Psychological safety in teams – and why it matters for creativity. If creative leaders don’t support their teams when they offer up their fragile ideas, the battle for innovation is lost before it has begun.
In school, you learn pretty quickly that what ‘the group’ doesn’t like will leave you feeling embarrassed and awkward. As a result of this rapid (and often brutal) playground feedback, some of us develop thick skins. Others learn to adapt and give their peers what they want. Many people also learn to avoid speaking up in case it leads to feelings of inadequacy or humiliation.
I ran a facilitator training workshop recently and was reminded that even the person running the session can also feel judged whilst being ‘up front.’ And who amongst us hasn’t at one point or another been convinced that we’ve come up with a blinder of an idea, only to see it crushed or ridiculed by others?
We know that extraverts – who get their energy from engaging with others and often have a social creative process – have less of a struggle voicing their thoughts in meetings and brainstorms. Introverts may prefer to cogitate and reflect before they contribute, and if you add anxiety into the mix, may not feel comfortable at all in group ideation scenarios.
Here’s what artist Grayson Perry says about the fragile nature of our initial thoughts:
“…ideas are like little furry creatures coming out of the undergrowth…and you’ve got to be nice to the first one…be non-judgmental about it…and then suddenly that ridiculous idea that you’re having, that’s like your next ten years of really serious money-making work.”
Creative leaders nurture the team
One of the roles of a leader is to nurture a team; to make people feel supported throughout the whole creative process. From the moment when their ‘little furry creatures’ are nascent and may just go on to form the backbone of a successful new product, service or campaign. And as I learned at speed when I changed roles from management to creative leadership in my agency-life there’s a big difference between ‘being’ creative and ‘leading for creativity’.
The whole process of generating and nurturing ideas risks collapsing if the team doesn’t have what’s known as ‘psychological safety’ – the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Without this none of the behaviours that support creativity and innovation are possible things like risk-taking, speaking up, debate and disagreement. Creative leaders set the tone for innovation.
Psychological safety – the Google verdict
Being asked to come up with ideas in an unsupported environment can be psychologically damaging according to research from Google. Back in 2012, they set out to work out how teams’ function, their goal being to define how best to form a ‘perfect’ team. Their findings highlighted how important psychological safety within the group was – in fact it was singled out as the most important driver of team performance. Trust is of course a major contributor to high-performing teams – for creative leaders or otherwise.
It’s something that can be evaluated – Amy Edmondson of Harvard University came up with a simple way to assess the psychological safety of teams. Why not give it a go now (see below) and see how you score?
Take the ‘do you feel psychologically safe?’ quiz
Rate each question either ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘neither agree/disagree’, ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’. There’s no mark as such; you’ll quickly see the lay of the land.
1/ If you make a mistake in this team, is it often held against you?
2/ People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
3/ It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
4/ Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
5/ It is safe to take a risk in this team.
6/ No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermined my efforts.
7/ Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.
Small steps to make big changes
How did you do? If there’s cause for concern, Bernard Coleman III, head of Inclusive Engagement at Uber, suggests (in Forbes) six simple ways that creative leaders can establish a psychologically safe working environment:
1/ Let the team know that mistakes are part of growth.
2/ Make it a conversation (by which he means a two-way dialogue).
3/ Be vulnerable (leaders should admit their own mistakes).
4/ Establish accountability (once clear goals have been set, he says, individual team members can own what they’ve been tasked with).
5/ Make yourself available to the team.
6/ Compose yourself (ie, set a good example by being enthusiastic, rational and calm).
Leadership expert, entrepreneur and 3 time CEO Elise Mitchellhas a client who celebrates his team’s ‘best try’, not just the win. She believes it sets the tone for experimentation. It’s one thing to tell people it’s OK to fail and another to praise them for their effort even if something doesn’t quite work out. Praising the effort, publicly or privately, encourages resiliency in others when things get bumpy.
This article first appeared on CreativeMoment.com (written by Claire Bridges). You may also like this blog on whether the hierarchy of your business is killing creativity.