to go with their gut in the moment. But when you do, try to think about how you can actually put measurements in place so you can make an evaluation of that idea. Everything comes with some level of risk so it’s not about saying: ‘Oh, it’s too risky to do that.’ It’s about saying: ‘Okay that’s got a risk involved, so what can we do to make sure that we catch it before we suffer too much from the outcome if the decision is wrong,’ PR said. Effectively this process allows organisations and leaders to have greater psychological safety so that they can provide the same freedom for their employees.

In summary…

  • From a neuroscience perspective, it is clear that you won’t get creativity or innovation without psychological safety, so it makes complete sense that leaders pay attention and place it high on their priority list.
  • Leaders need to understand that creativity and innovation can be hampered by a deep instinct to protect one’s identity when feeling unsafe – just as a person would if they were in physical danger.
  • Providing an opportunity to share and listen to what your people need to feel safe is crucial to be able to determine exactly how to establish an optimal environment for creativity and innovation.
  • Leaders need to create an environment where everyone understands and adheres to the same values and rules about listening, sharing and respect.
  • Accept that risk is inevitable, and that’s okay – it frees people up to offer ideas and make them happen. Proceed with confidence by putting measures in place to mitigate potential failures before they happen.