Design for Team Innovation: How Leaders Create Psychological Safety

Looking up between two glass office buildings

In 2018, 32-year-old Kyle Dubas became the new General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He broke from tradition in many ways: he was much younger than his predecessor, 75-year-old Lou Lamoriello, and he brought analytics to hockey where others ignored or looked down on a data-driven approach. But other important culture changes impacted the Leafs players directly.“I think players can talk to him more comfortably than Lou… He’s more approachable,” one player said on Althétique, a sports news site. “He really listens to players,” another player mentioned. What did Kyle do differently than Lou, that players felt heard and were comfortable talking to him?

Under Kyle’s new leadership style, he shares his expectations of players directly, not through the media, according to a Sports Blog Nation post. Players could now be their unique selves; according to a Canadian Press article, Kyle lifted a ban on beards, moustaches, and long hair. Most importantly, this openness can help players talk about crucial, win-or-loss issues like injuries because they feel safe speaking up to the General Manager.


Leaders like Kyle Dubas set teams down a path of openness, sharing, and self-expression. This is very different than leaders who use fear and control. According to a Science of Work post by Wendy Hirsch, ignoring bad leadership can cost almost $24 billion in productivity, work absences, and health costs. In today’s new world of work, leaders like Kyle Dubas are the cornerstone to drive innovation, creativity and team performance. They are “transformational” leaders, demonstrating the qualities and behaviours of the ideal team manager.

Transformational leadership is the most effective leadership strategy

So often, companies promote people to managerial positions without any experience managing teams. Identifying transformational leadership criteria and embedding these into the hiring and promotion systems is the critical first step towards team performance. Transformational leaders like Kyle do four things: they build trust, act with integrity, encourage innovation, and develop their people.

  • Builds Trust: Leaders instill pride through meaningful work and by empowering employees to reach their goals
  • Acts with Integrity: Team members are motivated by the leader’s passion and ability to act in alignment with their values
  • Encourages Innovation: Leaders encourage their teams to explore new ideas, embracing risk, failure and continual learning
  • Develops People: Team members are supported to be their unique selves and recognized for their contributions
(Attribute 4 attributes to Kendra Cherry of Very Well Mind)

We Need Leadership That Meets Our Universal BAM Needs

Transformational leaders serve their teams by tapping into their BAM needs: belonging, autonomy, and mastery. These BAM needs are our deepest motivational drivers. Leaders can and should fulfill these needs in their team. We all need to belong to a group, have autonomy over ourselves, and strive for mastery.

  • When leaders build belonging, team members feel connected and support their group
  • When leaders create autonomy, team members are coached to find the answer, not micromanaged
  • When leaders enable mastery, team members grow and develop while collaborating

Leaders that serve these three needs can better motivate their teams, create a safe space to speak up, and ensure everyone’s voice is amplified. The result? Stronger business results, including higher motivation, retention, and performance.

How can we practice transformational leadership to create psychological safety and innovation?

Think Small: Practice Transformational Leadership Habits

Modeling behaviour that reflects our shared values helps improve our team culture. All of us can and should practice transformational leadership. It can feel unnatural at first, but these behaviours get easier as we practice them. Here are three small habits that leaders can practice every day:

  • Communicate Specific, Easy-to-Imagine Goals
    Which goal creates better team outcomes: “To see a city full of hybrid cars” or “To improve our environmental sustainability”? The concrete goal, “To see a city of hybrid cars”, is the correct answer. It helps teams feel a shared purpose and improves coordination.
    Teams can reach that specific, easy-to-imagine goal faster than a vague, abstract concept. Grand speeches with intangible messages and a focus on values can feel inspiring. But leaders make innovation possible when they communicate goals using concrete descriptors of people, objects and actions. This small habit to frame team goals with specificity makes a big difference in team performance.
  • Recognition is Contagious
    Small acts of belonging have rippling effects throughout the organization. When leaders design for belonging, team members pass positive feelings, like gratitude, onto others, motivating them to go above and beyond for others. Being a belonging architect means recognizing each person’s unique contribution through questions such as, “Do you have suggestions to improve our approach so far?” or “How can we use your unique skills in this new project?”.
  • Bring Your Best Self to Work
    Aviation safety requires that, in the event of an emergency, parents place their air mask on themselves before their child. The same holds true for leaders. Research has shown that transformational leaders know that their stress levels directly impact the motivation and engagement of their employees. Counteract demanding work and personal stresses by building healthy habits towards your mental and physical health. Your team will love you for it!

Small changes. Big difference.

By practicing small habits every day, leaders can become more transformational, meet their teams’ needs better, and create the right conditions for innovation. Habit building needs continued practice. One small action at a time, consistently delivered to your team, is the recipe for better leadership.

Let’s Make Inclusion Stick!

Harry Sharma

Sylvia Apostolidis

President, The Jasmar Group

Natasha Ouslis

Natasha Ouslis

Principal Behavioural Scientist, The Jasmar Group

About Us:
The Jasmar Group is a behaviour change consultancy that helps organizations build team belonging, culture, and performance.

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