Why Innovation Depends on Intellectual Honesty

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Credit:  Jon Krause/theispot.com

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Fostering psychological safety isn’t enough if managers don’t pay particular attention to creating conditions for healthy debate.

Innovation flourishes when people on a team openly debate and disagree. The question is how to get them to speak their minds, particularly when it means challenging their leaders or acknowledged experts. Some management experts argue that the best way to get people to speak up is to create psychological safety — an atmosphere described by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson as one in which “people feel accepted and comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution.”

But research also indicates that feeling that it’s safe to dissent isn’t the only important factor for ensuring healthy debate. In our studies of innovators and their teams, we’ve found there can be a tension that few people recognize between psychological safety and intellectual honesty: that is, a culture in which team members will proactively voice their ideas and disagreements in a rational and constructive way (like the Star Trek character Mr. Spock, but with acknowledgment of their human emotions and biases). Intellectual honesty significantly increases a team’s ability to innovate — particularly to create breakthrough innovations — because it unleashes the knowledge of team members.

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. However, when people are brutally honest (Steve Jobs would tell people at Apple that they were “full of s – – – ”), they can undermine others’ feelings of acceptance and respect — which are the cornerstones of feeling secure to challenge one’s colleagues.

If leaders can balance psychological safety and intellectual honesty, they gain the benefits of both. Consider the debate over whether to greenlight the Amazon Kindle in the mid-2000s. Jeff Wilke, then the CEO of Amazon’s retail business, opposed the idea to the point that he challenged Jeff Bezos in a board meeting: Wilke predicted that the company would miss its targets and frustrate customers because it was a software company that lacked experience creating hardware. As Wilke recounts, his comments led to a more thorough discussion of the pros and cons of the decision, during which Bezos conceded Wilke’s points but still argued that Amazon would be better served by developing a new set of skills. “Turns out I was right on everything that I called out, and Jeff was still right to say we should do it,” said Wilke. “[We] created a valuable skill set that we can use to invent new things on behalf of customers.”

Wilke reflected that the courage to speak his mind came from one of Amazon’s core management principles: that leaders are obliged to “have a backbone” and “disagree, even when it is uncomfortable or exhausting,” and to then unite behind whatever decision the team has made, without negative repercussions.

We have found that teams like Amazon’s executive team, which nurtures both psychological safety and intellectual honesty, innovate more successfully than teams in which one culture dominates. We have identified the factors that are most important to establishing this balance, and below we outline what leaders can do to create a high-performance learning and innovation culture.

Find the Right Balance

We identified four basic team cultures, each of which reflects a different emphasis on psychological safety and intellectual honesty and all of which support or discourage learning and innovation to different degrees. (See “Four Innovation Cultures.”)

A company may have a dominant culture; however, teams within a company may have different cultures depending on who runs them and how. Assessing the culture of a team can help leaders identify its strengths and vulnerabilities and determine any steps needed to improve team performance.

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