Why Innovation Depends on Intellectual Honesty

Fostering psychological safety isn’t enough if managers don’t pay particular attention to creating conditions for healthy debate.

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Jon Krause/theispot.com

Innovation flourishes when people on a team openly debate and disagree. The question is how to get them to speak their minds, particularly when it means challenging their leaders or acknowledged experts. Some management experts argue that the best way to get people to speak up is to create psychological safety — an atmosphere described by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson as one in which “people feel accepted and comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution.”1

But research also indicates that feeling that it’s safe to dissent isn’t the only important factor for ensuring healthy debate. In our studies of innovators and their teams, we’ve found there can be a tension that few people recognize between psychological safety and intellectual honesty: that is, a culture in which team members will proactively voice their ideas and disagreements in a rational and constructive way (like the Star Trek character Mr. Spock, but with acknowledgment of their human emotions and biases).2 Intellectual honesty significantly increases a team’s ability to innovate — particularly to create breakthrough innovations — because it unleashes the knowledge of team members.

We found that many teams prioritize psychological safety without realizing that the social cohesion it promotes, though beneficial to learning, can sometimes undermine intellectual honesty rather than encourage it. However, when people are brutally honest (Steve Jobs would tell people at Apple that they were “full of s – – – ”), they can undermine others’ feelings of acceptance and respect — which are the cornerstones of feeling secure to challenge one’s colleagues.

If leaders can balance psychological safety and intellectual honesty, they gain the benefits of both. Consider the debate over whether to greenlight the Amazon Kindle in the mid-2000s.



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18. S. Anderson, interview with authors, June 27, 2019.

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i. A. Edmondson, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior on Work Teams,” Administrative Science Quarterly 44, no. 2 (June 1999): 350-383.

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Comment (1)
Stuart Roehrl
I appreciated reading this article today just as much as last year.  The breakdown of the four kinds of culture is very well presented.
Stuart Roehrl