Generative Team Design

Innovation, Psychological Safety, and Empathy

By Dara Blumenthal, PhD and Nathan Snyder

There is a lot of talk recently about the importance of psychological safety in relation to teams and innovation. This talk is largely stemming, it seems, from this NYTimes article covering new research from a team at Google. While I think it is wonderful that people are starting to think and talk about the importance of psychological safety and indeed empathy, there is more to these cultural practices than meets the eye. We think about it like this:

Okay, this sketch is a simplification (for example, it doesn’t address the cognitive complexity aspects of the work that needs to get accomplished), but the simplification is in service of a greater point: innovation, psychological safety, and empathy are not actions or things you can simply ‘do’. They aren’t even ‘things’ in and of themselves.

Rather these experiences or outcomes of behaviors are both ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ of complex, dynamic human systems. Systems of people working, thinking, feeling, interacting, reacting, and developing together. Consider, for example, if you swap out empathy for sympathy (which doesn’t require vulnerability) you cut off your ability to foster psychological safety, and also everything else that comes after it. These are delicate matters (and humans typically have pretty solid detectors for insincerity).

Too often, we jump to quick conclusions about the complex dynamics of humans relating and interacting — and equally simplistic solutions for reaching the desired outcomes of those interactions. These dynamics get boiled down to behavior or “personality”. Over-simplification of interpersonal dynamics and psychological conditions miss out on the incredible ability we have as adults to adapt, change, and develop. So how do we reach new solutions without losing the dynamism of humans in relation?

From Behavior to Capability

What we know from a hundred years of developmental research is that humans develop in a reflective constructive loop with their environment. This development occurs well beyond the end of the structural-physiological growth of our brains. Yet, despite our constant embeddedness within work challenges we don’t use them as developmental opportunities in adulthood. In many ways, “adulthood” is actually full of opportunities to avoid development. For example, have you ever felt afraid to share a criticism, speak your mind, or point out a problem at work? Have you ever understood a situation very quickly and clearly, while your colleagues or superiors just “didn’t get it”?

What if a child gave up on learning to walk because they feared falling?

In adulthood, the task demands on us are developmentally more complex than learning to walk but share some inherent qualities. If we continue to uphold and co-create environments where people and teams are not encouraged to address their challenges, which requires trust, our organizations will only continue to fall behind the exponentially complex future work environments we face.

To correct the sorts of over-simplifications we’re talking about, we need to take into account the developmental dynamics at work within the ever-evolving systems of human life. Ultimately, these are the systems that produce personal experiences like psychological trust (via empathetic cultures of humane relational behavior.)

Our recommendation is that we start, not by determining if there are adequate conditions of trust, but by seeking to understand the Developmental Capability of an organization’s workforce. Thereby, we can also uncover the cultural and organizational environments that are supporting or inhibiting human growth and team performance. From there we can work toward fostering the culture the organization seeks to express.

Going Deep

The risk in not starting at a deeper level than personal or team performance, is that the systems of practice (or conduct or process) can only enliven behaviors that agree, or disagree with the current norms.

Norming performance management in this way will only replicate a behaviorist approach to management.

We need to go deeper, to get deeper. By getting down to the level of Developmental Capability we can intentionally and empathetically, foster systems of practice that exceed the current norms and actually open up possibilities for change. From these new systems, incredible growth and expansion can happen — in teams, organizations, individuals, and innovation.

At Nature of Work, we begin by assessing Developmental Capability of an organization via socio-emotional and cognitive explorations related to the work that needs to get accomplished. Then we reconcile Developmental Capability with business strategy and organizational goals, before co-creating systems of practice, which further the developmental opportunity for the organization as a whole. Three elements that we include in our practice and co-creational approach are as follows:

  1. Generative Learning Practices — which enable — new forms of social relations and organizing — which produces — supportive cultures and environments of and for adult development to unfold via work tasks and commitments.
  2. Empowering Accountability Systems — which enable — people to design and redesign their roles — which produces — an optimal match between people’s developmental capability and their work accountabilities as they evolve over time.
  3. Participatory Management Processes — which enable — cooperation, co-creation, and novel decision making across different inter-organizational teams and environments — which produces — opportunities for every person in an organization to truly add value via their labor and engagement.

To achieve novel organizational behaviors, like innovation, we need to relate to people at qualitatively deeper levels — we need to go beyond desired outcomes and expressed behaviors of individuals. To foster cultures of trust and psychological safety we co-create developmental systems of practice that are directly aligned with the Developmental Capability and business goals of an organization.

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