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Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace in 4 Stages

Creating psychological safety in the workplace is no easy task. In fact, learning how to create psychological safety as a leader, or how to promote psychological safety if you aren’t a leader, requires dedication, effort, and determination. Everyone has a role to play in this process. Whether you’re a c-suite executive or making a difference on the ground floor, you contribute to the levels of psychological safety in your workplace environment. This means you can make your culture better, and you can make it worse. Understanding that you’re an intrinsic part of interaction, processes, and outcomes at work is key to promoting psychological safety. 

Psychological safety in teams starts with a culture of rewarded vulnerability. Your team members, colleagues, and even your superiors need to feel safe to be their full selves at work. They need to know that they can do human things, like make mistakes, try something new, and utterly fail while innovating without being punished, shamed, or mocked. This kind of environment and culture can only be created through intentional and consistent behavior and action. 

How do you know what action to take? You have to start by measuring psychological safety at the team level. Teams that understand where they are, what their colleagues need, and where they can improve can create action plans to improve psychological safety, one behavior at a time. Both figuratively and literally, these small, incremental steps will pay big dividends in the long run.

So, you want to learn how to create psychological safety in your organization? Keep reading, or, better yet, browse our free resources for more specific information. Or, better better yet, shoot us a message and we can dive deep together.

Psychological Safety Research

This is where psychological safety history officially starts: Originally coined by Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis in their book, Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods: The Laboratory Approach, they defined psychological safety as a climate "which encourages provisional tries and which tolerates failure without retaliation, renunciation, or guilt." Schein and Bennis put to paper a human truth that we’ve been experiencing for centuries: People don’t want to be punished for what makes them human. 

William Khan, professor of organizational behavior, reignited interest in psychological safety in 1990 with his paper Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. He explained that in order for employees to feel engaged at work (which is a key ingredient in effective performance), they need to feel safe to express themselves authentically. 

At this point, more people started to catch onto the idea. In 1999 Amy Edmonson, professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School added to these definitions of psychological safety. She described it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Edmonson’s addition brought important insight into the world of psychological safety: Psychological safety is a shared experience, and that means it’s a shared responsibility. 

In 2014, Google conducted its “Project Aristotle,” where the massive organization studied 180 of its own teams for a period of three years. The researchers assumed that diverse demographics (who was on the team) would be the deciding factor in team effectiveness. Interestingly, the researchers identified psychological safety as the defining characteristic of Google’s most high-performing teams. This story has become a psychological safety case study of sorts, and the impact of psychological safety that google uncovered was a total game-changer for the world. 

Google taught the rest of us that the most important thing a person needs at work in order to succeed is the ability to take risks without the fear of being punished. This psychological safety research, along with the work of many others, has shed light on an otherwise dark corner of organizational effectiveness and employee wellbeing.

Enter Timothy R. Clark: CEO of LeaderFactor, social scientist, an expert in cultural transformation, and author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. His framework in his book follows a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. Clark’s work focuses on helping organizations move from theory to practice: Modeling and rewarding vulnerability is the way to build psychological safety across its four stages.

Psychological Safety Framework

The psychological safety framework that Timothy R. Clark highlights in his book is the key to creating cultures of rewarded vulnerability (psychological safety) at work. Why? Because it is a needs-based, human-focused approach to the concept. As teams learn about the four stages of psychological safety, they learn to recognize these needs in their colleagues, and how to fill them. 

The first stage of the four stages of psychological safety is inclusion safety. Inclusion safety satisfies our innate need to connect with others, belong, and feel seen and known. Without inclusion safety we lack the sense of community we need to be ourselves at work. With it, you can be confident in your place on your team to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo. Thus psychological safety and inclusion are entirely inseparable. 

The second stage is learner safety. Learner safety satisfies our need to learn and grow without fear of punishment during the learning process. Learning involves risk. One of the most important things that you can do to build learner safety in your organization is to detach fear from mistakes. We should reward failure because it’s not failure; it’s progress.

The third stage of psychological safety is contributor safety. Contributor safety satisfies our need to create value autonomously, with associated levels of accountability. When we create contributor safety for others, we empower them with autonomy, guidance, and encouragement in exchange for effort and results.

The final and culminating stage of the four stages of psychological safety is challenger safety. Challenger safety satisfies our need to be candid about change. It’s the support and confidence we need to ask questions such as, “Why do we do it this way?” “What if we tried this?” or “May I suggest a better way?” It allows us to feel safe to challenge the status quo without retaliation or the risk of damaging our personal standing or reputation.

Psychological Safety Examples

Here are some practical and actionable psychological safety exercises that are based on the psychological safety model we shared above. Try them next time you’re in the office. They’re practical examples of psychological safety at work.

Weigh in Last

Speaking first when you hold positional power softly censors your team. Listen carefully, acknowledge the contributions of others, and then add your point of view.

Model Vulnerability

Remember that vulnerability is exposing yourself to the possibility of harm or loss. If you model and reinforce a pattern of vulnerability, others will do the same.

Ask Twice as Much as You Tell

When you ask someone a question, it’s an invitation to engage. Telling can be fine too, but if you tell too much, it’s self-serving and it signals selfishness, arrogance, and dominance, all of which are off-putting.

Identify Negative Bias

A bias is a preference for or against a human characteristic, individual, or group of people. We all have them. Sometimes they’re hidden, and sometimes they’re obvious. Ask your team members if they can identify any patterns of negative bias in the team, then act to remove them.

Make Yourself Available and Interruptible

Everyone’s busy, but if you make an effort to make yourself a little more available and interruptible, it sends a strong message that you value people more than tasks. 

You can approach these individually as a form of self-reflection and self-improvement, or introduce them in a training session as psychological safety exercises for your team.

Psychological Safety At Workplace

The importance of psychological safety in the workplace can’t be overstated. There are many symptoms and warning signs that can signal a lack of psychological safety in the workplace. These pockets of toxicity are probably stifling success and innovation in your organization, and we definitely don’t want that. Understanding what your organizational culture should (and shouldn’t) look like when psychological safety is involved will help you determine who is contributing positively, and who is contributing negatively, to your workplace culture.

Psychological Safety In The Workplace Training

Knowing how to promote psychological safety in the workplace can feel daunting without having an expert at hand. Although there are a few psychological safety exercises available around the internet, psychological safety training, in order to be effective, needs to be created with your distinct needs and organizational culture in mind. What works for one organization might not work for another.

You may consider a psychological safety certification or executive training session as a way to introduce these concepts to the people that have the most influence in your organization. These experiences can help create deep learning experiences for individual teams or cross-functional groups, train a leadership team on psychological safety before rolling out larger initiatives, and help teams with low levels of psychological safety have a more impactful learning experience. 

At the end of the day, psychological safety training for leaders is one of the best investments you can make for your future business culture. 

Creating Psychological Safety In The Workplace Podcast

The Culture by Design podcast, hosted by Timothy R. Clark and Junior, talks about creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. Each episode tells the psychological safety story, with real-life psychological safety scenarios and applications that will help you put the theory into practice.

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