I need my team to be more creative and innovative. Why doesn’t it work?

Psychological safety is the fundamental requirement for people to be able to be creative, innovative and take risks. Patricia Bossons looks at what a coaching environment can do to promote this.


Under what circumstances do people learn best? How do we create a positive learning culture? When is it safe to be creative and when are new ideas likely to result in conflict?

Unless an individual who is being coached knows that it is safe to come up with, and try out, new ideas, then learning and creativity is suppressed. Psychological Safety in individuals has been defined as a ‘sense of being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status or career’ (Kahn, 1990, Pp 703-704).

In comparison, psychological safety within the coaching relationship is a belief that the shared environment is safe for inter-personal risk taking (which includes being able to learn from mistakes and to suggest new ideas).

This is not just an indication that the coach and coachee trust one another, but is an indication that the normative behaviour of such relationships includes trusting one another and permission to be creative.

Thus, individuals are more likely to be able to learn from mistakes and to be creative if these behaviours are considered normal in the coaching context. The coaching culture should promote these behaviours.

In order to determine whether the environment is safe for a particular behaviour, an individual might assess the risk involved in a particular behaviour.

They will consider whether the behaviour might result in a negative consequence including people judging them negatively, a drop in status, or a threat to promotion or even their job.

Alternatively, they might see that learning and creativity are rewarded through an ability to become unstuck with a problem or a healthier emotional state.

Thus, behaviours that are deemed risky outside the coaching relationship might be completely safe within it. The willingness of an individual to think creatively about their issues will therefore differ depending on the coaching environment.

From a physiological perspective, environments that promote creative thinking because they are safe will promote low activation in the amygdala (little threat), higher activation in the part of the brain that experiences becoming unstuck as a ‘reward’, and activation in the part of the brain which identifies the context as safe and therefore reduces amygdala activity.

New insights from neuroscience have clearly shown us that what we have observed from effective coaching is actually backed up by biology.

One effect of a lack of psychological safety is that it is likely that offering innovative solutions, brainstorming new ideas and willingness to express opinions will be less likely to happen in such environments.

The level of social anxiety that is created within the coaching context will affect the ability of people to be at their creative best, and their willingness to share their ideas.

Where there is low psychological safety, people will not be at their energetic best, will not feel a zest for life and an enthusiasm about their job. This lack of vitality will impact negatively on creativity.

By contrast, a coaching relationship which promotes psychological safety, is one in which people will experience a high quality connection with their coach and in which vitality is likely to be higher.

Given that we attempt to re-enact experiences that make us feel vital and alive, this type of culture is much more likely to result both in greater creativity and a feeling of satisfaction.

When individuals are feeling vital, alive, healthy, capable and positive, they are more likely to have the resources they need to be creative.

Note that psychological safety does not mean that the coaching relationship will become risk-free. What it ensure is that people are encouraged to take risks through learning and creativity, rather than worrying about how their ideas might be received and whether it is safe to learn from their mistakes.

All of the above is set in the context of a coaching relationship – but of course, it is pretty obvious that the same biological factors play out in all other relationships, with the same consequences. Parents and children, teachers, and in the workplace, managers who have innovative and creative teams, and those who don’t.


References and further reading: Kahn, W.A. (1990) Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work, Academy of Management Journal, 33, 692-724


Patricia Bossons is the Director of Executive Qualifications at Massey University Business School in Albany.

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