Does Psychological Safety Inspire or Impede Innovation?

Short answer: Likely both. For breakthrough results create an environment where employees are comfortable sharing ideas but also engage in passionate debate. Then keep raising the bar.

An anonymous comment in my survey results for last week’s essay asked for more discussion around my statement: 

“I don’t think psychological safety leads to breakthroughs. You need a demanding environment with clear standards and a willingness to raise the bar to accomplish world-class results.” - Gibson Biddle.

The commenter continued,

"I am curious whether you mean there needs to be BOTH or if it’s ok only to have the latter. IMHO, that’s the definition of a toxic workplace where one cannot say anything without being attacked and torn down, even if innovations are one outcome. I hope that is not what you were encouraging! If your perspective is different, I'm very interested in understanding more."

Another reader said the opposite:

“My last few years have been challenging - dealing with a company that values feelings to the degree that inhibits (read blocks) having a demanding environment and results-based culture. You did a great job articulating the balance, but I imagine there may be some negative responses. So sending you at least one big THANK YOU.”

Thank you both for your feedback. I'm certainly not advocating a toxic work environment, but the answer is not quite both psychological safety and a willingness to raise the bar. It's more nuanced than this.

The Importance of Company Culture

Company culture provides a guide to navigating the occasional challenge of working with colleagues. I’ll use Netflix as an example to show how the company encourages employees to develop psychological safety and a high-performance culture.

The Netflix culture document encourages employees to be "extraordinarily candid with each other." They also advocate a "dream team" where folks are let go if they’re not a star. But one of Netflix’s cultural values, "communication," helps avoid creating a toxic environment. Here’s the description of this value:

Communication:

  • You are concise and articulate in speech and writing.

  • You listen well and seek to understand before reacting.

  • You maintain calm poise in stressful situations to draw out the clearest thinking.

  • You adapt your communication style to work well with people from around the world who may not share your native language.

  • You provide candid, helpful, timely feedback to colleagues.

Several other Netflix values (Inclusion, Courage) provide additional guardrails to ensure good behavior. (Read the entire culture document here.)

Amazon's "Leadership Principles" gets at some of these issues, too. Two of their values focus on high-performance culture: "Hire and develop the best" and "Insist on the highest standards.” But values like “Learn and Be Curious” and “Earn Trust” define a softer side of their culture. Here’s how Amazon describes their Trust value:

Earn Trust

Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Like Netflix, Amazon’s values outline the desired skills and behaviors in a nuanced way. (You can read the entire Amazon culture document here.)

Too much focus on psychological safety can lead to folks being uncomfortable with open, passionate debate, which is necessary to create breakthrough ideas. Raising the bar -- ensuring higher and higher standards -- is required, too. Sometimes this means letting employees go as their skills fail to develop at the same rate as the company or the organization moves into new categories where new skills are needed.

Netflix evolved from a DVD-by-mail startup to an original content powerhouse. The talent required for these two phases is very different. Letting people go during this transition degraded psychological safety— people whispered about a “sniper in the building”—but it's also motivating to work in an environment filled with highly talented individuals.

Organizational v. Individual Responsibility

Jia Liu, a designer at LinkedIn who’s clearly passionate about this topic, shared these observations with me:

1. Organizational cultures, like human cultures, exist on a spectrum. There are some lines we can draw on moral grounds (e.g. abuse, harassment, violence), but others are very subject to personal preference (e.g. intensity vs. balance, competition vs. cooperation, etc). Some certainly tend to produce certain outcomes more consistently than others.

2. Organizations can and should do more to stomp out the former. On the latter, they should be more transparent/clear, so potential employees can make informed choices about what they're signing up for.

3. We often frame this conversation in terms of how an organization can do better. How can it better create an environment for trust, open and honest discussion, risk-taking without retribution? This makes sense since leadership has an outsized impact on the culture of an organization.

4. But, there should be more focus on helping employees to do better. How can we help employees develop the mindsets/skills for grit/resilience, debating ideas, advocating for yourself, and leading/influence? It's not to shift the onus of fixing toxic cultures onto employees, but to empower them with agency and transferable skills they can take anywhere.

Jia is clear about a toxic environment's moral and legal boundaries. He also acknowledges the importance of describing a company’s culture in a clear, candid way so candidates can make informed decisions. In an environment where we all want more ownership, I like how Jia places the onus on candidates to evaluate which companies represent the best fit for them. He also expects employees to develop the skills that help them be more comfortable debating ideas, self-advocating, and developing the courage required to lead.

Conclusions

Debates like these -- psychological safety v. high standards -- inspire the best thinking in companies and force them to articulate the values, skills, and behaviors required to succeed. Company values also help candidates choose the best-fit work environment and navigate complex relationships at work. What’s the line in the sand between engaging in passionate debate and bullying? How can you create a psychologically safe environment where everyone knows they may someday lose their job? These are hard questions that well-articulated company values help to answer.

Many thanks for the comments—I learned a lot from them.

If you haven’t read it yet, read the essay that sparked this essay, “Translating Product Strategies into OKRs.”

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Thanks,

Gib

Gibson Biddle

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