Is Too Much Psychological Safety Bad for Business?

The motivation of the people you surround yourself with is the wellspring of creativity in your life


Sean Flaherty

3 years ago | 13 min read

The motivation of the people you surround yourself with is the wellspring of creativity in your life.

There is a complex relationship between motivation, psychological safety, the structure you impose, and the innovation that might result. It is not as simple as you might think.

The guru on the subject is the author Amy Edmonson, Ph.D. Amy coined the term ‘psychological safety’ and has spent the bulk of her career as a professor and researcher at Harvard University studying teams, teaming, and the dynamics of this phenomenon.

‘Psychological Safety’ is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. — Amy Edmonson

An epic, independent study done at Google confirmed her findings in a study called Project Aristotle. The evidence demonstrates that teams who can safely make more mistakes are more innovative and more successful. It might naturally follow that we should simply strive to maximize psychological safety in the workplace.

However, this doesn’t fit well into the patterns that exist in the real world. It doesn’t explain the healthy relationship that exists in successful organizations between chaos and order. We know, for example, that if someone lacks competence in an expected skill, is unable to obtain it over time, and contributes less value than they are being compensated for, it is only a matter of time before they produce so much drag on their team, they are squeezed out.

That doesn’t produce a feeling of safety for those without competence. Yet organizations that don’t grow, learn, and remain adaptable won’t survive for long.

History is replete with examples of organizations that achieve sustainable success through predictability. Starbucks certainly didn’t build their empire by pouring inconsistent cups of coffee. Companies achieve success by generating relationships with their customers that deliver sustainable profit by predictability producing great experiences.

This type of predictability only comes from the coordination of people and systemization of processes at scale. In the context of work, there is a describable relationship between the psychological safety that people feel and the amount of structure imposed on the work they do. Every organization is different, and the things that need to be predictable differ by organization and industry.

This balance is crucial for leaders to understand. It is useful to demonstrate the relationship between psychological safety and structure in the context of work to explain this phenomenon using psychological safety as defined by Amy Edmonson above. If we were to draw a graph, it would look like a parabolic curve that diverges as follows:

Safety Vs. Work Structure | Art, Low Safety Environments and Innovation

There is a lower bound associated with psychological safety in every environment, represented by the red line in the diagram above. Below this line, very little creativity will result. When people are made to feel like automatons, fear for their jobs, feel as though their opinions are worthless. In this environment, they will not take any interpersonal risks and will come to work with their heads down, rarely smile, keep their mouths shut, and leave with their heads in the same depressing position they entered with.

“You can buy a person’s hand, but you can’t buy his heart. His heart is where his enthusiasm, his loyalty is. You can buy his back, but you can’t buy his brain. That’s where his creativity is, his ingenuity, his resourcefulness.” — Stephen R. Covey from the 7 Habits

On the diagram above, the bold white lines forming the inside of the parabolic curve in the upper-center (inside the “u”) represent worthwhile goals and established guardrails within which the organization operates. These lines represent all of the “structure” that leadership imposes on the work to achieve the organization's worthwhile goals.

In an ideal world, they represent clear relationship goals, sustainability (profitability) goals and include values, principles, processes, regulations, and standards that must be adhered to. If we had a consistent, mathematical way to measure both psychological safety and structure, this parabolic pattern represents what we would see .

There is also an upper bound of high psychological safety represented by the blue line in the diagram in a business environment. Above this theoretical line, a business might not be economically viable. If there is too much safety with too big a gap in structure, even if aligned with a worthwhile goal, it may result in highly creative products or services that border on performance art. However, it is challenging to run a profitable enterprise under this scenario. Don’t get me wrong; I believe, deeply, that business is a form of long-term, collaborative high art.

We spend a third of our adult lives working to produce things and services that make the world a better place for others. Our organizations put out artifacts and undertake a form of performance art every time people work together to accomplish something innovative. The strategic goals of every business are to earn trust, loyalty, and advocacy from both the firm's employees and its customers.

Shouldn’t we strive to create beautiful things together and produce relationships with the people we are building them for? With the right worthwhile and meaningful goals, business becomes a form of high art. However, business is different than pure art, as it will cease to exist if it can’t also conduct its business sustainably.

Ask any starving artist how hard it is to make a living on art, and you will understand what is represented by that upper section of the chart. Hobby businesses, volunteer sports organizations, musical groups, and artistic endeavors may operate up here. In this area of the chart, interpersonal risks are valued and celebrated above all else. People in this environment may feel immensely “safe.”

Safety Vs. Structure | Research & Development, Art and Airline Pilots

Large businesses may have departments or subgroups or divisions that live in the far upper left-hand part of this range called Research and Development Organizations. I also think of organizations like Pixar or the entire video game industry as thriving in this region. In academic institutions, this might be referred to as tenure.

In some industries, where human safety is paramount, like the airline or medical industries, it may provide solace to have a lot of structure in place so that your creative energy and mastery of your craft can be deployed in the event of a disaster.

Jeffrey Skiles, the co-pilot of the miracle on the Hudson, describes his checklists as the accumulated knowledge of all the mistakes that have been made before him. In the split seconds that he and his pilot needed their own creativity the most, it was available to them. Atul Gawande, in The Checklist Manifesto, shows powerful examples of this phenomenon across several industries.

Herein lie two clear dilemmas for leaders to consider, demonstrated by the divergence of the white lines inside the green “U” as you rise in safety:

  1. Our natural desire for predictability is often executed through a rigid process to impose order. If not done carefully, these leadership behaviors have the potential to reduce personal risk-taking and eliminate creativity. I have labeled this area on the chart, below the divergence and approaching high structure and high safety, “The Prison of Predictability.” When the people you serve, as a leader, are operating in this space, you will observe them experiencing apathy and resistance.
  2. If we want to maximize intrinsic motivation, we might remove too much structure by reducing or minimizing the guardrails, regulations, and controls. However, if we go too far, a leader will wind up in the area of the chart labeled “Chaos.” This is the area below the divergence and approaching low structure and high safety. When the people you serve, as their leader, are operating in this area, you will observe them experiencing stress.

A business must stay in the vertically centered region to remain economically viable. The key is to strike the horizontal balance of structure through meaningful goals and well-understood guardrails that allows an organization to maximize innovation. People thrive when there is the right amount of structure that includes appropriate and memorable context. It gives them confidence. In my experience, people crave inspiring leadership that provides thorough context for their guardrails, processes, regulations, and other structure.

This is what happens when leaders foster an inspiring culture. When they can learn from memorable anecdotes and stories about past mistakes made by previous colleagues it improves psychological safety while reducing cognitive load.

However, When you implement structure without memorable context, you run the risk that people will feel as though they are executing a process for the sake of the process. Worse, they may feel powerless and controlled by the forces from ‘above’. Poorly constructed guardrails can push your team under the curve and serve to suppress creativity.

Psychological Safety Vs. Work Structure | Symptoms of Stress & Apathy Vs. Creativity

I have learned to frame past mistakes by publishing a set of “best practices” with memorable examples instead of as a “process” or a “regulation.”

Doing so leads to more predictability, as people will not spend as much energy trying to understand why they are adhering to the practice or looking for ways to undermine the feeling that they are being controlled. More importantly, they will remain open to their own creativity looking for ways to exercise their creativity in a positive way to improve the practice at every step. This simple shift in language, utilizing the term “practice,” reinforces that there is always a better way, we just haven’t found it yet.

In the upper center part of the diagram lies this primary locus and source of creativity and innovation. It is shaded in green, and it expands with both an increase in psychological safety and the divergence of guardrails, resulting in the right amount of structure.

When your people have an open awareness around meaningful goals and purpose, enough structure so that they are relying upon sound and understood best practices, and have a high degree of psychological safety, you can enhance their sense of autonomy in the context of their knowledge to unlock their creativity and derive innovations.

Autonomy is described by The Self Determination Theory (Ed Deci and Richard Ryan) as one of the three necessary human needs required to achieve high-quality, intrinsic motivation for people. “Competence” and “Relatedness” are the other two (diagram below.) When high-quality, intrinsic motivation is present, all three of these needs are being met. Autonomy refers to:

“being the perceived origin or source of one’s own behavior.” — Ed Deci, Ph.D. & Richard Ryan, Ph.D.

When people perceive that low-quality motivators such as fear, manipulation, and control are being used to induce their behavior, psychological safety is reduced and intrinsic motivation is suppressed. Recall a time in your own life when you were clearly being manipulated, or when you felt humiliated by someone with more power or control than you. How creative were you in those scenarios? In my experience, when people are placed in humiliating or controlled scenarios, I see them exercising their creative energy on either undermining the leader who is in control or exhibiting extreme apathy in completing their tasks.

Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness (Self Determination Theory)

As leaders, it behooves us to understand autonomy’s role in motivation if we want to maximize the creativity of the people we lead and serve. Motivation is the source of all human creativity, and creativity is our only unlimited resource.

The creativity of the people we surround ourselves with is our only unlimited resource in life. Every other thing we claim as a resource is finite.

Understanding autonomy is only one-third of the formula, as shown above. However, it is a vital third, as it can serve to shut down an individual’s desire for growth and mastery. The lack of autonomy can also undermine ‘relatedness’ and association with a firm’s purpose, no matter how meaningful it might be.

Perception plays a powerful role in this discussion. There are many things out of the worker's control and unchangeable in most business environments in the short-term. That’s OK. What is problematic is the employee's feeling of helplessness or lack of control in their activities. When people feel a lack of psychological safety, the fear they have reduces their sense of autonomy. As a leader, you can go out of your way to ensure that those you serve understand the things in their control and work to encourage them to operate with maximum creativity within those domains.

As a young adult in the Navy, working in the line shack on F-14 Tomcats, I had an array of different leaders to study. The worst of whom was an overbearing micro-manager who would focus deeply on any detail that was wrong and would exercise his positional power using fear and humiliation. Everyone in the shop would avoid him wherever possible and demonstrated apathy in their work. “I did exactly as I was told” became a mantra. The creative energy and vitality on that team were non-existent.

In contrast, one of the best bosses I ever had was as a teenager, flipping burgers and salting french fries at McDonald’s. While we had no control over how to push the button, put the fries in frier, pull them out immediately when the timer went off and how to precisely add ‘seasoning,’ she helped us to make sure our creative talents went to good use. Her energy focused on helping us understand the aspects of our job that we did have creative control over. Not only did she tell us where we might focus our energy, but she also backed it up through example. She would make us laugh and make sure we were all enjoying our interactions with each other.

She would engage customers with vitality and joy and ask us what was going on in our lives when we were not. I have the fondest memories of my time in that job, and while I had little control over the production of the food, I worked with creativity and vigor with the people on my team and with our customers.

Psychological Safety Vs. Work Structure | Help People Focus Creative Energy on What They Can Control

Helping the people you serve find places to invest their creative energy is a leadership imperative.

When people have the opportunity to express their creativity in their work, the impact on the culture can be profound. When you combine highly motivated people with a worthwhile vision for your work together, you will get better results and you will find it impacting your tangible metrics like attrition rates, work quality, and throughput.

The Innovation Imperative | More Psychological Safety, the Right Goals, and Expanded Guardrails

We want our businesses to maximize the innovations that come out of our highly motivated research and development teams. We also want the surgeon or pilot like precision that comes from a motivated understanding of the broader learnings from the past.

This comes from creating outward and upward pressure on this chart. In other words, we want to maximize the psychological safety that we produce, and we want to change the shape of the parabola in a way that expands the area in the green “U” while pushing the guardrails outward through clarity and understanding of the organization’s past learnings. If our guardrails are too rigid, we lose the opportunity to capture more creative energy from our people and we miss out on potential innovations both big and small.

Here is a shortlist of leadership imperatives to help you get started changing the shape of the parabola:

  1. Create a shared understanding of where you are today on the chart and what direction you should be striving towards.
  2. Make sure your goals are meaningful and inspiring.
  3. Make sure you talk about your goals daily, and your team has an open awareness about what is important to the organization.
  4. Make sure your culture includes guardrails that are meaningful, memorable, and understood.
  5. Celebrate learning and purposefully raise the bar on psychological safety.
  6. Do the work required to establish competence so that you can loosen the guardrails.
  7. Help your people understand what is in their control and help them find a place to focus their creative energy.

In summary, understanding psychological safety and its role in intrinsic motivation has been an incredible gift to the business community. Combining this understanding with a framework that describes how structure and order are related to psychological safety in the context of work will improve your leadership.

To answer the question posed in the title, specifically: No. I don’t think too much psychological safety is bad for business. On the contrary, a goal should absolutely be to maximize the amount of psychological safety that your people feel within very well defined guardrails and values. It is much easier to just tell people what to do and establish a rigid process than it is to communicate the goals and guardrails thoroughly. It’s a dilemma, but it is some of the most important work a leader can do if the intent is to maximize creativity.

This framework will give you a way to purposefully represent where your organization or teams should strive to be. I hope it will help you better tap into the unlimited creativity of the people you serve and lead.


Created by

Sean Flaherty







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