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Measuring Psychological Safety: The 4 Stages Survey

You can spend as much time as you want teaching your organization about the theory of psychological safety. You can (and should) roll out psychological safety workshops, host big keynote events, or even integrate online training into your onboarding process. But you won’t know how your employees are actually executing on psychological safety if you aren’t consistently measuring your progress. There is, after all, a major correlation between psychological safety and accountability.

If you haven’t made an intentional effort to shape (or measure) your company culture, you’re probably embracing your default culture. Default cultures aren’t actively inclusive or innovative, they have hidden problems, and they detract from your bottom line. If you have a default culture, you won’t compete in highly dynamic markets. You’ll have contagious toxicity, and you won’t know why. Your employees will remain unengaged until they’re so unhappy that they walk out the door. Yikes. You can’t improve your workplace culture until you know where you are. So, how do you measure psychological safety?

Measuring psychological safety isn’t yet a best practice in most organizations. Many companies send out a periodic engagement survey and call it good. They expect a single survey to give them insight into their culture, but don’t ask the correct questions to get to the root of their culture in the first place. Turns out, your engagement survey isn’t telling you the whole story about your company culture. A psychological safety survey will help you determine the levels of psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams.

When you measure psychological safety using the psychological safety model (across its four stages), you catch all the details of your organizational culture. You know where your problems originate, and you have actionable steps to solve the issues at hand.

Why is Psychological Safety Important

There are many workplace psychological safety examples that we could give you to convince you that psychological safety is important. An organization with poor levels of psychological safety may be one where you’re organized into teams, but no teamwork happens. One where people avoid being authentic at work, or avoid interaction in general. Are your people so afraid of making a mistake that they avoid doing anything new and different? Do they lack the time or space to learn new things? Do superiority and hierarchy dictate who participates, who contributes, and who doesn’t? Is there an imbalance between autonomy and accountability? Are ideas and opinions ignored when they go against the grain of company norms?

These are the kinds of questions that a psychological safety questionnaire can answer for you. Psychological safety at work is a delicate thing. It requires consistency and attention and dedication. It requires that you know your people, but more importantly, that your people feel known by you. So, why is psychological safety important? Because measuring it unlocks organizational information that will change your company’s trajectory.

Psychological Safety Model

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 psychological safety’s four stages: 

1. Inclusion Safety: Can I be my authentic self?

2. Learner Safety: Can I grow?

3. Contributor Safety: Can I create value?

4. Challenger Safety: Can I be candid about change?

To learn more about the psychological safety model and find other exercises to try on your teams, download The Complete Guide to Psychological Safety, a free 4 stages of psychological safety pdf. For some practical and fun psychological safety activities, download the Psychological Safety Behavioral Guide

The Lead Indicator for Employee Engagement

William Khan, an organizational psychologist, claims that employee engagement is all about expression in one’s role. Emotional, intellectual, physical, and social expression are all vital parts of this definition. We engage in environments that engage with us in return. Psychological safety and modeled and rewarded vulnerability enable us to express ourselves freely at work because they create the inclusive environments we crave. 

Oxygen for the Agile Movement

Agile promises fast, frictionless, scalable solutions. So what’s preventing you from reaping its rewards? The first value of the Agile Manifesto is “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” And yet so many teams seem to throw that value out the window before they even start. Agile processes and tools provide support, but the core of the agile approach isn’t the scrum or the sprint. It’s how the team interacts that ultimately determines success, which is determined by psychological safety.

Psychological Safety Research

There are many psychological safety scenarios where it becomes obvious that organizational behaviorists, psychologists, and other workplace leaders have contributed to the psychological safety research and psychological safety history. Here are just a few:

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. 

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. 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 Case Study

Google Project Aristotle Psychological Safety

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. 

The Google Project Aristotle findings 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 Project Aristotle psychological safety research, along with the work of many others, has shed light on an otherwise dark corner of organizational effectiveness and employee wellbeing.

Psychological Safety Questions

Ask yourself these six psychological safety questions to create psychological safety on your team:

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?

5 Minute Psychological Safety Audit

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.

In just five minutes per participant, these psychological safety questions can give you insights into your organizational culture like you’ve never seen before. It’s not just a psychological safety questionnaire, it’s a tool to identify hidden pockets of toxicity, better understand the needs of your team members, and decide what steps you need to take to transform your culture. You can take a pilot team through the psychological safety quiz today, free of charge. An example of psychological safety survey questions includes: “What is one thing that prevents you from feeling safe to learn on your team?”

A team psychological safety survey is a surefire way to determine your next steps for your organization’s cultural transformation. 

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