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Optimizing Team Dynamics to Spur Innovation

How to find the balance between psychological safety and intellectual honesty among your staff

Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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Psychological safety, or the belief that individuals will not be punished or shamed by others for sharing ideas, questions, or feedback, is a crucial aspect of a thriving workplace culture. Without this key component, creativity and trust are absent from the work environment and ultimately, the organization suffers from a lack of innovation. 

The benefits of psychological safety have been well reported in previous research, but Jeff Dyer, Horace Beesley Distinguished Professor of Strategy at Brigham Young University; Taeya Howell, assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources management at Brigham Young University; and fellow researchers were inspired to more closely examine this element, and see how other factors contribute specifically to an innovative workplace. 

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Through their work, published in MIT Sloan Management Review, they found another key ingredient: intellectual honesty. Their paper, “Why Innovation Depends on Intellectual Honesty”, highlights the importance of finding the right balance between psychological safety and intellectual honesty to enable workplace teams to produce breakthrough innovations. 

How does intellectual honesty help foster innovation?

Intellectual honesty refers to a culture in which team members proactively voice their ideas and disagreements in a rational and constructive way. There is a mutual understanding among the group that feedback or debate is intended to be constructive, not personal, and that everyone’s top priority is to fulfill the broader mission. 

“We found that many teams prioritize psychological safety without realizing that the social cohesion it promotes, though beneficial to learning, can sometimes undermine intellectual honesty rather than encourage it,” write the study authors. If lab leaders can find the magic mix of psychological safety and intellectual honesty within their teams, then they will reap the benefits of both and deliver true innovation.

The research

Dyer was first motivated to examine the relationship between psychological safety and intellectual intelligence during an interview with a senior Tesla executive after the company was ranked first on Forbes’ Most Innovative Companies list. Dyer was surprised to hear that, according to this executive, psychological safety was never a prioritized metric. “In contrast, were you to evaluate how committed they were to the mission, how dependent they felt on one another to achieve it, and how blunt they were willing to be when others failed or fell short, we'd be several standard deviations above the mean,” said the executive. These comments were later supported by data from Dyer and Howell’s research, where Tesla’s culture scored low on psychological safety based on thousands of comments from employees.

“So, we realized that innovation can happen without psychological safety,” explain Dyer and Howell. “The key was getting people to candidly voice their ideas in pursuit of an important common purpose.”

Dyer also had his own stories of previous work experiences where either psychological safety or intellectual honesty was lacking among the team dynamics. “These experiences led us to research psychological safety and intellectual honesty as different attributes of a team culture that influence innovation performance,” says Dyer.

If lab leaders can find the magic mix of psychological safety and intellectual honesty within their teams, then they will reap the benefits of both and deliver true innovation.

The results of this latest study are more than a decade in the making. The researchers conducted interviews with managers and executives in numerous industries to explore how team culture influences innovation. With this baseline information, the team took it a step further to learn whether psychological safety showed the same beneficial outcomes for team innovation as it does for general team functioning. 

Beginning in 2021, the researchers surveyed teams from more than 60 technology startups, university startups, and established companies across industries. Participants were asked to respond to a series of statements on a scale of 1-7; 1 being “strongly disagree” and 7 being “strongly agree.”

Examples of questions for psychological safety included: 

  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
  • People on this team never reject others for being different.
  • Examples of questions for intellectual honesty included:
  • Our team expects extreme candor, even if it might create some social friction.
  • Members of this team are welcome to raise problems and tough issues.

Leaders are encouraged to use the full survey of 10 questions (five per category) to assess the level of psychological safety and intellectual honesty of their teams. The total score will determine what type of workplace culture you have:

PS and IH are <21 = Distressed Culture

PS is <21, IH is >30 = Anxious Culture

PS is >30, IH is <21 = Comfortable Culture

PS and IH are >30 = Innovative Culture

All other combinations = Neutral Culture (See figure 1 for more information on the four types of innovation cultures.)

Strategies for laboratory leaders

In addition to sharing their results, the researchers outline five foundational steps to achieve intellectual honesty. Leaders will see the best outcomes when applying these steps first-hand—be the example that your team looks up to by demonstrating the behaviors you expect of them.

1.    Focus on a common goal: If all participants can rally around a shared goal, they will be more motivated to raise their concerns and ideas and will understand that everyone on the team plays an important role in reaching the objective. 

2.    Expect disagreement but require respect: Debate will help teams to reach the best solution, but disagreements need to be discussed without negative or hurtful emotions. “Empathetic listening is key,” say Dyer and Howell. “They need to separate ideas from people to remove emotion from the equation.”

3.    Stick to facts and evidence: Lab staff are accustomed to completing their work via the scientific method and other data-based processes. Use this to your advantage if individual emotions begin to enter discussions and remind participants to follow quality information to find the best outcome. 

4.    Acknowledge biases, priorities, and knowledge gaps: A key difference between a good and great leader is having the ability to be transparent about your potential biases as well as areas of expertise that you are limited in. If you have the confidence to ask clarifying questions and wonder what information may be missing, your team will feel encouraged to do the same.

5.    Ensure that everyone has a voice: As a leader, make it a point to share your opinions after everyone else has an opportunity to voice theirs. This enables everyone on your team to speak freely without your ideas influencing theirs and adds more value to their comments.

Figure 1: The extent to which a team balances psychological safety and intellectual honesty can be mapped to four innovation cultures, along with a neutral culture that is subject to neither the dangers nor the benefits of the others. Each culture will influence how well a team can innovate and the kinds of innovations at which they will be best.
Credit: "Why Innovation Depends on Intellectual Honesty" by Jeff Dyer et al., MIT Sloan Management Review, January 2023

Introducing new team members

After working hard to develop an innovative culture within your existing team, you don’t want to risk introducing new members who will disrupt the balance.

Early in the onboarding process, managers should properly prepare new staff for the types of open discussions that will be held among team members, and to encourage newcomers to participate in frank yet productive conversations with others. 

Not every candidate may be comfortable with this level of candor, so evaluating individuals during the hiring process will help prevent any potential conflicts later. Dyer and Howell suggest identifying candidates with proactive personalities; those who are willing to share their ideas as well as listen to the ideas of others. Being able to both give and receive candid feedback while showing empathy and respect will be key traits to look for among new candidates. 

Accepting the challenge

Achieving the proper balance between psychological safety and intellectual honesty poses one of the most significant challenges a laboratory manager will need to tackle. Setting expectations, holding accountability, and managing different personalities while still performing all your daily tasks is no small feat. However, the key action items recommended by the research team can be summarized by four principles listed in the MIT Sloan Management Review paper: 

  • Foster emotional intelligence
  • Hire and develop proactive employees
  • Legitimize and encourage honesty
  • Subordinate egos to unifying goals

By following these principles, lab managers can create a balanced, innovative, and high-performing team culture.