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.

9 Ways to save you from being the Red Flag teammate

In the video linked below, Peter Bregman (CEO of a global management consulting firm which advises CEOs and their leadership teams) shares a story about consulting with a company whose staff put a red flag outside the CEO’s office to warn people against going in to his office. He says everyone knew the CEO was difficult, but the CEO didn’t know his reputation was so damaged until Bregman explained the red flag hanging outside his office.

click to open the video on a separate page

click to open the video on a separate page

Why is it bad to be the red flag person?

1.      You might not get to use the full power of your brain or experience if people don’t want you on their teams.

2.      Red flag people cause others to waste time and energy trying to accommodate them or fix their issues.

3.      It can be lonely when no one wants to be around you.

4.      Being a downer might go against your personal mission or goals.

5.      You might get stuck in a spot along your career journey where you don’t want to stay.

6.      It is exhausting to be so negative.

As Bregman says, “When we are not aware of the feelings, they take us with them.” We have feelings all day long without thinking about them, and when we don’t pay attention to them, the feelings can cause us to become a negative force in the office. They can cause us to become the Red Flag people.

While I do not want anyone reading this to be a Red Flag person, I also do not want you to repress your feelings. Some “gurus” tell us not to take things personally or to leave our feelings at the door as we arrive at work. But, I don’t think that helps either.

I’ve written and spoken extensively about being all-in. Living and leading all-in means you bring your brain, heart, hands, eyes, and everything about yourself to your life. That includes work. So, contrary to some popular “gurus,” I do think we should take things personally. Work is personal, and companies do better when people have strong feelings about it. However, we can control how we behave in response to our feelings so we don’t become the Red Flag people.

Bregman’s main advice in the video is to recognize how you’re feeling. Here are nine additional tips to help you avoid becoming the Red Flag person on your team:

1.      Slow down, breath, pause and get used to your feelings. Understanding your feelings can help you deliberately adapt your behavior. Don’t repress your feelings; identify them.

2.      Decide how you need to act to maintain your professional relationships and reputation. You don’t have to address the feelings right away, but you do have to choose your behavior. Unlike a three-year old whose tantrums are cute to onlookers, we can control our behavior.

3.      Refrain from over-sharing feelings, especially regarding personal matters that will be highly scrutinized and may be repeatedly discussed.

4.      Use support resources like your workplace friends, your manager, your company’s internal coach, or other external support.

5.      Honor personal boundaries—your own and others’. Certain topics are not ideal for the workplace and could make colleagues uncomfortable, so be aware of others’ personal boundaries.

6.      If you can’t focus, take time off. The best professionals know when they need to take themselves out of the game to recuperate.

7.      Respect your colleagues’ time. Your best friends at work have their own work to complete each day, and they have their own personal issues to manage.

8.      Respect your job, team, and employer by doing great work. If you’ve decided you can show up for work, then be a stellar teammate while you are there.

9.      Once the situation improves, thank the people who supported you through it.

These tips can help you understand and respond to your feelings without repressing them or letting them steer you toward becoming the Red Flag teammate.

3 ways leaders are like pizza

In a meeting this morning, a colleague spoke about the importance of rest. Mimi Gatschet (Founder of Art in Connection) talked about the importance of taking a break, and she equated it with pizza dough.

My dear Italian friend spoke about making homemade pizza dough and the way the ingredients work. Mimi described the way dough has to be worked so the ingredients come together, then the dough needs to rest overnight. After the rest, the dough is malleable and ready to become a tasty pizza.

What a terrific analogy!

Yes, we need to take breaks and turn our brains off so they can rejuvenate. The rest also enable us to tap into our strengths better, just like the ingredients of the dough do.  But, the dough is not the pizza. It is the foundation of the pizza. It needs more to become a pizza, just like we do.

Here are the 3 ways leaders need to be like pizza:

#1: Start with a solid foundation. 
In pizza, it’s the dough. In life, it’s the values, perspective, EQ, and personal make-up. Like Mimi said, we need to mix the ingredients in a way that enables them to work together and become the foundation of greatness.

#2: Enable collaboration. 
Collaboration is key because it takes more than dough to make a pizza. Similarly, it takes more than one leader to make a workplace thrive. Add the right ingredients. “Right” is key because what’s right for one is not for another. Just ask my husband. He likes spicy meat on pizza, while I like a variety of veggies and sometimes even pineapple. We always order half-and-half, and neither of us minds. Could workplace compromises become as simple? Obviously, many workplace challenges are not as simple as pizza. In those cases, select what is right for the Mission, and remember, there can be more than one right choice.

After selecting the right toppings, let them do their work. On pizza, we let the cheese melt all over the top so we can enjoy the wonderful flavor combination. At work, foster collaboration and empowerment. It takes more than dough to make a pizza, so be selective about the ingredients then enable let them be their best.

#3: Expect some heat before greatness. 
Once a pizza has been made, it’s still not ready to be devoured. It needs to bake. Baking brings out the best in the whole combination, just like the heat, or pressure, of deadlines and client demands brings out the best in most teams. Don’t be thrown off by some heat. No team holds hands singing Kumbaya throughout the entire project. But, don’t worry, a little heat can help a team rise and become its best.


Lead like a pizza: start with a solid foundation, collaborate with the best, and thrive after challenges. One last word of caution: In accordance with the pic from a friend, leaders don’t try to please everyone…you are not a pizza.

Lead like a pizza and you'll be All-In!

Can you think of additional similarities between leadership and pizza? Add to the list below.