Clash Your Way Towards Psychological Safety (and Innovation)

clash towards psychological safety

In our quickly expanding, technologically reliant world, uncertainty and interdependence are far more common now than, say, 30 years ago.  This rapid change has given way to agile organization structures, functioning in more democratic or flat ways. Frameworks (i.e. Scrum, XP, Lean) have aided these sort of initiatives, and the need for them has become increasingly more relevant.

No matter the approach used in your company, however, innovation and collaboration are still severely hindered without establishing a safe space for sharing.

Psychological safety, as coined and described by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

According to Edmondson, there are three main factors that influence this phenomenon in group dynamics:

  1. Viewing work as a learning—not an execution—problem. This provides a rationale for speaking up.
  2. Acknowledging your own fallibility. Admitting that you missed something, don’t have all the answers, and may need help from others.
  3. Modeling This brings inquiry into the conversation, which creates a necessity for voice.

Divergent or opposing ideas will organically exist within organizations, as every member brings his or her own knowledge and experiences that are inherently different from another member’s. The way these ideas are cultivated and expressed directly connects to their ultimate value. When the nature of the work relies on an open exchange of ideas, flow can very easily be disrupted if the most useful ideas are held back.

Taking Risks for the Sake of Conflict (Yes, Really)

But, doesn’t an open exchange of ideas sometimes lead to a clash of ideas? Yes, but at its best, conflict within an organization is an open dialogue, which makes it a tool to build and model psychological safety. Dialogue is necessary to bring the best solution forward and increase innovation. Provided there is mutual respect among participants, conflict can—and will—work.

Conflict becomes unproductive when it does not follow these rules, like mutual respect. Without psychological safety, conflict within an organization will not be productive because new and potentially valuable ideas will not be readily shared amongst the group.

Participation is not always contribution, and innovation seldom suffers because not everybody participates. Rather, it happens when those with revolutionary and substantial thoughts hold back because they feel they will be ridiculed or punished for challenging the status quo.

The significance of personal disclosure was touted by an interesting study on Google teams, which studied a high-performing team’s group dynamics. After disclosing personal details, it makes it easier for members to candidly share what bothers them in their work environments. The study, led by Julia Rezovsky, concluded “the behaviors that create psychological safety—conversational turn-taking and empathy—are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.”

Support and Confront

Personal disclosure reveals differences in opinion, which are inevitable in any organization. To ensure people keep disclosing and don’t shut down during discussions, it is the responsibility of every member to promote a safe sharing environment. The result is productive conversations. If those around you are depriving each other of useful information, you may be wasting your time.

One way of communicating through conflict and encouraging (rather than discouraging) an active dialogue is the idea of “supporting and confronting” by C. James Maselko. Maselko explores an approach to communication that requires a balance of both supporting an individual, and confronting them by disclosing your view when there is a disagreement. This easily relates to team building and provides an atrium to psychological safety.

“Conflict is a consequence of differences that exist and if they interfere with effectiveness they need to be managed,” says Maselko. “The most important interpersonal skill one can develop is the ability to support someone and confront them at the same moment in time.”

The point of focus differs for each of these: support is always about the other person in the disagreement, and confront is always for the person who is stepping in to show the differences between the two perspectives. Disagreements, in this context, need not be contentious. Differences are simply highlighted respectfully, building trust and a safe space.

You Have Witnessed a Lack of Psychological Safety

…or at least you’ve heard about it. Arguably the worst case scenario for an organization is to be exposed as unethical. The term psychological safety has recently been used in relation ethical scandal cases (i.e. Wells Fargo, Stratton Oakmont, or Volkswagen). I would argue, however, that in such cases there was no unified psychological safety and what existed may, in fact, be considered a violation of psychological safety.

If there is collusion within an organization, then the system is not providing comprehensive checks and balances. If there are ethical, well-intentioned individuals within a team, and one or two members are plotting an unscrupulous motive, psychological safety will ensure that those opposed will speak up when that motive is presented.

To be clear, loyalty to a group and psychological safety within a group are two separate issues. Psychological safety is more of a commitment to honest participation rather than loyalty and protection at all costs.  At Wells Fargo, for example, though individuals knew they were breaking ethical codes, employees were pressured to commit these violations. If a safe space for sharing was in the culture’s DNA, those with opposing ideas would feel completely comfortable voicing their opinions.

At best, without psychological safety there will be less innovation. At worst, organizations can be led astray from ethical behaviors because people don’t speak up. The point here is two-fold: first, without valuable and usable input from those around us, innovation suffers. Second, valuable input won’t exist if there is an absence of psychological safety within a group. Communication styles during conflicts serve as good opportunities for establishing the latter, which will give way to innovation. Edmondson’s tactics for achieving psychological safety and productive conversations all include communication, and utilizing a balance of supporting and confronting in a disagreement will unite, not divide, opposing parties.