By Michaela O’Donnell Long

(Editor’s note: Michaela O’Donnell Long is a business owner and doctoral student in Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this series she explores the intersection of creativity, adaptive change, and workplace design.)

We live in a world that prizes innovation. But aside from large-scale innovation—the kind that happens in glamorous tech start-ups or high-priced research labs, how do normal people and organizations create space that fosters innovation? New ideas, processes, and even ways of being come when people feel safe but also challenged; loved but also pressured; supported but also critiqued. Space that allows for seemingly dichotomous realties to occur is difficult to achieve. In the literature on leadership, the term for a safe yet challenging space is holding environment.

A holding environment is a psychological space that is safe enough to confront deeply held assumptions, yet also challenging enough that people are actually motivated toward change. The concept originates with D.W. Winnicott, a psychologist who studied holding in the context of mothers and infants. Winnicott claimed that because babies are dependent, it is the role of the mother, and eventually the father, to hold the baby in a way that adequately meets the needs for growth. As the infant develops, the holding environment adapts and expands, meeting the growing needs of the child. In the same way that a family member holds a child, Winnicott proposes that a clinician can provide a sense of holding in casework. For more from Winnicott, see his Home is Where We Start From: Essays by a Psychoanalyst (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1986) and The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (New York: International Universities Press, 1965).

Holding Environment Definition

Ronald Heifetz, author of Leadership without Easy Answers, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading with Marty Linsky, and “The Work of Leadership,” with Donald Laurie, famously applies Winnicott’s concept of a holding environment to the study and practice of organizational leadership. Specifically, he teaches that it is a leader’s role to construct a holding environment for adaptive change.  Adaptive change is the type of change that challenges assumptions and holds an unclear future—switching jobs, parents having a baby, an organization losing their founder, etc.  Any time we face adaptive change, the way we make sense of the world is challenged. Heifetz sees a holding environment as space in which a leader can help regulate the stress that occurs when our beliefs and values are challenged.  The objective of the leader is to make the environment challenging enough that people feel the pressure to confront change, but safe enough that they can actually do so.

A well-worn copy of a book on Donald Woods Winnicott

A well-worn copy of a book on Donald Woods Winnicott

Holding environments can help us develop and change as we aim to discover new possibilities and foster innovation. But before we run out and try to create environments that are both safe and challenging, let’s start by learning to recognize the ones already in our midst. By doing so, we can ready ourselves for the moments of creativity and innovation presently available to us. Personally, I find that I am both safe and challenged when I watch a film in which the story moves me, when I’m in a brainstorming session with trusted colleagues, or even when I’m in a classroom learning. If the space offers chance for meaning-making in a way that is both inviting and also motivating, I’m likely to be held.

In the next installment in this series, I’ll discuss why holding environments are especially important for creativity. But, because I know you’re dying for homework, work on identifying the spaces in your organizational or personal life that are naturally both safe and challenging.

Michaela O’Donnell Long is the co-owner of Long Winter Media, which specializes in crafting story through film, image, and word. She is pursuing a PhD in Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a doctoral fellow of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email The Editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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