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The Bonsai Effect: Psychological Safety and Arrested Development


The "Bonsai Effect" is a metaphor to describe the consequences of a lack of psychological safety in the workplace.


When I mentioned the idea in a workshop on psychological safety in Japan, one of the participants laughed.

They explained, "In Japan, we love bonsai because they are pretty and nice."

And, that is exactly what many managers do: Employees should do what is expected. No, surprises, nothing to shake things either.

And that kills creativite and critical thinking.


Just as a bonsai tree is deliberately kept small through restrictive potting and pruning, employees may experience a form of arrested development when they are constrained by a lack of psychological safety. This section explores how this phenomenon limits the growth potential of individuals and, by extension, the organization’s capacity for innovation and adaptation in the context of digital transformation.


1. Restricted Growth

In a work environment lacking psychological safety, employees tend to conform to the minimal expectations set by their leaders, avoiding any actions that might be perceived as mistakes or risks. This leads to restricted professional growth, similar to how the roots of a bonsai tree are trimmed to prevent it from growing beyond a manageable size. Employees fail to develop beyond their initial boundaries and are unable to fully mature in their roles.


2. Limited Exploration

A bonsai tree's environment is carefully controlled to shape its appearance according to the gardener's vision, limiting its natural tendency to explore and expand. Similarly, employees in environments with low psychological safety are less likely to explore innovative ideas or pursue new learning opportunities, fearing negative repercussions for stepping beyond the established norms or expectations. This limitation severely hampers their ability to contribute to creative processes essential for digital transformation.


3. Stifled Creativity

Creativity requires the ability to see possibilities beyond current realities. A bonsai, however, is defined by imposed limitations rather than natural growth potential. When employees are treated in ways that echo the bonsai treatment—constantly pruned and shaped by criticism or the fear thereof—they are less likely to think creatively or propose innovative solutions, which are critical competencies in digital transformation efforts.


4. Vulnerability to Environmental Changes

Just as bonsais are not resilient against environmental stresses due to their restricted root systems, employees who have not been allowed to grow through challenges may lack resilience. In the fast-paced world of digital technology, where adaptability is key, this lack of resilience can be detrimental. An organization full of "bonsai" employees will struggle to adapt to new technologies, methodologies, and shifts in the market.


Importance of Creativity in Digital Transformation

Digital transformation involves integrating digital technology into all areas of a business, fundamentally changing how you operate and deliver value to customers. It's not just about adopting new technologies but also about rethinking old operating models, experimenting with new strategic approaches, and innovating continuously. Creativity is the backbone of these endeavors, allowing organizations to navigate the complexities of transformation and come up with novel solutions to technological and operational challenges.


The Impact of Psychological Safety on Creativity

1. Encouraging Experimentation

A key aspect of digital transformation is the ability to pilot new technologies and business models, which inherently involves risk and the potential for failure. Amy Edmondson's research shows that psychological safety enables teams to embrace risk and view failures as learning opportunities rather than threats, fostering an innovative mindset that is critical for digital transformation (Edmondson, 1999).


2. Supporting Diverse Thinking

Digital transformation benefits significantly from diverse thinking, which can challenge the status quo and lead to breakthrough innovations. Psychological safety ensures that all employees, regardless of their background or role, feel confident to voice their unique perspectives and ideas. Teresa Amabile highlights that environments which support psychological safety enhance intrinsic motivation, which is a key driver of creativity (Amabile, 1983).


3. Facilitating Collaboration Across Disciplines

Successful digital transformation often requires seamless collaboration across various functions and departments, many of which may not typically work together. Psychological safety fosters an environment where team members feel safe to express thoughts and ask questions, paving the way for effective interdisciplinary collaboration and integrated solutions.


Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace

a. Leadership Commitment to Openness and Inclusivity

Leaders must model the behaviors of openness and inclusivity, actively encouraging and responding to feedback from all levels of the organization. By doing so, they set a tone that it’s safe to experiment and that every idea is valued, which is crucial for sustaining creativity.


b. Normalize Learning from Failures

Organizations that successfully undergo digital transformation are those that learn quickly from their failures. Creating a culture that views failures as stepping stones rather than setbacks is essential for maintaining the pace of innovation needed for digital transformation.


c. Enable Continuous Learning

Digital transformation requires constant upskilling and reskilling. Establishing ongoing learning opportunities that are accessible to all employees can support a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.


Enhancing Psychological Safety to Counter the Bonsai Effect

To counteract the Bonsai Effect and foster an environment of growth rather than restriction, organizations must prioritize and cultivate psychological safety. By doing so, they enable employees to expand their skills, explore new ideas freely, and fully develop into robust professionals capable of driving meaningful digital transformation. Leaders play a crucial role in this by modeling openness, appreciating innovative efforts, and nurturing a culture that views mistakes as valuable learning opportunities.

The challenge of digital transformation is not just technological but deeply human.


References

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly.Amabile, T. (1983). The Social Psychology of Creativity: A Componential Conceptualization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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