Promoting workplace candor requires psychological safety, no doubt, but it would be a mistake to misunderstand such “safety” as a form of false harmony or a substitute for courage.
In his study Managerial Courage1, Harvey Hornstein concluded that seeking harmony in organizations, while worthy at times, is often is a primary killer of innovation, initiative, and creativity:
“What often emerges under the pressure to get along, be nice, and work and play well together is an uncontroversial package of rules about how to act and what to think, distinguished only by their blandness….Courageous initiatives frequently spark conflict, disrupting organizational harmony. Such conflict is one of the principal organizational benefits of managerial courage. When prop-erly managed, conflict focuses choices, aids commitment, elevates thinking and sharpens issues. Productive conflict, by continually juxtaposing organizational options, can be an enormous aid to organizational growth and progress.”
In short, leading courageously is about engaging the edge of conflict rather than permitting harmony—or possibly even psychological safety—to dull our creative thinking.
Ironically, preferring a false safety over the risks of engaging conflict can produce a harmony of sorts, where we may feel safe and successful as long as we are not exposed, inconvenienced, or misjudged. Such risk-free harmony can lull us asleep where we become increasingly willing to ignore what needs our attention, avoid what needs to be said, and discourage what needs encouraging.
Granted, psychological safety is all about being free from the oppres-sive toxicity of abusive language and demeaning conduct—essential for promoting healthy workplaces. Yet, we should be wary of seeking a false sense of safety in the workplace where risks are avoided and excellence is dumbed down. Work demands courage that we engage work’s paradoxes and conflicts fearlessly, that we can take risks without safety nets, that we can attend to what needs our attention, speak up skillfully when we need to be heard, and en-courage what is healthy and inspiring. Because, in the end, leading coura-geously is not about being free from conflict, but about being free to engage our work fearlessly.
1 Hornstein, H. (1986). Managerial Courage. New York: John Wiley.
This peice originally appeared in the fall 2018 edition of People + Strategy journal.