All Articles Leadership Inspiration Want radical innovation? Make sure your team feels safe and connected

Want radical innovation? Make sure your team feels safe and connected

Innovation requires an environment of psychological safety.

4 min read




Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Sunnie Giles.


“What does psychological safety and connection have to do with radical innovation? I just want results!”

All organizations want results from their employees, but few are willing to pay the price for them.

“The price I am paying is their salary,” one might protest. Ah, but pay is not enough.

A 2010 study by Princeton researchers found that people with a household income of $75,000 or more don’t report more emotional well-being with increased income, no matter how much the increase.

Simply put, people don’t tolerate working for a jerk boss unless they’re struggling to pay the bills and have few other options. But much of today’s workforce are knowledge workers whose primary contribution to creating value is problem-solving, and information creation and distribution, such as software engineers, designers, marketers, sales reps, nurses and accountants.

And surprise: They have minds of their own. Gone are the days of command-and-control leadership, which was effective in the industrial economy when the primary management goal was standardization and efficiency of production. At that time, a brilliant leader could hold the vision of where to go and galvanize the troops to by maximizing efficiency in functional silos, playing the zero-sum game of competitive advantage. The maximum potential of the people with minds of their own cannot be fully utilized if they are commanded and controlled.

Now, the times have changed, the business environment has changed and so must organizations and their leaders. The world has become too complex, with too many variables too interdependent on each other, for any leader to see through to the end of the game. What made leaders successful in the past, namely individual skills such as vision, technical expertise, intellectual brilliance and charisma can actually be counterproductive for radical innovation.

Today, the skills necessary for innovation — which is the only way organizations can survive in this world of high volatility, complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity (VUCA) — seem almost anti-instinctual. They include:

  • letting others self-organize;
  • using intuition and insight backed up by analysis to make decisions;
  • profusely iterating and launching good-enough solutions in small batches; and
  • tapping into collective intelligence of the average employee.

The leaders who are fit to deliver radical innovation in this new age are what I call “quantum leaders.”

They create a psychologically safe environment and create connection among the team members, which includes letting others self-organize and pushing down decisions to the front lines.

If a leader needs to feel needed, these changes can be very disconcerting. But keeping yourself central is exactly the opposite of what is necessary to stimulate radical innovation. Personal leadership cannot be an afterthought. It must be a consciously developed skillset: the foundation on which all the other qualities necessary for radical innovation can be built.

Leadership style can no longer be left to the preference of each individual manager, because quality of leadership has a tangible bottom-line impact on the viability of the organization. To survive in this fast-changing VUCA era, everything in a company must nurture innovation — including, most importantly, quantum leadership skills.

By creating an environment of safety and connecting and tapping into the diverse pool of thoughts, you can start building toward radical innovation.


Sunnie Giles is president of Quantum Leadership Group. She catalyzes leaders to produce radical innovation and redefine the game as individuals and organizations. Her upcoming book on radical innovation is “The New Science of Radical Innovation: The Six Competencies Leaders Need to Win in a Complex World” (April 2018). She is an advisor at the Stanford Business School Institute of Innovation in Developing Economies. Her recent research on global leadership for innovation has been published by Harvard Business Review.  

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