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4 Stages of Psychological Safety: LeaderFactor's Model

The 4 stages of psychological safety is a universal framework that explains the necessary cultural elements of any high-performing, inclusive team. Teams that both understand their needs and how to fulfill those needs in effective, meaningful ways, are more likely to stay engaged, retained, and contribute meaningfully. These pillars of psychological safety are critical to employee mental health and well-being, innovation, and inclusion. Without them, people are confined to feeling fearful and inauthentic at work.

The four quadrants of psychological safety are inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety. Each of these stages highlights a unique human need that exists across demographics, geographics, and psychographics. As teams work to build psychological safety across its four stages, they build the foundation of a strong, deliberate, and healthy culture.

Leaderfactor Psychological Safety

At LeaderFactor psychological safety is defined as a culture of rewarded vulnerability. This means that leaders and employees alike actively work to model and reward authentic human interaction, like learning, making mistakes, trying new things, sharing something personal, and challenging the status quo. As that behavior is modeled, teams start to believe that they, too can be vulnerable at work. And what happens when your teams feel like they can be their full selves? They start engaging their full potential in their roles. Not only that, but they think outside their role as they work inside it. 

The 4 stages of psychological safety give teams a concrete path forward as they work to model and reward vulnerability in their workplace interactions. Teams that understand the framework are able to identify problems and instances of punished vulnerability in any of the stages and target those behaviors specifically. 

Timothy Clark Psychological Safety

Timothy R Clark is the author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation and the creator of the 4 Stages framework. His leadership and psychological safety books focus on actionable ways to measure and improve psychological safety at the team level. 

According to Timothy Clark psychological safety is the lead measure of cultural health, and has widespread influence on employee engagement, retention, and well-being. You can download a 4 stages of psychological safety summary book excerpt on LeaderFactor’s website.

Psychological Safety Framework

The 4 stages of psychological safety framework has four components, inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety. In order to understand each one a little better, we’re breaking them down into their definitions, as well as some stage-specific psychological safety examples for you:

Inclusion Safety

Can you be your authentic self on your team? Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. In this stage worth precedes worthiness. All you have to do to qualify for inclusion safety is be human and harmless. 

When you have inclusion safety you can bring your whole self to work. When you don’t, superiority and hierarchy dominate your company culture. Barriers are maintained and reinforced. You might be officially on a team, but you won’t feel part of the team without inclusion safety. 

Inclusion Safety Examples

Give people space to talk.

Don't immediately respond with your own story or perspective. Keep your colleagues talking and encourage them to share more. The more validation they feel when sharing something personal, the more likely they will be to engage again in the future. This can create a more meaningful relationship for both of you.

Express curiosity.

If someone looks, speaks, eats, or acts differently than you, show curiosity. Phrases like "Can you tell me about…", "I noticed that…", or "Would you teach me…", are all ways to express curiosity. Sincere curiosity is disarming and helps people feel that you're genuinely interested in who they are and how they do things.

Verbally acknowledge and actively respect boundaries.

It can be difficult to set boundaries, but our needs are part of our authentic selves. Identify the needs of your team members. Let each person know that you’re aware of their boundaries and communicate what you will do to respect them. Set an expectation of maintaining boundaries in your team culture. 

Learner Safety

Do you have the space to grow? Learning and growing is a fundamental need that needs to be satisfied in order for innovation to flourish in an organization. In this stage, fear is detached from mistakes, and mistakes are rewarded as part of the learning process. But to qualify for learner safety you have to engage in the learning process, it won’t happen organically. 

When you have learner safety in your organization learning is encouraged and celebrated. Learners are protected. When you don’t, mistakes are hidden and punished. Your team executes more than they innovate.

Learner Safety Examples

Value honesty over correct answers.

Work is inherently performance-based. For some people, admitting that they don't know is equated with admitting that they cannot perform. Honesty will move the needle forward a whole lot faster than pretending to have the answers. Choose to value your colleague’s honesty over their perceived inability to contribute.

Don't assume competency.

What might feel obvious to you may not be for someone who’s new to a task. It’s hard to strike the balance between over-explaining and avoiding assumptions. Asking questions such as "Have you done something similar to this before?" or "Are you already familiar with this concept?" takes the pressure off of your team member to feign experience and understanding. Once you establish where they’re at, pick up where they left off and fill in the gaps. 

Identify what was learned.

Mistakes are most valuable when you can determine what was learned from them. Verbalize what new information you now have as a result of the mistake. Make your colleagues believe in the underlying benefits of their mistake.

Contributor Safety

Can you create value for your team? Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need to make a difference and offer meaningful contributions. When we create contributor safety for others, we empower them with autonomy, guidance, and encouragement in exchange for effort and results. 

When you have contributor safety in your organization your team thrives under outcome accountability. Roles are clearly defined, but people are encouraged to think outside of their roles. Small wins are celebrated. When you don’t, autonomy is given with little to no guidance, and team members may feel like benchwarmers.

Contributor Safety Examples

Ask permission before you give feedback.

Sometimes it's as simple as that! Asking for permission can diffuse some of the emotional risks associated with giving feedback. Try "Hey, may I give you some feedback?" If you get a yes, you're more likely to be met with gratitude and sincerity.

Encourage equal participation.

Let your team know that you expect their input. If someone isn't participating, kindly ask them if they have thoughts. Ask specific questions if they need direction.

Make expectations the bookends of your meeting.

In meetings where tasks are being assigned and discussed, begin with the anticipated expectations of both the meeting and the tasks at hand. At the end of the meeting, reiterate what was discussed and make the necessary edits to the initial expectations.

Challenger Safety

Do you feel like you can be candid about change? Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better. When we create challenger safety, we give air cover (protection) in exchange for candor. 

Challenger safety gives team members a voice to speak up when there is an opportunity to improve. People can disagree productively. When you don’t have challenger safety teams fall silent and people are punished for their bravery and candor. 

Challenger Safety Examples

Ask for the bad news.

You’ll be surprised what people are willing to call out when they’re asked specifically for the bad news in tandem with the good news. They will highlight problems that, when solved, will pay dividends for your team. It will show your colleagues that you embrace all aspects of the innovation process.

Assign dissent.

If you’ve found yourself in an echo chamber or knee-deep in groupthink, ask a colleague to play devil’s advocate. Give them permission to disagree, even if they don’t think something needs to be re-examined. Ask questions like: “What are we missing here?” or “Could this be done differently?”

Show gratitude for the opportunity to learn and improve.

Bravery is a noble characteristic, one that shouldn’t be shut down. Even if you feel embarrassed by the mistake, don’t let that guide your reaction to their bravery. They want the best for you and for your organization, otherwise, they wouldn’t have mentioned the mistake in the first place. Be open and honest, not guarded and cold. Expect the same reaction from them. 

Psychological Safety And Accountability Matrix

There’s a reason why we’ve automated so many monotonous workplace tasks as technology has advanced: Humans crave fulfillment, and work is meaningful when we can create value, not just complete tasks. Contributor safety, the third stage in the 4 stages of psychological safety, protects our innate desire to do just that. Sometimes we get in our own way. Sometimes we get in each others' way.

Accountability and autonomy play a critical role in building an organizational culture of contributor safety. When you have contributor safety in your organization your team thrives under outcome accountability. Roles are clearly defined, but people are also encouraged to think outside of their roles. When you don’t have contributor safety, chaos ensues. Autonomy might be given with little to no guidance, or team members may feel like micromanaged benchwarmers. Your teams could be stuck in the mundane routine of task execution, unengaged, and unhappy with their contributions to your organization. On the flip side, they may have all the autonomy in the world, but not enough direction to make anything worthwhile happen.

Where do your teams execute currently? To build contributor safety on your teams, provide more autonomy (with guidance) to move your people up the ladder of accountability. Doing so will provide employees with more opportunities for fulfilling work.

The Importance of Psychological Safety

The importance of psychological safety is clear when you understand just how important your organizational culture is. The same way that fish have water, humans have culture. You can’t just step out of culture and dry yourself off with a towel. You’re in it, and it’s in you. Culture is a complicated blend of values, assumptions, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and customs. But at the end of the day, it all comes out in the way we interact. 

Being human is a vulnerable thing. It always has been, and our guess is that it always will be. Broken interactions between humans punish our innate vulnerabilities. These kinds of interactions seem to saturate our workplaces, our relationships, and the digital sphere. We live in a world full of human collision that leaves a wake of bruises, insecurities, and scars that inhibits connection and stifles change.

Psychological safety is the key to mending broken interactions and creating cultures of rewarded vulnerability in every social setting. Yes, we use the workplace as our primary example in this book, but that’s because the primary benefits of psychological safety have unique workplace dividends. Psychological safety creates sanctuaries of inclusion and incubators of innovation where people feel safe to be their authentic selves and create value exponentially.

4 Stages of Psychological Safety Team Survey

Measuring Psychological Safety within your organization is the first step to understanding how to improve it at the team level. The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Team Survey will give you unique insight into your teams’ pockets of rewarded and punished vulnerabilities, help you identify pain points, and match those cultural symptoms with psychologically safe behaviors. The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Behavior Guide, a companion to Timothy Clark’s book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, outlines over 100 of these behaviors. 

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