The Power of Psychological Safety

Research highlights the crucial connection between leader curiosity, psychological safety, and follower voice.

Grant H Brenner


Photo by Fauxels/Pexel

“The capacity to be puzzled is the premise of all creation, be it in art or in science.”

-Erich Fromm

Curiosity is a powerful driver of human behavior, necessary for survival from an evolutionary point of view, and considered to be one of the core motivational systems baked into the brain. According to work by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp (Davis & Montag, 2019), the “SEEKING” system, alongside CARE, PLAY, LUST, FEAR, SADNESS and ANGER, is a primary emotion, critical for meeting basic needs (e.g. looking for sources of food and shelter) as well as for more sophisticated activities in the social and personal world (e.g. making new connections, being open to novel ideas, enabling personal growth).

Curiosity as a Basic Instinct

From a clinical point of view, the SEEKING system has been implicated in depression (Coenen, Schlaepfer & Bonn, 2012). When our capacity to explore, seek solutions, learn new things, and generally seek unfamiliar territory is hampered, we may be not only predisposed to becoming depressed but might have more difficulty emerging from depression.

Nothing puts a damper on curiosity like learned helplessness -a factor shown to be core in animal models of depression. For example, in classic if troubling research (Seligman, 1972), dogs forced to endure shocks learn to stop looking for a way to escape from pain. Even when there is an open door, such conditioning keeps them from getting up and walking out.

The Most Valuable Leadership Trait You Can Have?

In the workplace, exploratory behavior is critical for success, in spite of admonitions that “curiosity killed the cat”. In dynamic environments, businesses shift between innovation and replication, both strategies requiring investigation. (Axelrod & Cohen, 2001). For teams, searching for solutions creates a competitive edge, whether the solutions are innovative approaches to longstanding problems or adaptations of existing solutions from competitors and adjacent industries.



Grant H Brenner

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Disaster Responder, Advocate, Photographer