A lot of us want to master the skill of failing fast and learning fast.

While we can master this on our own individually, there’s a lot to be said about the environment that we’re in.

How many of us have been in group situations where we had an idea or an opinion but did not speak up? And then before we know it, the moment has passed and our thought becomes completely irrelevant.

Off the top of my head, I can think of so many reasons why we would hold back. And I’d guess that most of those reasons could be tied back to fear.

Fear of being wrong. Fear of sounding stupid. Fear of the idea being rejected. Fear of not fitting in. Fear of failure.

We did not feel a sense of intellectual safety.

But what if we were right? What if our idea was something that no one had ever thought of and would make all the difference?

Without intellectual safety, our teams are more susceptible to groupthink, blindspots, not learning from mistakes and failures, and the list goes on.

So what is intellectual safety? How can we create an environment where we feel safe to share our thoughts, ideas and even emotions?

What is Intellectual Safety?

A term that we often hear a lot about is psychological safety. We don’t often hear too much about intellectual safety.

So what is the difference?

To me, psychological safety is a broader term — according to the Garner Glossary, it is an environment that encourages, recognizes and rewards individuals for their contributions and ideas by making individuals feel safe when taking interpersonal risks.

On the other hand, intellectual safety speaks to a specific type of psychological safety. It is an environment that allows people to learn and makes people feel safe to express their thoughts and ideas without the fear of retribution.

A lot of these limitations really come down to fear.

With intellectual safety, individuals are in an environment where they are not afraid to make mistakes and are encouraged to view failure as an opportunity to grow.

Intellectual safety is important because it lets in more voices in the room. It fosters diverse thoughts and ideas. The best ideas often sprout from diverse ways of thinking!

As we can only imagine, if all of our fears of failure are taken away, how many new things would we get to try? How creative and innovative could we be if there were no boundaries?

It is perhaps impossible to completely take away all fears. But as leaders, we can help build a culture where we not only celebrate wins, but we celebrate failures as well. We encourage each other to explore something new everyday.

How to Create Intellectual Safety?

If you have a desire to make an impact and help foster a more intellectually safe environment for your team, below are a few things that you can commit to doing today.


As with any sustainable change, it’ll take time! Every little step counts and will aggregate into a big impact.

Ways to Nurture an Intellectually Safe Working Environment


  • Learn to say “Yes, and…”

Not “yes, or…”, “yes, but…” or “no, and…” — it’s “YES, AND…

The next time someone throws out an idea in a meeting, take a breath and think about how you can add to that idea. The goal here is not to subtract from someone. Commit to making each other feel heard and valued.

  • Celebrate wins and failures often.

When was the last time you asked your team to celebrate something great that happened?

On the flip side, when was the last time you shared what didn’t go so great and what you learned from it?

It’s time to make these conversations the norm. Try incorporating these conversations in some of your status meetings.

Here’s an old post I wrote on “Celebrating Small Win for Big Impact.”

  • Commit to learning or trying one new thing everyday.

As a part of building a culture of growth, you, as a leader, need to first prioritize growth.

Commit to learning or trying one new thing every single day. Make it a habit to reflect on it and share some of your learnings with your colleagues. They can be related to your professional or personal passions so there are ways to make these conversations fun!

Create an environment where sharing our learnings with each other is the norm. You’ll also be surprised how much you’ll end up learning about one another.

  • Hear from different voices in the room.

Make it a priority to seek other perspectives in the room. Provide an environment where everyone has equal opportunity to contribute their thoughts and ideas.

Intellectual Safety and Trust

An intellectually safe environment can help teams achieve great things. But more importantly, it helps to build trust and engagement.

What do you do currently to foster intellectual safety on your team?

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