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Weekly Blog #63 - When feeling safe is not enough...*

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about psychological safety as an important factor in the modern workplace to voice your ideas and engage in creative workplace behavior. Psychological safety is commonly defined as feeling safe to take interpersonal risks at work - such as speaking up or experimenting with new and creative ideas - without being in fear of negative repercussions. Studies around this topic have shown that psychological safety generally enforces creativity, learning and voice behavior as well as feeling the ability to be oneself at the workplace, showing work engagement and developing job satisfaction.

However, during my recent literature review I came across study findings clearly stating that - under specific circumstances - psychological safety does not directly promote any of these positive workplace behaviors. These findings specifically stressed two types of workplace behavior that require more than just psychological safety: learning and creativity.

Psychological safety, learning and creativity...

My consulting years have shown me the importance of developing learning abilities within an organization to create new ideas, products, services and being able to react to external factors that disrupt our daily business (as we all are probably experiencing right now). I also realized that within the field of organizational psychology there is a common understanding that psychological safety enforces individual and organizational learning. Direct links have been established between these two constructs going back as far as studies from Amy Edmondson in 1999.

However, studies regarding the boundary conditions of the impact of psychological safety on learning are rare. What are these boundary conditions? Well, there can be external factors such as the type of work someone has to do. Is it more or less complex? Does it require to learn new skills or not? Also, the resources someone has access to play a big role in being able to fulfill a task. There are internal resources (competences, skills, mental stability and other personality factors) and external resources (time, money, social support, etc.). But there are two boundary factors I want to focus on for now: the willingness and the possibility to learn. I get it, at this point in time for many of us the "confirmation bias" kicks in and some might say "well, that's nothing new or insightful...". Still, let me try to explain the important role of these two factors regarding the impact of psychological safety on team learning and performance and why they are so commonly overlooked.

Firstly, according to recent analysis of the literature, psychological safety is more strongly associated with learning and performance in studies conducted in task settings that more strongly motivate learning. Besides motivating employees to engage in their work and create new ideas, things like interdependency between workplaces, task depth and complexity are important factors that mediate between psychological safety, learning behavior and creativity. This makes it clear that teams are not teams in any setting. A manufacturing team is different from a health care team. Work settings that require creative solutions will more likely foster learning in teams than those who don't.

Secondly, if there is zero engagement towards learning, the individual's and team's perception of psychological safety will not be of significant importance regarding work outcomes. I realized this when I compared the impact of psychological safety in different workplace settings. Studies in banks and hotels for example have shown a much weaker relationship between psychological safety and creative work behavior. Sure, one may say: Why would there be any form of creative work engagement if the task is to file paperwork all day long? However, this doesn't mean that there can't be certain triggers that enforce creative work engagement, no matter the environment. Some of these triggers can be found in leadership behavior.

Leadership responsibility...

In an ever changing work environment I would make a bold statement and say that there is no job and no workplace that doesn't require individuals and teams to constantly re-design and improve the way they approach their tasks. Technological advancement is here to stay and it will impact technology-heavy work environments as much as more traditional "standard-operating-procedure-heavy" workplaces such as post offices, banks, hotels and others. People in leadership positions that are responsible for employees which - from a traditional perspective - probably don't feel the need to change and engage in innovative workplace behavior should take this into consideration. You can call yourself lucky if you have people on your team that have a high need for cognition - a personality trait that makes people thrive in complex and stressful work environments. But if you don't, you need to figure out what creates the motivation for your employees to develop a critical, creative and improvement oriented view on their own tasks.

So, what does any of this mean? Well, a lot of people that I have recently talked to about my studies consider psychological safety as a factor that is "always welcome" and a "must have". Its positive influence on work outcomes, especially a more creative work environment that is open to learning and improvement, is taken for granted. I do partially disagree, especially in regards to the the first statement. Psychological safety can be substituted by personality traits such as the need for cognition or one's psychological capital. A "safe environment" is not always needed to be creative and engage in complex and diverse tasks.

I also partially disagree with statements like "psychological safety has a direct impact on creativity/learning". I believe safety is a basic human need. We can be in or create work environments that make us feel safe and happy without ever being creative or learn one new thing. Feeling safe doesn't automatically mean that we feel intrigued to jump onto more complex and demanding tasks. It can even provoke the opposite and make us shy away from those.

The suggestion I'm making is that there is a link between psychological safety, creativity and learning. That link is work engagement that expresses itself e.g. through the willingness to learn new things or that is supported through creating an environment that enforces learning and creativity. In a complex task environment, the link between psychological safety and learning might be created more easily as seen in an abundance of studies. In less demanding jobs, however, it is part of the leadership responsibility to - on the one hand - create the feeling that it is safe to take risks, and - on the other hand - bolster the demand for creative work engagement to have a positive impact on employees creativity and learning behavior.


*I 'borrowed' the title as well as some of the insights used in this blog from a meta analytic study on psychological safety by Bret Sanner and J. Stuart Bunderson (2015) "WHEN FEELING SAFE ISN’T ENOUGH: RESTORING MOTIVATION TO MODELS OF SAFETY AND LEARNING IN TEAMS".

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