[HG] FeaturedImage_Managing the Limits of Psychological Safety A Whole Brain® Approach

Managing the Limits of Psychological Safety: A Whole Brain® Approach

Anyone familiar with the study of workplace dynamics knows about the role of psychological safety and the many advocates for this practice. But a recent study led by Wharton’s Peter Cappelli offers a startling revelation: Too much psychological safety might be a pitfall for performance. 

Intrigued? Let’s unpack this together through the lens of Whole Brain® Thinking.

The Paradox of Psychological Safety

We’re believers in psychological safety. As Google famously found, it’s the top driver of successful teams. Psychological safety also contributes to inclusive cultures and diversity of thought, both of which are especially important in our increasingly hybrid working environment.

It’s understandable to think, “What if we added even more safety?” Imagine a workplace utopia where every idea is met with applause and every effort is praised. Sounds ideal, right? Not quite. Cappelli’s research suggests that when psychological safety is dialed up too high, it can actually stifle the very performance it seeks to bolster. It’s like overwatering a plant: a little water is essential, but too much, and you’ll drown it.

Specifically, this applies to what Cappelli and fellow researchers term as “routine” work. Too much psychological safety “distracts employees from their core tasks,” they write, “first, by focusing their attention on more novel tasks, and second, by encouraging them to push boundaries in routine tasks where doing so is counterproductive.”

Not every situation calls for novel thought or pushback. Too little psychological safety, and you’ll never get this critical thinking and feedback, but too much, and you might struggle to get anything done.

The Symphony of Whole Brain® Thinking

Here’s where the elegance of Whole Brain® Thinking dances into the picture. It’s not just about balancing our analytical and creative sides; it’s about orchestrating them in harmony. 

Whole Brain® Thinking doesn’t just accommodate diverse thinking styles without direction. It celebrates them, ensuring that the pendulum of psychological safety swings just right for peak performance. 

As teams build a common language around cognitive diversity, they improve their communication, team effectiveness, engagement, trust, and psychological safety. These benefits serve a common goal of improving thinking and results at the individual, team, and organizational levels. 

Collective Accountability: The Unseen Conductor

The study strikes a chord with the concept of “collective accountability” — a hidden maestro directing the performance. In Whole Brain® Thinking, collective accountability translates to a team where every individual’s thinking style plays a part in the grand scheme of organizational goals. Everyone’s thinking contributes to a melody where creativity and accountability coexist.

Collective accountability can be a powerful counterweight to psychological safety’s potential excesses. “When executed correctly, collective accountability is a cue that redirects workers away from individual behaviors and toward organizational goals,” according to a Wharton analysis of the research. 

By embracing the four quadrants of thinking preferences — analytical, practical, relational, and innovative — organizations can create a culture that celebrates creativity and accountability.

A New Role for Managers

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For the conductors of our workplace orchestras — the managers — this research is a call to fine-tune their approach. It’s about striking the right balance: fostering an environment where people feel safe but are also motivated to deliver their best. 

Whole Brain® Thinking empowers managers to direct this symphony with a deeper understanding of their team’s diverse mental notes. When managers understand the principles of psychological safety and cognitive diversity, they can find that balance — helping employees drive innovation in certain situations and focus on core tasks in others. 

Make sure your managers understand the importance of psychological safety and avoid the negative behaviors that cause fear and mistreatment. But also help them understand that there’s an optimal level. “You can back off on holding managers accountable for high levels of psychological safety,” Cappelli says. “Good enough is good enough. Good enough is what you want.”


So, what’s the takeaway? In the quest for psychological safety, let’s not forget the power of balance. The Whole Brain® Thinking approach isn’t just a method: it’s a mindset that harmonizes safety with performance and creativity with accountability. 

Creating psychological safety at work is important, but don’t stop there. Strive for workplaces that work together and for each other at all times, whether they’re delivering a solo or serving in the ensemble.

Want to bring Whole Brain® Thinking into your team? Download our manager's guide to Whole Brain® Thinking.

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