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Define Psychological Safety: A Culture of Rewarded Vulnerability

In short, psychological safety can be defined as a culture of rewarded vulnerability. Before we get right into the thick of it, let’s make sure you know what we mean when we say vulnerability. Vulnerability at work is an inherently human experience (meaning that every person experiences vulnerability, although they might experience it differently than you do). Every time you do something that exposes your insecurity, makes you feel uncertain, or otherwise pushes you out of your comfort zone, you’re committing an act of vulnerability.

Psychological safety, then, is a culture where humans feel safe to be human without fear of threat or harm. In order to define psychological safety further, we should explain the framework of its four stages, which encapsulates not only what psychological safety is, but how to build it, and what you might be missing. This framework acknowledges that we’re humans first and employees second and follows a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. 

Just like humans need water, food, and shelter to survive, teams that want to innovate need four things in order to thrive: they need to feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo. Teams progress through these stages as they intentionally create cultures of rewarded vulnerability across its four stages. If they lack psychological safety at a certain stage in particular, they can work together on psychological safety exercises and training to improve their knowledge and skills.

Psychological Safety Theory

The theory of psychological safety was not developed by one individual at one point in time. Rather, it was built and shaped by many different psychologists, behavioral specialists, and researchers. Here is some of the history of psychological safety:

In 1844, Soren Kierkegaard identified creativity as both a generative and destructive force that produces anxiety in the person who engages in the process. In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter identified a pattern of creative destruction where continuous innovation mutates and destroys the status quo in the process. In 1943, Abraham Maslow identifies “belongingness needs,” stating that, “if both the physiological and the safety needs are fairly well gratified, then there will emerge the love and affection and belongingness needs.” In 1947, Herbert Simon suggested that fully functioning organizations need “attitudes of friendliness and cooperation.” In 1960, Douglas McGregor referred to nonphysical “security needs.”

With a strong foundation and a lot of curious people asking similar questions, the term psychological safety made its debut back in 1965. 

Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. 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 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. A psychological safety synonym for Khan? Authenticity. Amy Edmonson’s work taught us that psychological safety is a shared experience, and that means it’s a shared responsibility. She brought psychological safety in teams to the forefront.

Even Google got on board: In 2014, Google conducted its “Project Aristotle,” a psychological safety case study where the massive organization studied 180 of its own teams for a period of three years. They identified psychological safety as the defining characteristic of its most high-performing teams. With the focus on psychological safety Google was able to determine that it wasn’t the makeup of the team, but their interaction, that changed the game.

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 follows a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. Just like humans need water, food, and shelter to survive, teams that want to innovate need four things in order to thrive: they need to feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo. 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 Examples

Whether it's in manufacturing, in tech, in government, or in academia, psychological safety has something for everyone. Take psychological safety in healthcare, for example. There is a deep culture of silence in the healthcare industry, especially between doctors and nurses. Nurses will see something problematic, but will hesitate to speak up for fear of punishment or pushback. This consistently leads to patient harm and revenue loss. 

A lack of psychological safety in learning can also affect performance across any industry, and in any organization. We all bring some level of inhibition and anxiety to the learning process. Learning involves risk. One of the most important things that you can do to build learner safety is to create an environment in which you detach fear from mistakes. You break them apart, you divorce them, so fear is no longer naturally associated with mistakes. If you are really trying, there should be no stigma, no shame, and no embarrassment associated with mistakes or failure. They are simply stepping-stones. We should reward failure because it’s not failure; it’s progress.

Psychological Safety at Work

A lack of psychological safety in the workplace can be easy to identify sometimes, and extremely difficult at other times. Examples of lack of psychological safety can range from silent employees, to lack of resources, to one-sided meetings, to people pleasing. It’s hard to diagnose without knowing your unique company culture and norms, but here are some psychologically unsafe work environment examples:

You’re organized into teams, but no teamwork happens.

This is more common than you’d think. You can’t expect people to be team players if they don’t know that they’re included, accepted, valued, and needed on their team. As humans, we have a fundamental need to connect and belong. Without those connection points we won’t feel safe, let alone motivated, to work with others in vulnerable ways.

People avoid being authentic at work or avoid interaction in general.

If we think that our authentic, vulnerable, human selves aren’t allowed at work, we’ll put on a mask when we walk in the door. We’ll keep our heads down, do our job, get in, and get out. At that point, we become ghosts in cubicles instead of humans at work.

You’re so afraid of making a mistake that you avoid doing anything new and different.

When mistakes and failure are consistently punished we focus our energy on avoiding harm, not trying new things. Innovation comes at the expense of time, resources, and brain power. The question is, does your organization value innovation over execution? Is it willing to spend a little time in failure for boundary-pushing results? 

You aren’t given the time or space to learn new things.

Humans have a fundamental need to learn and grow. Most organizations expect team members to learn on their own time, or, even worse, expect them to know everything without experiencing a learning curve first. Aggressive learners need to be nurtured, not suffocated. An organization that lacks psychological safety will pretend like learning isn’t needed, wanted, or valued.

So, what is psychological safety at work? The opposite of all of that. Psychological safety at work is the human side of a collaborative space, where people learn together, support each other, make mistakes, innovate, ideate, and challenge the status quo. Some examples of psychological safety at work may include:

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.

Psychological Safety Questions

Determining whether or not you have psychological safety in your workplace is a two-fold journey. First, a personal one. You have to determine if you are contributing positively, or negatively, to your company culture. Especially if you’re a leader in your organization, you should increase your levels of self-awareness first, and then you can tackle your organization as a whole. Start by asking yourself these questions:

1. Presence: Your presence has an impact on the tone and tenor of a meeting. When you enter a room, does your influence warm or chill the air?

2. Collaboration: When you collaborate with your peers, does your influence accelerate or decelerate the speed of discovery and innovation?

3. Feedback: Fear breaks the feedback loop. If there’s pervasive fear, people filter or withhold feedback. Does your influence increase or restrict the flow of feedback?

4. Inquiry: Telling has a tendency to shut people down, while asking has tendency to draw people out. Does your influence draw people out or shut them down?

5. Dissent: Dissent is critical to making good decisions by thinking carefully about different potential courses of action. Do you encourage and reward dissent or discourage and punish dissent?

6. Mistakes: Mistakes are clinical material for learning and progress. Do you celebrate mistakes and the lessons learned or overreact and marginalize those who make them?

Once you’ve done that, you can move on to a psychological safety survey. A psychological safety assessment tool is a fairly new and ridiculously powerful way to determine organizational health at its core. Maybe you’re measuring employee engagement, but your survey results are ambiguous when it comes to action. Or maybe you’re trying to implement agile strategies into your performance, but you keep falling short. That’s because you’re missing the critical foundation of psychological safety.

The most effective surveys can determine both what participants think, and what they feel. LeaderFactor’s psychological safety team survey utilizes both qualitative and quantitative data to do just that. We’ll ask your team members a series of questions to determine if they feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo. Then your teams will submit short pieces of direct feedback (confidentially, of course) to help you pinpoint specific areas of concern in your organization. Think of it as your own personal psychological safety toolkit.

Benefits of Psychological Safety

Understanding how to create psychological safety on your teams starts with an understanding of inclusion. You literally cannot have psychological safety without a foundation of inclusion. Inclusion is what allows team members to know that they belong on a team and can contribute meaningfully. So, if you’re looking for how to create psychological safety on your team, start with a foundation of inclusion. Make sure that your teams know that they are wanted and valued, get to know them on a personal level, ask meaningful questions. Because learning how to promote psychological safety is learning how to amplify every voice on your team. And why is psychological safety important? Because if you want to innovate, you’ll need every voice that you can get.

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