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Is team innovation declining? A Sabre game has been a ‘Canary in the Coalmine’ since 1993.

Is ‘faux psychological safety’ and compliant culture behind a noticeable decline in team innovation?

Operation Rollerball is a sophisticated team task where teams design and execute a solution to a challenging brief in real-time. We have run it thousands of times since the early 90s. The game has not changed, but the cultures of many large organisations using it have, and so too, have the average scores attained in this game. They have unequivocally dropped.

Teams that work well and that can innovate effectively in the game achieve the highest bandwidths of scores. As team performance and the ability to innovate collectively dips, so too do the scores they can attain.

We have seen the number of teams able to achieve the top-scoring bandwidths in this task decline significantly over the years.

The activity is delivered many times a year for a broad mix of corporate, government, NGO, education and student clients. Moreover, it has been undertaken across the spectrum, from frontline teams to senior management teams across many different industries.

The observations of the Sabre team are from a team of highly experienced professionals in this field; they are however, anecdotal (we wish we’d kept some rigid statistics on this). Nevertheless, the steady decline in the ability of teams to innovate to achieve the top scores is apparent to us and universally agreed upon by the Sabre team.

The issue seems far less prevalent in Blue Collar workplaces, Defence and SMEs than in corporate and government White Collar workplaces. Large-scale organisational culture change initiatives seem to have flown a little too close to the sun here in attempts to create ‘ideal cultures instead of polishing ‘real’ ones. As a result, it may inadvertently have de-skilled many teams.

Why the drop?

We feel that increasingly contrived and compliant cultures in large organisations have people feeling less able to project their natural behavioural strengths at work. Superficial attempts at creating psychological safety may, ironically, stifle natural behaviours and can produce some masking of natural behaviours to avoid ‘rocking the boat’ at work. This limits people’s ability to project behavioural strengths when they may actually be needed to solve a collective problem (especially when under pressure).

Actual psychological safety requires good leadership, a deep understanding of self and others, and allowing people to be themselves (albeit well-managed versions at work). When it is present a team's collective IQ / ability to project strength and solve problems increases, when it isn't, that collective IQ drops.

Feeling the need to overly modify our behaviour at work (or doing it subconsciously to fit in) can lead to dissonance, insincerity in our interactions, emotional exhaustion and damaged working relationships. It also stifles the speed and quality of a team’s collective ability to innovate under pressure.

We feel that innovation is a ‘whole team affair’ and teams with a healthy balance of roles and operating styles will generally and reliably do better, as do teams that cultivate genuine psychological safety (predicated on good leadership). People that feel confident to project their natural behaviours at work will be better enabled to project behavioural strengths when needed.

Authentic team culture is essential, and a lack of authenticity where people cannot safely contribute their natural behavioural strengths (and weaknesses), we feel, will rapidly kill an ability to innovate. Teams that use the superficial language of psychological safety yet actually suppress the natural behavioural styles of some because they differ from their own or are seen as outside of imposed cultural norms can miss the mark under pressure.

Over the years, we have seen teams increasingly ‘walking on eggshells’ in what feels like manufactured and compliant cultures. This seems proportional to apparent declines in the quality with which teams can innovate under pressure.

Affectations of faux psychological safety don’t cut it when what is needed for performance is the real thing. Unfortunately, many ‘play the prevailing culture game’ at work and overly moderate their natural behaviours to fit artificially crafted values instead of making their natural contributions to teamwork. This can hinder team chemistry and an ability to project behavioural strengths onto a problem (individually and collectively).

We see many people using language and behaviours at work that they simply would not use outside of work. The debate over the implications of social contract and 'work self' vs 'home self' in terms of behaviour is another topic altogether of course. Sometimes this is, of course, a natural and healthy adaptation to a professional environment. Yet, increasingly we see people merely conforming to an imposed compliant culture and thus suffering some cognitive dissonance.

A potential fix.

While adapting behaviours to manage weakness and suit a particular environment can be advantageous when based on true self-awareness, artificially masking behaviour (both strengths and weaknesses) to merely avoid rocking the boat culturally, is not indicative of genuine psychological safety.

Team processes that achieve genuine innovation in real-time and under pressure need people to be themselves, just well-managed versions themselves.

We’ll be doing more evidence-based analysis now that the trend is evident.

At the heart of the matter, we feel that cultural authenticity within teams has been replaced in many large organisations with somewhat more contrived cookie-cutter cultures. People who mask behaviour because they need to fit in are often not bringing their best to the team.

We find the Belbin Model and its reports a valuable tool to help individuals and teams identify the behaviours that fuel a team’s culture. Teams we see do well, understand and then develop the organic culture that is there instead of seeking to impose contrived behaviours onto existing teams.

We feel it’s better to identify the behaviours that naturally exist within the team and then work to allow people to adapt them authentically.

A common language like Belbin based on evidence-based reports provides a solid foundation for genuine team development and working with authentic team cultures.

To find out more contact us:

T - 1300 731 381 E -


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