Psychological Safety—The Key to Innovation

Updated: Sep 23

Business moves fast. Organizations must work as fast or faster than their competitors in order to stay competitive in any given industry. This means that every team within an organization must be nimble and responsive—with little room for poor performance. Mike Gillespie, founder and CEO of BlueEQ believes psychological safety is the key to high performance and innovation. What is psychological safety? According to Gillespie, it is “a shared belief that it’s safe to discuss ideas, experiment, take risks, give feedback, and learn from mistakes. It’s safe to be vulnerable within the team. It’s a culture of high trust.” But Gillespie isn’t the only one finding value in psychological safety. Project Aristotle, a Google commissioned study, looked at more than 180 teams over a 2-year time frame and found that “the number one predictor of a high performing team is the level of psychological safety on that team.”


Emotional Intelligence


Gillespie offers his “textbook definition” of emotional intelligence (EQ) as “the ability to understand your own emotions, and the emotions of others, and use that knowledge to guide your thoughts and behaviors—especially as a leader.” While many organizations know the value of EQ, they often struggle to quantify it. To solve this problem, BlueEQ developed a system that scores organizations on five EQ skills, each consisting of five dimensions—for a total of 25 EQ dimensions. By quantifying each dimension, BlueEQ effectively measures and assesses the emotional intelligence of leaders within their clients’ organizations and cumulates the data to generate organization-wide, as well as world-wide, assessments of psychological safety. BlueEQ can then advise clients on specific ways for their organizations to improve.

Gillespie particularly emphasizes the fact that BlueEQ is designed to assess leaders. He says, “when you talk about leadership, we approach it from a behavioral perspective.” He further explains, “everything that we measure can be changed, they’re not fixed traits like personality; personality tells us who we are…With emotional intelligence—as leaders—we’re looking at who we can become.”


While improving EQ is important for individuals at all levels of an organization, BlueEQ’s focus on leaders is a logical emphasis, as leaders largely establish the environment within their teams and their overall organizations. Following the BlueEQ core logic, if a firm’s leaders have high EQ, the organization will have higher psychological safety and, consequently, higher business performance and innovation. When leaders develop high EQ, their next focus is to establish psychological safety in their organization.


Keeping in mind that, “every person in every organization creates a psychological zone,” BlueEQ helps organizations address the follow-up question, “what kind of zone do you create?” By evaluating and classifying the organizations’ work environments on a psychological safety continuum, a company may be considered very unsafe, unsafe, neutral, safe, or very safe. The two extremes, very unsafe and very safe, are associated with red and blue zones respectively.


Red Zone


The color red is commonly associated with danger, and that holds true for businesses operating in a red zone of psychological safety. Red zones are characterized by a lack of transparency and trust. Individuals working in these environments offer little more than what is required of them as they operate in a mode of self-preservation, risk management, and pain avoidance. While healthy portions of these behaviors may be beneficial, leaders in red zones allow such tendencies—in themselves and their subordinates—to overshadow behaviors that better promote high performance—such as openness, trust, and creativity.


Leaders in red zones often act as micromanagers, controlling every decision and leaving no room for ingenuity on the part of those under them. Such micromanagement signals that leaders don’t trust their subordinates. Typically, this incites employees to reciprocate this distrust to their superiors. Coupling micromanagement with limited transparency, individuals in red zones are forced to work in a fear-based manner—focusing on keeping their jobs by satisfying superiors rather than being driven to excel in their roles. This approach can be successful in the short-term, but neither the individuals nor the organization are likely to experience long-term success. Leaders that create red zones hinder the performance of every individual under them and their organization as a whole. As Gillespie says, “if you can’t make mistakes, you don’t innovate.” And if you don’t innovate, you won’t be able to keep up with or out-perform competitors. Red zone organizations will falter in a fast-paced business environment.


Blue Zone


On the other end of the continuum, blue zones of psychological safety foster the creativity and innovation necessary for organizations to thrive in competitive environments. Creativity and innovation inspire employees to give more than the minimal effort necessitated by their positions. Blue zones draw such discretionary effort from individuals by establishing a standard of openness, transparency, and trust. These environments also pull employees into peak engagement and motivate them to willingly put forth career best contributions.  According to Gillespie, “once [people] find a blue zone, they never want to leave.” This leads to high retention rates for organizations with blue zone work environments.


Gillespie says, “In a team of high psychological safety, everybody feels safe to contribute, they feel safe to take a risk, to be vulnerable, to make mistakes—mistakes are encouraged so they can quickly learn from those mistakes.” This type of atmosphere allows employees to focus on exceling in their positions, rather than worrying about keeping their job. Supervisors work closely with those under them to not only meet expectations, but also to provide resources, assistance, and a safe environment. “It’s an area of high engagement, high innovation, high trust, and inclusions,” says Gillespie. And this pays off; “the organizations that will win as we move forward are the organizations that can be as blue as they possibly can be.”


In Gillespie’s blue zones of psychological safety, the BlueEQ team identifies four dynamic safety quadrants: learner, challenger, collaborator, and inclusion.


Learner Safety


Blue zones provide learner safety. Learner safety is an environment where it is safe to ask questions, make discoveries, experiment with ideas, learn from mistakes, and look for new opportunities. Creating this environment allows employees to feel comfortable taking chances. “Learner safety is where innovation happens.”


Challenger Safety


Blue zones provide challenger safety. With challenger safety, it is safe for employees to challenge the status quo, speak up, express ideas, identify creative solutions, and expose problems. Challenging common thought can be intimidating, but it is often necessary for organizations to progress and innovate. Organizations where employees feel safe to do so will experience faster growth than their counterparts who don’t provide challenger safety.


Collaborator Safety


Blue zones provide collaborator safety. In an environment of collaborator safety, employees have the ability and opportunity to engage in unconstrained ways, interact with colleagues, have mutual access, maintain open dialogues, and foster constructive debate. Collaborator safety fosters mutual transparency and trust between management, supervisors, and subordinates. Employees who feel collaborator safety will strive to excel in their duties without the fear of failure and possible termination.


Inclusion Safety


Blue zones provide inclusion safety. With inclusion safety, employees feel that they, their ideas, and their experiences are valued—because they are. All people are treated fairly. In an environment of inclusion safety, everyone is included regardless of their title or position and employees feel safe to openly contribute.


Conclusion


As industries change and progress, the organizations that offer employees psychological safety will lead the competition. By establishing each safety quadrant—learner, challenger, collaborator, and inclusion—organizations will innovate and thrive. Gillespie observed, “leaders that can lead with psychological safety… [create] a competitive advantage in the marketplace.” The talent of an organization lies in its people. Leaders that lead with psychological safety can attract, develop, and keep talented individuals in their ranks. “We’re all looking for the best and brightest talent and when people find a blue zone leader in a blue zone organization, they tend to stay.” Organizations that create and maintain the four blue zones of psychological safety can unleash the potential of their employees and be the innovators in their industry.


For more insights on psychological safety and its relationship to emotional intelligence and business outcomes, view Mike Gillespie’s Global Perspectives Summit 2020 presentation here.

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