Creativity is scary. Any time you build something new fear lurks around the corner. Because even if it’s not rational, your perception of risk rises when your potential for failure is at its highest. Perhaps this is why when you take a conscious risk you unconsciously try to mitigate any unnecessary additional risks. This has a number of significant consequences for businesses. You want to feel safer when you take risks so you seek out psychological safety from your associates. The principle is simple. You will only take risks if you believe you don’t be punished for it. Psychological safety has been shown to be crucial for teamwork.
I’d wager this is a factor in why startup teams tend to be homogeneous as human nature makes it harder to trust what we don’t know well. Which is fascinating when you consider that diversity is also an important factor in financial performance. And as much as this principle of psychological safety been discussed for team performance, there is one area in startup land where feeling safe is rarely cultivated: venture capital.
Venture’s entire culture is steeped in cliches of competition and combativeness. Which seems odd for a group that theoretically prizes high performance. Wouldn’t they benefit from cultivating psychological safety the most? If entrepreneurs are solving entirely new problems with high chances of failure feeling like they can trust their financial partners should be a top priority. And surely plenty of ink has been spilled on picking good partners in the literature of startup advice. And yet the atmosphere of distrust is pervasive. Venture capitalist and entrepreneur are constantly managing the information flow between each other. Which is exactly the opposite of what creates the necessary safety to take creative risk. So why isn’t this discussed more?
Imagine a fund who instead of poking holes in your data or lobbing grenades in your plans instead showed it was sensitive to the parade of fear and doubt that pervades most decisions. You’d get more done by a mile. Ideas could be refined instead of defended. Plans could be buttressed and shored up rather than rationalized. Having safety will lower the kind of inhibiting social pressures to show “that you are always crushing it” perhaps enough to produce startups that actually do go on to crush it.
This strategy could shift the dynamics of a firm’s competitiveness too. In group dynamics of status and posturing prioritize deal flow among only in group group members which disadvantages everyone by increasing competitive deals and rising prices. Funds who who have psychological safe founder relations will then disproportionately control what deals get done as the creative risk takers will seek them out. That kind of deal flow would be a major leverage point. Rather than getting stuck fighting for the same deals everyone agrees on (which isn’t a sign of quality no matter how much we want it to be so) venture fund that sticks to prioritizing psychological safety will spend more time with productive risk taking that builds the future.
Developing emotional capacity isn’t a platitude. It’s grueling work that takes place over years, sometimes to little effect given our innate resistance to change. But it is truly transformative.