—— Security makes teams more innovative: specifically, psychological security. The Swiss workplace psychologist Prof. Dr. Ina Goller has studied this concept and explains how it works, how it protects teams and how it should be used—and why bitter disputes must be part and parcel of it.


Prof. Goller, when people think of innovation, they like to think of courage but not of security. When was it clear to you that psychological security might be much more important?
———— At the beginning of my career, I was invited by a management team in a company to moderate a workshop. I was there for a strategy meeting in which they were really going at it and team members argued fiercely with one another. At least that was my initial impression. However, at the end, the participants all thanked each other for the wonderful discussion, summarized what they’d learned and went out to dinner together, everyone in a good mood. This experience surprised and deeply impressed me.
What did you learn from it?
———— A team meeting doesn’t have to be warm and fuzzy. Quite the opposite. Too much harmony can stifle necessary discussions because you fear offending someone by contradicting or criticizing them. Only through an open exchange of views can new perspectives and new solutions emerge. Disagreements are productive and valuable.
You call the concept behind this psychological security. What do you mean?
———— It’s about relationships. When people speak with each other in a meeting, social judgments are always running through their minds: How comfortable are the others with me? How will they react when I mention an idea or admit to a mistake? Will I receive support or criticism? Will my idea be supported, blocked or even stolen? Do the others think my comments are perhaps stupid? These sorts of risks and concerns often lead people to keep their opinions to themselves. The less fear the team members have that what they say will have negative consequences, the more psychologically secure they feel and the more easily they contribute to the discussion. The pioneer in this research field is Amy Edmondson, a professor of management at Harvard Business School. She calls teams where psychological security prevails “fearless organizations.”
Taking risks, being open to new things, making mistakes: it all sounds like the familiar culture of error. How does psychological security differ from this concept?
———— The culture of error applies to a company’s entire organization. It’s about the implementation of mechanisms that help employees to speak without fear about problems in the company and to learn from mistakes. Psychological security, in contrast, takes place at the level of individual teams. That’s because teams are the hubs of innovation in today’s working world. They are the think tanks where new ideas and strategies are born and debated. There are hardly any challenges that a single individual can manage alone. You’re always dependent on the support of your teammates. That’s why the question of how we deal with each other in a team is so important.
What role do managers play in this?
———— The immediate team leader, in particular, has a considerable influence on whether or not people are afraid to speak. Psychological security therefore cannot be promoted or hindered only by top-level management, but also strongly by middle management. At the same time, the willingness to take risks in meetings and to speak openly is something that each individual must choose and that must be promoted.
So if my team is psychologically secure, we’ll come up with innovations. Is that how it works?
———— Psychological security alone is definitely not enough to guarantee innovation. It promotes the quantity, but not necessarily the quality of ideas. The quality of the results produced is mainly determined by three factors: a visionary idea that the whole team believes in, perseverance even in difficult phases and professional expertise. You won’t get anywhere without these.

“The distribution of speaking is a good indicator for measuring psychological security.”

Prof. Dr. Ina Goller
Startups in particular are considered innovative. Is this perhaps partly due to the fact that startups have more psychological security than larger corporations?
———— They do, at least at the beginning. Startups are mainly characterized by a small conspiratorial group pursuing a common visionary idea. Although it’s true they have a lot of disagreement in stressful situations, these issues can usually be easily resolved because the common idea binds the team members together so strongly. But as soon as the startup grows, the centrifugal forces also increase and psychological security suffers. Issues such as workload, competition and hierarchies become more prominent and can overshadow the unifying vision. This critical size is reached as soon as the company has around twenty employees and breaks up into several development teams.
What are the noticeable signs that the psychological security of a team is breaking down or even lacking?
———— One unmistakable sign in a meeting is when one person speaks and everyone else remains silent. Then it’s a problematic, psychologically insecure situation—unless someone is giving a presentation that is followed by lively debate. The distribution of speaking is a good indicator for measuring psychological security. The exchange of opinions thrives on everyone having an equal say—regardless of hierarchies.
What does that look like in most companies today?
———— The reality is different in many companies. The share of talking in meetings is linked to power relationships. As a rule, it’s usually the superiors who literally have the most to say. In psychologically insecure teams, members with dissenting opinions quickly make themselves unpopular, which is why many of them prefer to keep their heads down. Even if problems are actually addressed, these are often sham debates where the speakers agree with each other to create a supposed harmony.
What are the negative consequences of psychological insecurity?
———— We know how disastrous the lack of psychological security can be through simulations of medical operations. If the operating team uncritically agrees with the decisions of the senior physician, more patients die. There are also serious consequences in business if problems cannot be debated.
Can psychological security be learned?
———— Definitely. In our research, we’ve developed a toolkit with 24 exercises, 15 minutes each, that are to be practiced in teams for 24 weeks.
Can you give us some examples of the communication exercises?
———— Some of them are very simple, but effective. In both English-speaking and German-speaking countries, discussion participants tend to respond to proposals with a, “Yes, but…”. This wording blocks constructive dialogue. That’s why we train people to instead say, “Yes, and…”. This allows opinions to build on one another and lets the ideas flow freely. There are also more complex training units. For instance, we practice conducting negotiations in a cooperative yet tough manner. That’s difficult for many people. They think: Either I conduct tough negotiations and get what I want, or I try to be cooperative and compromise. But successful negotiations are characterized by both approaches.
You’ve tested your ideas in the real world. What were the results?
———— In practice, some of the participants included the telecommunications company Swisscom, the Swiss Post Office, Switch and a major online retailer. Many of the participants were relieved that psychological security had nothing to do with harmony or sentimentality. In Switzerland in particular, corporate culture is frequently very consensus oriented and thus conflict avoidant. But disruptive ideas don’t emerge from teams where everything’s just soft and cuddly.