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Creating Psychological Safety: 4 Things You Need


Psychological safety is a term that has been gaining popularity in recent years, especially in the workplace. It is defined as a culture of rewarded vulnerability, where individuals feel safe to take risks and be their authentic selves without fear of negative consequences. This culture creates sanctuaries of inclusion and incubators of innovation, where people can collaborate, share ideas, and create value exponentially.

In order to build psychological safety, organizations need to focus on modeling and rewarding vulnerability across the four stages. Dr. Timothy R. Clark, CEO of LeaderFactor and author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, has identified a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. This framework outlines four stages that teams must move through in order to feel included, safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo.

However, psychological safety, just like culture, is a delicate thing that requires intention and effort to build and maintain. Culture is the foundation of any organization, and if it is not carefully nurtured, it can easily crumble. Here are three things that make culture a delicate thing:

  1. Culture is shaped by people: While the tone of the organization is definitely shaped by the top-down, culture can’t be dictated. If what you say doesn’t match what you model in your interactions, you’ll never create a culture that you want to have. 
  1. Culture is influenced by external factors: Culture is not created in a vacuum. It is influenced by external factors such as societal norms, political climate, and economic trends. These external factors can impact the way people behave and interact within the organization, which can in turn impact the culture.
  1. Culture is constantly evolving: Culture is not a static thing. It is constantly evolving and changing based on the experiences and interactions of the people within the organization. This means that organizations need to be flexible and adaptable in order to keep up with these changes.

In the following sections, we will dive deeper into the concept of psychological safety and explore how organizations can create and maintain a culture of inclusion and innovation.

Defining Psychological Safety

Understanding the definition of psychological safety is crucial to understanding its importance in building a healthy culture. Psychological safety refers to a workplace culture in which employees feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks, speaking up, and being their authentic selves without fear of negative consequences. It's the foundation of an inclusive environment that promotes innovation and collaboration. Trust and vulnerability are key components of psychological safety, as employees need to feel that they can be open and honest without facing repercussions. By creating a culture of psychological safety, organizations can cultivate a sense of belonging and promote high levels of engagement among their workforce.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

The four stages of psychological safety are a natural progression of human needs in social settings. As Timothy R. Clark explains in his book "The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety," each stage builds upon the previous one, creating a culture of rewarded vulnerability.

The first stage is inclusion safety, where individuals feel accepted and included. Inclusion safety is characterized by behaviors such as active listening, appreciation of differences, and an absence of derogatory remarks or jokes. Inclusion safety lays the foundation for psychological safety by creating a sense of belonging.

The second stage is learner safety, where individuals feel safe to learn, experiment, and ask questions. Learner safety encourages growth and development, allowing individuals to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

The third stage is contributor safety, where individuals feel safe to contribute their ideas and take risks. Contributor safety allows individuals to share their unique perspectives and collaborate with others to create value exponentially.

The fourth stage is challenger safety, where individuals feel safe to challenge the status quo and voice dissenting opinions. Challenger safety allows individuals to engage in healthy debate and constructive conflict, leading to innovation and continuous improvement.

By creating a culture of psychological safety across all four stages, teams can thrive and reach their full potential. It's important to note that these stages are not linear and can be revisited as needed to maintain a healthy culture of psychological safety.

Modeling and Rewarding Vulnerability

Building psychological safety in a team or organization requires not only understanding its importance, but also taking action to create an environment where vulnerability is modeled and rewarded. Leaders who model vulnerability demonstrate that it is safe to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from failures. This creates a culture of trust, where team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns without fear of judgment or retribution.

Leaders can model vulnerability in various ways, such as sharing their own mistakes, asking for help, or admitting when they don't know something. By doing so, they show their team members that vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. Leaders can also encourage vulnerability by creating a safe space for feedback and open communication.

In addition to modeling vulnerability, leaders should also reward it. When team members take risks and share their ideas, they should be acknowledged and praised for their contributions. This reinforces the behavior and encourages others to do the same. Rewards don't necessarily have to be monetary or material; sometimes a simple acknowledgment or thank you is enough to make someone feel appreciated and valued.

Here are some common ways to create psychological safety:

Physically Face People

When communicating with others, face them directly. This demonstrates that you are present and attentive, and creates a sense of connection.

Identify Negative Bias

Acknowledge and address any negative biases that may be present in the team or organization. This helps to create a more inclusive and diverse environment.

Don’t Flaunt Perks or Status Symbols

Avoid emphasizing differences in status or hierarchy. This helps to create a more level playing field where everyone's contributions are valued equally.

Follow Through on Small Commitments

This demonstrates reliability and trustworthiness and creates a sense of accountability.

Share Past Mistakes

By sharing past mistakes, leaders show that they are human and fallible. This helps to create a culture where mistakes are viewed as opportunities for growth and learning.

Ask For Help From Those in Different Roles

This demonstrates a willingness to learn from others and shows that everyone's contributions are valued.

Reinforce Learning Potential

Emphasize the potential for learning and growth, rather than focusing solely on performance outcomes.

Give Stretch Assignments

Provide opportunities for team members to take on new challenges and expand their skills. This demonstrates confidence in their abilities and encourages risk-taking.

Weigh in Last

Leaders should encourage others to share their thoughts and ideas before sharing their own. This helps to create an environment where everyone's input is valued equally.

By modeling vulnerability and creating a safe and inclusive environment, leaders can build psychological safety in their teams and organizations. This leads to improved communication, increased innovation, and a stronger sense of trust and collaboration.

Implementing Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is not something that can be achieved overnight, but rather it is a continuous process that requires commitment and effort from leaders and team members alike. In order to implement psychological safety in an organization, there are several steps that must be taken.

The first step is to create a shared language and understanding of what psychological safety is and why it is important. This can be achieved through training sessions, workshops, and open discussions.

The second step is to measure the current level of psychological safety in the organization. This can be done through surveys or other assessments that measure employee perceptions of safety, trust, and inclusion.

The third step is to improve psychological safety through modeling and rewarding acts of vulnerability. Leaders must set the tone by being transparent and showing vulnerability themselves. In addition, they should encourage their team members to take risks, share their ideas, and speak up without fear of negative consequences.

In addition to training, technology can also play a crucial role in creating psychological safety. Collaboration tools, for instance, can facilitate open and transparent communication, making it easier for team members to share their thoughts and ideas. Similarly, anonymous feedback tools can encourage more honest and direct feedback, reducing the fear of retribution. It's important to note that implementing psychological safety is an ongoing process that requires continuous effort and commitment. By prioritizing psychological safety, organizations can create a culture that values inclusion and innovation, leading to better employee well-being, increased productivity, and greater success overall.

The Importance of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is crucial in creating high-performing teams, fostering innovation, and creating inclusive environments. Without it, team members may hesitate to take risks, express their opinions, or challenge the status quo, leading to missed opportunities and stagnation. Psychological safety allows team members to feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas, creating an environment that values diverse perspectives and fosters innovation. When team members feel safe, they are more willing to take risks, learn from failures, and contribute to the team's success. This is why it’s vital for organizations to prioritize the implementation of psychological safety in their cultures to create high-performing teams that thrive on innovation and inclusivity.

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