Embracing an Open Mindset: A Catalyst for Psychological Safety
It can be so easy to practice our laser-focus and relentless prioritisation when feeling busy, stretched, or out of our depth. We are so often rewarded for ‘having the answers’ and confidently expressing a firm view. Taking decisive action is often sought after and respected in a leader.
Yes, sometimes a clear direction is what we need, what we crave. But it can be easy to overdo it, and to shut down the kind of thinking and communication we need to make real and sustainable progress on challenging and complex issues. In considering how people best work together to achieve the outcomes we seek.
As our experience with a wide range of successful and struggling teams has shown, healthy and productive work environments require psychological safety to function at their best. An important part of this is about openness to new ideas and approaches, diverse perspectives, and continuous learning. The google Aristotle project demonstrated this clearly, as have multiple studies by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School who has written multiple books on the subject. Brene Brown, a well-respected researcher and professor and Author, has also written on the subject at length, tying in concepts such as courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.
While an Open mindset is just one of the underlying components of Psychological Safety, it is where we will now focus.
Open Mindset: The Key to Psychological Safety
An open mindset is not just about being receptive to new ideas; it’s about actively seeking them out and valuing the contributions of others. In an environment that embraces an open mindset, employees feel safe to express their thoughts, knowing that they will be met with curiosity, respect, and a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue.
Our experience with the Steople Psychological Safety Survey, and the many team interventions that support it, have backed up the research by Amy, Brene, and our friends at Google. Teams with high psychological safety and openness to each-other’s input are more likely to be innovative, be engaged and productive, and to achieve stronger business outcomes. These teams may have people with different views, backgrounds, and personalities, but they are more likely to come to the table as equals, sharing their perspectives, understanding their shared interests, and agreeing their shared priorities.
Create openness that allows for everyone to be heard, and diversity can become a huge asset to critical thinking and quality decisions, sometimes offering greater value than intelligence (Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups Woolley et al, 2010).
Here are some more of the ways in which fostering open mindsets at work can enhance psychological safety:
Curiosity and exploration:
An open mindset thrives on the desire to explore new concepts, challenge assumptions, and seek out diverse viewpoints. When our minds are open, we are willing to listen, motivated to understand, more likely to try new things. This is supported by the work of by Todd Kashdan, Author of ‘Curious’ and leading expert on the psychology of well-being, curiosity, mental flexibility, and social relationships. He argues that curiosity leads to a multitude of life-fulfilling benefits, including helping to manage anxiety, reducing defensiveness, building resilience, and supporting innovation. All good things for our wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those who work with us I’m sure you will agree.
Adaptability and continuous improvement:
Demonstrating and encouraging openness encourages the identification of opportunities to improve. It helps us see the big and small shifts in how we think, act and work that can lead to better outcomes. Openness to new thinking and approaches can help promote experimentation, where there is safety to ask questions, learn new skills, face new challenges, and to fail as we practice and adapt. It also helps to cultivate the expansion of knowledge and skills. This supports individual growth and an increased likelihood of noticing and adapting to business opportunities or changes both internally and externally.
Empathy and perspective-taking:
Being truly open to difference and being willing to learn about and from our colleagues and customers, to ask probing questions and to truly listen, paves the way toward understanding different perspectives and having empathy for the experience of others. This helps to create an environment where different perspectives are valued and considered, where everyone can make a contribution, and where the exchange of thoughts and ideas is met with trust and respect.
Reducing the fear of judgement:
Individuals are less likely to fear judgment or negative consequences for speaking up when they believe that others are open to different perspectives. This can help support measured risk-taking create the conditions where people can be vulnerable and more authentic, sharing when they don’t know or understand, and expressing their hopes, fears and concerns. It can help with the early identification of problems and roadblocks before they escalate.
Building better teams:
We are all better off working in a team where we feel valued, heard, and respected. Where our views are sought, and feedback considered. Much of the above, when done well, helps to cultivate the kind of teams where we can truly thrive. It ideally culminates in teammates and a leader who takes time to improve how the team works, seeking differing perspectives when making decisions, and being open to ideas. There is an important role for the leader in role-modelling and encouraging openness to foster psychological safety, and leaders have a unique level of power to undo so many good team behaviours in just a few comments or behaviours. This is why it is important to consider the openness of leadership in any assessment of psychological safety.
In summary, an open mindset is a critical component of psychological safety that enables organizations and the teams within them to adapt to change, foster innovation, and create an atmosphere where diverse perspectives are actively sought and valued. It helps foster an environment where we can, and do, communicate honestly and respectfully about what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why it is important.