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Safety first, clarity next: The secret formula for better workplace innovation

Leaders who focus on giving their teams both clarity and psychological safety will see more actionable innovation emerge, write David Dye and Karin Hurt.

4 min read



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If you’re like many human-centered leaders we work with, you’ve worked hard to create an environment of proper psychological safety. You’ve got an open door, and people are bursting through it. It’s like you’ve tapped into this hidden wellspring of creativity, and everyone’s eager to pitch in. Beautiful start.

David Dye and Karin Hurt
Dye and Hurt

Here’s the question. Of all these ideas and suggestions, how many see the light of day? More importantly, how many are truly transformative, the kind you can’t wait to put into action? Enter the equation of psychological safety plus clarity, a game-changer combo I (Karin Hurt) break down in my just-released TEDx Talk: “The Secret to Getting Remarkable Ideas You Can Actually Use.”

In our research on psychological safety and innovation, people don’t share their ideas (50%) because they fear they’d fall on deaf ears or just collect dust. While a psychologically safe environment gets the wheels turning, it doesn’t necessarily move the car. The missing ingredient is laser-focused clarity on what makes an idea actionable and remarkable.

Setting the stage: What does clarity look like?

Strategic clarity involves articulating specific organizational goals, detailing what success looks like, and delineating any constraints that might be in place. Leaders should ideally pinpoint three or four key areas where they’re actively seeking ideas. This ensures that when someone presents an idea, it aligns with a broader vision, making it far more likely to be implemented.

Two experiments, one conclusion: Clarity matters

We ran two experiments in our early days of working with clients on our Courageous Cultures tools. In one, we told teams to bring any practical ideas for organizational improvement. The result was lots of great brainstorming with some fun elements and skill-building, but only a little actual change.

In contrast, we got laser-focused with a different set of teams. Leaders clearly outlined the areas they wanted to innovate and set the ground rules. The result? The number of implementable ideas increased, and team members also felt their input had a more direct impact. Setting boundaries didn’t limit creativity; it channeled it.

Navigating the maze: The interplay of clarity and safety

Let’s visualize four different scenarios to understand this dynamic better:

  1. Low Clarity + Low Safety = Negligible Ideas
    Nobody speaks up, and even if they do, their ideas are not actionable. Employee morale hits rock bottom.
  2. High Clarity + Low Safety = Invisible Ideas
    People might have fantastic ideas but are too scared to voice them. This is the problem most people focus on — psychological safety — and are looking to solve.
  3. High Safety + Low Clarity = Unmanageable Ideas
    You’ve got ideas galore, but they’re all over the place. It’s like putting together a puzzle with pieces from different boxes. This is the scenario many human-centered organizations inadvertently land in.
  4. High Clarity + High Safety = Remarkable Ideas
    Ideas not only flow but also fit the bigger picture. They get executed and create a cycle where quality ideas beget an even safer and more vibrant workplace. This is the Goldilocks Zone. 

A virtuous cycle of empowerment and ingenuity

So, focusing on clarity alongside psychological safety creates an empowered ecosystem. Team members are not just encouraged to share their thoughts; they are given a sandbox in which their ideas are much more likely to turn into castles. Implementing these premium ideas sends a powerful signal back to the team: “Your contributions matter and create change.” And this, in turn, sparks an ever-renewing cycle of engagement and innovation.

What’s at stake: A shift in organizational culture

The stakes are high for innovation and shaping an organizational culture that genuinely values each contribution. This dual focus on safety and clarity has the potential to transform workplaces from idea graveyards into incubators of change. By doing so, you’re not just chasing operational excellence but nurturing a culture primed for long-term success.


Karin Hurt and David Dye help human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results. As CEO and President of Let’s Grow Leaders, they are known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. Karin and David are the award-winning authors of six books, including “Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates” and “Powerful Phrases for Dealing With Workplace Conflict.” A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. David Dye is a former executive and elected official. Karin and David are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells, which builds clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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