Why leadership trust is critical for innovation

A lot has been written about innovation, and I thought I’d read most of it. But at a recent conference on inclusion hosted by Workplace Equity and Equality, participants explored innovation in ways I hadn’t considered.

During a “collaboratory” process, where participants worked in teams solutioning around diversity, equity and inclusion challenges, I watched as trust morphed from a concept that most leaders understand as “able to be counted on” to a powerful tool for shaping a culture of innovation.

It became evident that trust is an essential ingredient for creating an inclusive work environment where employees feel it’s safe to learn, to contribute and to challenge. Without it, your organization won’t innovate.

Timothy Clark, author of “Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation,” shared research that confirms that cultures of inclusion become incubators for innovation. When people feel there is an expense to pay for being who they are because their leaders can’t be trusted to build inclusive cultures, employees don’t function at their highest cognitive levels. Instead, they operate from a place of fear, trauma and threat.

Employees need to be able to trust that their leaders are truly committed to both building and sustaining an inclusive culture. This assures the psychological safety required to innovate is available to everyone.

To truly innovate, there’s a delicate balance to seek, where you foster high levels of intellectual tension on your team while reducing the social friction between individuals that hampers real inclusion. Why seek intellectual tension? Because allowing individuals to share ideas, debate conclusions, disagree and push boundaries of traditional thinking are substrates for innovation.

Yet, social friction, the kind that comes from judging others as unworthy, unwelcome or unable because they have a difference in background, experience or perspective, is what limits collaboration. You must be trusted to set and manage the equilibrium between these two tensions on your team.

Why seek intellectual tension? Because allowing individuals to share ideas, debate conclusions, disagree and push boundaries of traditional thinking are substrates for innovation.

Clark described the four stages of psychological safety leaders should seek to cultivate on their teams. Each of these stages requires that you can be trusted to demonstrate increasing levels of respect for team members and grant increasing permission for individuals to grow and develop.

Where does the team you lead sit on this continuum?

Inclusion safety

This is the baseline level of psychological safety your team should be able to count on. When teams operate with inclusion safety, individuals are truly welcomed and valued. Team members and their leader believe and behave as if inclusion is a right, rather than a privilege that must be earned. Employees feel no pressure to pretend to be someone they are not in order to be accepted.

Learner safety

When you’ve mastered this level of inclusion on your team, the culture encourages individuals to learn and grow to their highest potential. Environments with high levels of learner safety embrace mistakes as part of the learning process and look for ways to recover from them, rather than punish the person who made them.

In inclusive cultures with learner safety, Clark states, “Mistakes are the expectation, not the exception.”

Contributor safety

If you’ve achieved this level of psychological safety on your team, individuals feel encouraged to use their knowledge, skills and abilities to make contributions to the team and to the business. There is not the feeling that input will be valued from only a select few team members. Instead, individuals co-create solutions and embrace problem solving together — not just occasionally, but consistently.

Challenger safety

The highest form of inclusion is when challenger safety is present on your team. As you increasingly enable individuals to feel valued, encouraged to be themselves, learn and contribute, they are also more likely to challenge the status quo and push the team toward better solutions. Embracing this behavior creates new possibilities and insights. Cultures with challenger safety are birthplaces for innovation.

If you want to create an innovative workplace, master these four levels of inclusion so every individual on your team feels free to contribute their best to breakthrough ideas. But remember, consistency of message, purity of intent and commitment to action will help you engender the kind of trust necessary to traverse the stages of inclusion with your team. It’s a journey that begets innovation, and your organization needs that more than ever.

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, June 2021.

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