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Building True Psychological Safety

Welcome back Humantific readers. This week a spontaneous post on one of the most referenced and from our practice perspective, misunderstood notions seen often appearing on Linkedin threads and that is “psychological safety”.

Widely sought and wildly misinterpreted, the nature of psychological safety, what it is and what it means strategically seems to remain somewhat murky to many. Our interest in this subject remains in the context of organizational innovation enabling, an objective being pursued by many of the organizations we work with.

Most definitions/explanations of psychological safety appearing in LinkedIn threads tend to be in the “Please Improve Your Manners,” camp of leadership logic. From experience we already know that civility camp logic can be useful as a basic intro to the intro but is nowhere near enough awareness and skill to set true psychological safety in motion.

Of course manners are what we are all doing consciously, while power dynamics tend to exist beneath the surface and are rarely acknowledged. Unless we creatively address the often unspoken, table-top power dynamics that directly impact innovation, nothing much is going to change for the better, in spite of good manner intentions.

We view the enabling of true cognitive psychological safety as just one aspect of what, we are, as a complexity informed sensemaking for changemaking practice engaged in today. That complexity includes increasing understanding of how cognitive preferences, diverse thinking style preferences (not personality) connect or not to what the organization has stated it is trying to do! Is your organization unconsciously shooting itself in the foot, while consciously championing innovation and need for change? It happens more than you might imagine. :-) From an innovation perspective; What is respectful and inclusive culture? It might not be what you think it is.


1. Today true psychological safety in innovation contexts is achieved via deliberate construction of cognitive diversity, cognitive inclusion, recognition of ambidexterity.

2. Recognize that your team, your organization is full of cognitively diverse humans, with a broad range of thinking styles and information processing preferences. That creative energy can be unlocked and coordinated if we thoughtfully reconfigure some of the existing organizational road blocks.

3. Don't assume civility manners setting is true psychological safety. Manners setting as in; be polite and open, is at best pseudo-psychological safety, that fails to deliver its promise to cognitively diverse participants. Lets not assume that sticking up a poster advocating “Stay Vulnerable,” “Stay Open” and “Make Space for Big Ideas” has anything to do with seriously taking on the task of intentionally ingraining psychological safety i.e.: inclusion. Injecting and heralding the arrival of pseudo-psychological safety can be misleading and damaging as it can mask the sidestepping of taking on the actual underlying dynamics.

4. Building true psychological safety recognizes and acknowledges power as an often unspoken behavioral language. In the context of innovation, contradictory table-top power dynamics are the often hidden-in-plain-sight privileging of one dimension of innovation over another, often based on bad habits and or deeply engrained tradition from by-gone eras, rather than current need or stated strategic goals.

5. Cognitively inclusive psychological safety makes transparent and sets aside the hidden dynamics of cognitive privileging that no longer align with the new real world and stated strategic ambitions. It brings that contradiction into undeniable view.

6. The purpose of constructing true psychological safety is not just to avoid product mishaps, due to folks being too intimidated to speak up. That's a valid but tiny subset purpose. The broader, deeper purpose of true psychological safety is to construct a practical, actionable work environment and culture that aids in the maximization of brainpower, for the specific purpose of proactive adaptation. True psychological safety signals, clarifies that everyone, regardless of thinking style preference, is valued in a common language of changemaking. It’s less about mitigating risk and more about aligning the organization to a rapidly arriving future, full of complex fuzzy challenges and continuous change. In the arriving new real world, focusing on product safety diminishes the power and implications of true psychological safety/inclusive culture.

7. Not a feel good exercise, in practice we connect true psychological safety to strategic ambitions, strategic goals undertaken in the face of VUCA.

8. We recognize that the need for organizations to respond to VUCA in the new real world has already super-ceded the historical default privileging of convergent thinking (decision-making) now deemed not completely in sync with, and no longer enough skill in, the age of continuous change and adaptation. We already know that future-making requires more than convergent thinking. True psychological safety not only reflects that awareness but brings it home to the organization and makes it real.

9. Cognitively inclusive psychological safety introduces self-organizing awareness regarding team-based dynamics that set aside traditional notions of management policing collaboration manners. Participants are armed with self-organizing insight, knowledge and related skills.

10. Cognitively inclusive psychological safety dynamics bring into focus who the team is, who the organization is from a thinking styles (not personality) perspective and how that connects to stated strategic goals. Today being truly human-centered applies not just to understanding customers but also to employees. While its wonderful for organizations to be saying they want employees to “bring their full selves to work”, and to “feel accepted for who they are” let’s understand what that really means in the context supporting cognitive diversity. Let’s appreciate that adults with diverse thinking styles have very different needs and interests when it comes to innovation. If part of the goal is to keep employees on board lets listen-up, in human-centered ways, to our own colleagues.

11. True psychological safety is not a stand-alone exercise but rather is integrated into broader complexity navigation, changemaking skill building. It is not a process but rather the underlying dynamics on which innovation process operates and skills are built.

12. Organizational leaders model the enabling and protection of; not personal thinking style preferences, not academic theories, not ego, not personalities, not existing organizational biases, but rather true cognitively inclusive psychological safety for all. Beyond “decision-support”, beyond “risk assessment”, this is a new leadership role that takes time to master.

13. Organizational leaders have to be able to explain how true cognitive psychological safety fits into strategic changemaking ambitions in the new real world, otherwise such initiatives will likely fail.

14. Recognize that the marketplace contains many well-meaning frameworks, tools and approaches that serve to reinforce feel-good traditional dynamics, that unfortunately often fly in the face of you effectively building cognitively inclusive psychological safety as prep to face VUCA. Leaders must understand and own their true psychological safety enabling, while deflecting distractions.

15. Last but not least, let’s acknowledge a bit of a somewhat confusing time-warp here, a repeating starting point phenomenon that folks who have been around the block a few times will be well aware of. Certainly many of our Humantific readers will recognize the recent product error-oriented “psychological safety” as a narrowed, over-simplified, some might say rather dumbed-down take on an already existing subject terrain and that is inclusive innovation, inclusive teams, inclusive culture building. Those prescient subjects, those orientations, already active and engaged long before the articles heralding product related psychological safety arrived add a different, deeper kind of value. It’s no secret that respun reincarnations are often dumbed-down and directed at arriving social media driven audiences. From our practice perspective, “psychological safety” is one such entity. It's a little like seeing twitter-sized wine in a tiny bottle with a shiny new outsized label being earnestly marketed but without much there-there. In the bigger picture, inclusive culture building involves not just enabling speaking up in problem situations around products but rather alignment of stated intentions, stated strategies, not only with actual behaviors but with interconnected reward and value systems as well.…to walk the walk of inclusion and not just talk the talk. As new generations arrive in the workplace, with greater expectations, the era of pseudo-psychological safety and full-force, contradictory power dynamics dominance is clearly over. In the new real world it's the responsibility of enlightened leadership to construct cognitively inclusive psychological safety for all.

The good news is that the inclusive innovation community contains knowledge far beyond that of cheerleading speaking up. Today we can extrapolate in a sensemaking manner, connecting the dots across innovation strategy, corporate values, innovation process, open challenge framing, root innovation behaviors, team dynamics, information, environment and inclusive culture building.


Working with diverse organizations we do see that there are often generational differences between the boomers and the new generations arriving into the workplace, in terms of their interest in true psychological safety.

While boomers tend to be less questioning and have higher tolerance for built-in structural bias, as tradition, the new arriving generations are not so inclined. The questions that they have in mind, include questioning the organizational dynamics playing field.

With the cost of turnover in mind, keeping diverse employees happy has taken on new importance at a time, “the great resignation," when folks tend to vote with their feet.

Once you enact true cognitively aware psychological safety you will likely discover an under-represented group of people inside your organization that is largely missing from your current innovation equation. It’s like discovering a new engine inside your company! Embrace that discovery.

At the end of the day, each of us might ask ourselves if the privileging of narrowing, convergent thinking (decision-making) over generative, divergent thinking will deliver a true psychologically safe work environment for all? Conversely; We might ask if privileging divergent thinking over convergent thinking will deliver true psychological safety for all? Big NO is the obvious answer in both cases but the more pressing question for organizational leaders to consider is: Which imbalance do you think is most often seen in organizations that are struggling with innovation and changemaking today?

While it is true that taking on deeply-engrained, contradictory, table-top power dynamics and actionizing true cognitive psychological safety for all is not for the faint of heart it can be done in constructively creative ways, that are difficult to argue with.

It seems clear that the strategic and financial importance of building true cognitively inclusive psychological safety; i.e. inclusive culture has never been greater.

Hope this is helpful.


Our own Humantific journey into inclusion began 20 years ago when we discovered that Elizabeth’s sensemaking graduate thesis, Conecta; Making Children’s Educational Materials Cognitively Inclusive applied to many of the client projects we were working on at that time. That realization lit the fire that eventually helped us connect the dots between inclusive strategy, inclusive information fields, inclusive processes, inclusive environments and inclusive cultures. Since then inclusion has been underneath everything we do in Humantific practice. Stay tuned for more on this subject.


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