The Yin-Yang of Innovative Cultures – Going Beyond ‘Aham Brahmaashmi’ & Developing Psychological Safety

– Sohan Babu Khatri –

Leaders should create an environment and culture where everybody, irrespective of hierarchy, feels safe to discuss and criticize each other’s ideas

The context -“The reasons of people who want to work in an organization where ‘innovation’ is part of the desired employee behavior and organizational culture and factors playing a role for innovative cultures they cite are – fun, freedom, flexibility, fellowship and flatter organizations. Imagine fun without result, freedom without responsibility, flexibility without discipline, fellowship without accountability and flatness of organization without leadership – it’ll be a total chaos. Innovative culture is hard to create and sustain within an organization. When it comes to execution, it can get puzzling and even paradoxical even to the best of the corporate leaders. The major reason being innovative cultures are misunderstood. The tensions created by such puzzles and paradoxes need to be balanced and managed well; or else, all the efforts put on to create an innovative organization goes to waste, and sometimes, even be perilous.” (The Yin-Yang of Innovative Cultures: Learn to Manage and Thrive in Contradictions; the HRM, Vol 2, Issue 8, Baishakh 2080)

A CEO of a bank (let’s call him Netritwo Prasad Fulel) during the gala dinner at the end of the annual strategic meet, raised a toast of a luxury wine to the most important decision made that day to create a new competitive advantage of the bank through the development of highly innovative culture. Everybody hailed the decision with enthusiasm, matching one of 90’s kids who just got a battery-operated stuffed toy that moves and speaks. The first move that they decided to take was having an innovative idea-sharing session every fortnight – and they named it ‘Aham Brahmaashmi Day’; meaning ‘I am Brahmaah (the god of creation) Day’. Many other changes in the working culture were to follow – all to make the organization highly innovative. Never before, the bank had seen such an adrenaline rush among its employees; never before, such admiration for their leader, the CEO. “We must innovate to grow”, “We must create customer value through innovation”, “There is no other choice than to innovate to stay ahead of competitors”, “We need to be employees and organization with an entrepreneurial mindset, or should prepare to perish”, “This will be an inflection point in the history of our bank”, “Yo ho ni !, aba majaa aaucha kaam garna” (This is it ! Now the working environment will be congenial). Such were the statements sounding all around. An attendant of the venue who had always dreamt of being a banker (but ended up in the hospitality sector) felt deeper pain once again, envying the working environment in that bank – he wished they had a leader like Mr. Fulel and a working environment like that of the bank.

Among all the bank employees attending the gala dinner, was an intelligent, diligent and hardworking young junior officer called Srijan Bhakta Karmasheel, who was second to none when it came to employer brand loyalty so much so, one would not find any posts and photos in his Facebook page sans the reference to his bank name or some brand elements associated to the bank. The CEO was his idol person- an epitome of transformative leadership for him. While raising the toast of wine, with the brand he had never heard of before, he vouched for being the first Brahmaah on the first ‘Aham Brahmaashmi (AB) Day’. The countdown began in his mind, and in parallel, his brain started working right then, at the speed of a chopper blade, in the quest for the most brilliant and innovative ideas relating to his department (Customer Service). Srijan’s next 14 days were spent reflecting, thinking, analyzing, synthesizing, searching, associating, networking, communicating and much more – all for a singular purpose – creating the most innovative ideas for the AB Day.

And the day arrived; Friday it was. Srijan was in formals that day (despite the casual wear Friday), looked dapper, his face beaming and his head rose higher over the responsible and strong shoulders. He had never felt as confident and enthusiastic as that day; he even skipped the lunch as his belly was full of butterflies – butterflies of applause he would get from the crowd and a few pats on the back from his hero, Mr. Fulel. As Mr. Fulel opened the floor for the ideas, Srijan was the first one to stand and in a single breath, he offered three innovative ideas; two of them related to providing experiential banking to the customers at the service floor and one related to the process re-engineering of his department. As soon as he finished, before he could even take the next breath, the hall echoed with the belly laughter of a person; and that was none other than Mr. CEO. Some guffaw of the C-Suite followed suit. Utterly shocked, what he heard next from the CEO was not clear to him as a full sentence; but, few words echoed in his head ever after that day – ‘impractical’. ‘theoretical’, ‘whimsical’, ‘wild’, ‘romantic’, ‘fresh MBA pass out’ blah blah !. Cutting the story short, Mr. Srijan felt ridiculed, insulted, and framed, and as a result, he put his papers across the table the very next week – he resigned. This is not some hypothetical story, but a real incident shared by one of my ex-student of MBA in the class while we were discussing the topic ‘Role of leaders in making organization innovative’. On that day, only four more employees shared their ideas, though almost everybody was prepared with at least one innovative idea. ‘Aham Brahmaashmi Day’ ultimately had to be shelved due to non-participation.

It is not enough for leaders to announce the ‘policy of welcoming’ ideas from every front and level of the organization. They should actually mean it and welcome it in the true sense of it. Nobody, especially junior employees are not going to express their ideas and problems (solutions too) if they feel they cannot speak truthfully and openly without fear of counterstrokes and reprisal. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson’s decades of research on this concept indicate that psychologically safe environments not only help organizations avoid catastrophic errors but also support learning and innovation. Employees who feel safe to express and speak up about problems, possible solutions and ideas, no matter how wild they seem at first impression (to the seniors and colleagues) are also more adaptive to changes, more receptive to the transformations proposed by leaders. One cannot imagine an innovative organization where people are afraid to think and speak up critically, challenge superiors’ opinions/ ideas, debate others’ ideas, and hold and express different perspectives where employees do not perceive psychological security and safety.

Leaders should create an environment and culture where everybody, irrespective of hierarchy, feels safe to discuss and criticize each other’s ideas; where such actions would not mean anything to ego, dignity and self-respect. “Innovation is not about solo genius, it’s about collective genius. What we know is, at the heart of innovation is a paradox. You have to unleash the talents and passions of many people and you have to harness them into a work that is actually useful. Innovation is a journey. It’s a type of collaborative problem solving, usually among people who have different expertise and different points of view.” (Hill, Linda A. (Linda Annette), 1956- author. (2014). Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press). If such different points of view are not entertained, encouraged, and enthralled, an organization can never be innovative through the exercise of collective genius. Linda Hill calls it the institutional capability of ‘creative abrasion’. She writes: “Creative abrasion is about being able to create a marketplace of ideas through debate and discourse. In innovative organizations, they amplify differences, they don’t minimize them. Creative abrasion is not about brainstorming, where people suspend their judgment. No, they know how to have very heated but constructive arguments to create a portfolio of alternatives.” Critical and strategic thinking, inquiring, and active listening, advocating, and respecting differences are the hallmark characteristics that should be fostered across the breadth and hierarchy of the organization, if it wants to be innovative.
There should be a proper balance between diversity and conflict – co-existing and being the very cause of co-creation.
However, many leaders (positional) do not have (many are not even aware of it) tolerance towards dissent. Many of them are control freaks and micro-managers who think managing innovation means guiding each and everybody in the organization toward mastering and technical capability. They do not understand the art, social and psychological aspects of innovation. They think they have transited into participatory leadership when they unleash the capacity (as if only they had it) and power (as if it is bestowed to them through employment contracts) to think creatively among all of the employees of the organization. Such executives do not understand the fundamentals of leadership. For some of them, frankness, openness, honesty, candidness, truthfulness, sincerity, forthrightness, directness, lack of restraint, straightforwardness, plain-spokenness, plain dealing, and plainness in the organizational environment poses threat to the authority and control they enjoy exercising.
Psychological comfort among employees to voice their opinions and criticize others does not mean it comes as a one-way rule. Every opinion, criticism and defense should be backed up by proper data and logic. On one hand, nobody should need to be too modest and polite in the name of creating family-like culture inside the organization; and on the other hand, nobody opines or criticizes other’s ideas just for the sake of it, or just because they think it’s not feasible or practical. For all practical purposes, innovation is about breaking the path of dependency; it’s about creative destruction and it’s about being uncomfortable with the status quo. For that, the entire organization should feel psychologically safe to share their unconventional, uncomfortable, and unexpected ideas.

A candid organization that celebrates unvarnished candor is likely to outperform a nice organization celebrating politeness when it comes to being innovative. Respect is not the function of niceness and politeness. Two-way honesty and openness are one of the hallmarks of respect. When one can provide and accept brutal criticism for the ideas and opinions being exchanged is when mutual respect is exercised.

It is the job of the leader (at every level), to build a culture where candid debates are not perceived as ‘challenging’; where people do not shy away from logical confrontation in the name of the need to be ‘nice’; where ‘civility’ is not judged on the basis of ‘easy acceptability’ of others’ ideas and opinions. For that, leaders should lead by example through their openness to criticism. They should inculcate in them the behavior of tolerance towards criticism and should be active listeners of such criticism. At the same time, they should not shy away from providing constructive and logical criticism, without sounding or being caustic. They should create a balanced market of demand and supply of logics and anti-logics, thesis and antithesis, ideas and their criticisms. Starting point can be demanding (not only inviting) criticism of their own ideas and propositions.

Linda Hill writes – “Leadership is the secret sauce. But it’s a different kind of leadership, not the kind many of us think about when we think about great leadership”. Giving an example of the environment at the company Pixar she further writes “……What kind of world do people want to belong in at Pixar? A world where you’re living at the frontier. What do they focus their time on? Not on creating a vision…. What can we do to make sure that all the disruptors, all the minority voices in this organization, speak up and are heard? And, finally, let’s bestow credit in a very generous way.” Linda opines “A leader willing to develop innovativeness within the organization nurtures the bottom-up and does not let it degenerate into chaos. Such a leader is a role model, a human glue, a connector, an aggregator of viewpoints, and never a dictator of viewpoints.”

Successful innovation takes a village and it’s the work of horizontal and vertical collaboration across the organization. It’s the product of diversified cognition rather than a single super genius. It is about creating collective genius among the common intellect. Genius should be the way of collaboration where multiple thoughts, skills, capabilities and thoughts come together in order to create something unique and valuable; not the individual or even a specific departmental effort. That is only possible if everybody feels psychologically safe and secure to opine, criticize others’ and defend one’s ideas and thoughts. It’s about the organizational culture which is full of candor, fosters truthfulness, brutal honesty, openness and sharing. It is not about having one amazingly talented leader saving the organization in crisis with innovation as one verse of the Hindu holy book Gita goes ‘Yada yada hi dharmasya glanirbhavati bharata | Abhythanamadharmasya tadatmanam srijamyaham’ (Meaning: I am coming, I am coming, when there is a loss of religion, then I am coming, when the iniquity increases, then I am coming to protect the gentlemen, to destroy the wicked I am coming in to establish religion and I am born in the age of era). Leadership definitely matters, but for innovation, a leader does not have to be the ‘chef’ every time. She should be rather a social architecture within an organization that cares enough to create a culture and environment where each of the ‘cook’ (even mediocre ones) within an organization comes collectively together to contribute their part of efforts resulting in the creation of a new recipe- and not only once, but every time as an order of organization life. At the same time, everybody should feel psychological comfort and safety while going beyond just a nose scrunch and voicing out their logical dissatisfaction upon tasting the food in a fun and explorative environment – does not matter, who the cook is.

Khatri is a Management Consultant and Educator.

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