Article: Could a psychologically safe environment limit your knowledge sources?

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Could a psychologically safe environment limit your knowledge sources?

A recent academic research, which has hypothesized the correlation between varying levels of psychological safety and the knowledge sources of people, has drawn some observations which may not portray psychological safety in such good light.
Could a psychologically safe environment limit your knowledge sources?

The practice of diversity has been on the floor, even if it is to yet to quite reach the corner office. The meaning of diversity has evolved – both in its definition and its level of importance. Diversity now does not limit to external indicators of a diverse environment such as sex, race, nationality, sexual orientation, religion and caste, it includes the thought-process, beliefs and social construct of people. In terms of importance, diversity has moved beyond tokenism and has become an organizational priority because of its significance from a business standpoint.

Diversity is important. And equally important is inclusion. Because what good are different opinions if they are never brought to the table to challenge the traditional way of thinking and operating. In the words of Verna Myers, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” A diverse environment is where its constituents have different thought process and have different individual opinions. Inclusion is when these constituents feel safe to share their individual unique way of thinking. Diversity without inclusion is immaterial. An inclusive environment is facilitated by psychological safety. 

Psychologically safe environments are those in which people feel comfortable to take an interpersonal risk – to challenge someone, to ask a ‘stupid’ question, to suggest a ‘different’ idea. But people will only challenge, question and suggest something different in a culture that feels inclusive and safe - Anita Kirpal, YSC wrote for People Matters.

The significance of diversity, inclusion, and psychological safety considered, a recent research done on new product development teams establishes the correlation between the degree of psychological safety and the subsequent knowledge source. The research’s findings, if inferred differently, can contradict the established notion that a psychologically safe environment fosters innovation.

The contradiction

This particular academic research, “Who can I ask? How psychological safety affects knowledge sourcing among new product development team members” has 3 main findings:

  • People with high degree of psychological safety prefer the members of their own team to be knowledge sources
  • People with medium degree of psychological safety go to other teams but within the same organization for information
  • People with low degree of psychological safety prefer external knowledge sources


This research combines and then contradicts two distinct bodies of research which are independent of each other:

  • One body of research says that diversity fosters innovation
  • Another body of research says that external knowledge sources are better at driving innovation


According to this research, a high level of psychological safety limits the knowledge sources to within the team’s, which is counter-intuitive to the fact that diversity and inclusion fosters innovation; because if the finding is true, then psychological safety is limiting one’s knowledge sources to within the team’s, when it is already established that external knowledge sources are better placed at driving innovation. 

The question this research invites you to think is:

“Could psychological safety be limiting one’s knowledge sources, and subsequently limit innovation?”

The answer, in all fairness, may very well be no. The inference could not be extended to the variable of innovation, and this research may not be the one which is bridging the gap between two distinct bodies of research on diversity and knowledge sources and establishing dependency.

A multitude of intervening variables are at play to establish such a dependency. Here are some of them explained which form the rationale behind the answer that psychological safety may not be limiting innovation:

Conformity of belief with external sources

Psychological research has proven that human nature is to resort to people who conform to their ideologies. The term “external sources” used in this research, is not exclusive of people who think like the team members who have been studied. Hence, in this particular case, going to external sources, does not exclusively include people who will be contributing different nuggets of knowledge. Therefore, in this particular case, “external knowledge sources” may not necessarily foster innovation. 

Teams themselves can be diverse

In certain cases, reliance on external knowledge sources may not be required for the purpose of innovation. If the teams are diverse and the psychological safety is high – innovation is more or less a guarantee. Each member of a truly diverse team thinks differently, a psychologically safe environment gives the members to share their ideas and question others’. This opens the avenue for sharing of creative ideas. Take the example of Ideo, a product design company. Its design project teams are composed of individuals from different disciplines – besides industrial design, teams have people from science, anthropology, business, architecture, etc. And their product design and approach to problems is one of the most innovative in the industry.

High psychological safety is essential for teamwork

A highly psychological safe environment is necessary for effective teamwork. Early research by Amy Edmondson proved that psychological safety “boosted performance in teams”. Google indulged in finding the secret to a productive team for several years in its famed “Project Aristotle”, and drew the conclusion that psychological safety was the most important ingredient for good teamwork. Innovative ideas cannot thrive in absence of good teamwork and a psychologically safe environment. Even if an individual with low psychological safety sources some exemplary knowledge externally, (s)he would not be comfortable to share those ideas – making the knowledge sourcing irrelevant.

Low psychological safety has repercussions

Besides losing out on effective teamwork, low psychological safety could impact employee engagement, employees’ intentions to stay in the organization, and even the financial performance of the organization. According to a Gallup study, the intentions of respondents leaving the company were higher when the employee and manager were of different races and the employee reported being actively disengaged. While employees who were of different races than their manager and were engaged at work reported the highest intentions to stay – even more than the employees who are of same race as their manager. Financial performance is also higher if organization is diverse and employees are engaged. The study says, “The combination of employee engagement and gender diversity resulted in 46% to 58% higher financial performance.”

Based on the above intervening variables, this research, even if may be correct in its hypotheses, cannot be extended to innovation. Knowledge sources might vary, but they may not necessarily limit innovation. Hence, managers may not want to refer to this research and then consciously think of composing a team of individuals with different degrees of psychological safety because it may not lead to innovation. Instead, what they should do is utilize this research as a wake-up call and draw a line between psychological safety and being in a comfort zone. Because feeling psychologically safe is about being comfortable when voicing opinions, it isn’t about being in a comfortable zone of your own and blindly agreeing with the popular opinion.

In the next article, we shall look at the role that HR needs to play to draw a line between psychological safety and conformity.

Topics: Culture

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