The one thing leaders must do to fuel innovation

A few months ago, Boston Consulting Group’s annual report of the world’s most innovative companies put Alphabet/Google in the top spot for 2019. Alphabet took over #1 from Apple for the first time in the thirteen years of the report. Obviously both companies are innovative, and we can learn from them.

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Google shared the results of a two-year internal study on their teams so we can all learn about high-performance. After looking at more than 180 of their teams, one common trait stood out above all others: psychological safety.

It turns out, psychological safety matters more than the talent composition of the team. No matter how nice or talented teammates are, people will resist looking uninformed or ill-prepared with coworkers. Most also have an aversion to risk-taking when they fear their manager will dismiss their ideas.

They have reason to fear being overlooked. Just three in ten U.S. workers strongly agree that their opinions count at work, according to Gallup. Gallup’s research also says that by doubling that ratio to six in ten, organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity. All factors that affect innovation.

Organization leaders need to move that ratio, but it will not move without psychological safety.

Harvard Business Review defines psychological safety as the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Employees who are afraid of being punished, mocked, or ostracized for their idea or question will not speak up. They will not risk getting their head chopped off if they stick their neck out.

Would you?

Even the most clever big thinkers will stick their necks out only a few times before giving up.

Why bother being innovative, they will think, if it’s going to take fifty miles of red tape to get approval for a minor investment? Why bother bringing up an idea if someone else is going to get to work on it because they aren’t as busy? Why bother bringing up ideas if the execs are just going to shut down everything I offer? Why bother pointing out an issue when the last guy who did that got axed?

Leaders have to encourage innovation through psychological safety first. Here are five ways you can foster psychological safety:

  1.  Lead by example. Model behavior you desire to stimulate. Take risks yourself and adapt when they don’t work out, just as you want your colleagues to do. Be the safety net for your employees when they speak up or try something new, rather than someone they fear will demean them.

  2. Say “yes” first. Welcome new ways of thinking and encourage your direct reports to behave the same way. Challenge your team to say “yes” before “no.” Let encouragement be the first reaction and save rejection for after an idea is thought through. Literally, you might say, “Tell me more about that idea,” instead of, “That won’t work here.” Quick rejection stifles innovation.

  3. Learn fast. Encourage your employees to experiment with different solutions, learn what works or doesn’t, and share the results so others learn too. Celebrate the knowledge gained and build on it, rather than criticize or reprimand every time something doesn’t work.  

  4. Encourage feedback loops. Use internal and external feedback to create a better work environment, product, or service standard. When integrated into projects, and not a surprise, feedback loops are an important part of psychological safety because they help people understand what they are doing well and what can be improved. The loops can help you develop trust throughout the workplace. 

  5. Encourage curiosity. Inspire your team by encouraging exploration. When a solution to a problem is not readily available, encourage your team to seek solutions. Don’t tell people how to solve every problem but let them find their own way. People will learn even more through exploring their own ideas.

When you need to fuel innovation to give your company a competitive advantage, help retain highly skilled people, or solidify a leadership place in your market, start with psychological safety. Stop the psychological danger zone.