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Have you ever worked in an environment that felt physically unsafe? Did you want to stay there? Chances are, the answer to that question is no. Just like workplaces can be physically unsafe, they can also be psychologically unsafe. The difference? Psychological hazards in the workplace can be difficult to detect, while physical hazards are hard to ignore.
The psychological safety framework outlined by Timothy R. Clark outlines the four stages of psychological safety that teams progress through as they model and reward acts of vulnerability. First, teams have to have a foundation of inclusion, where team members feel safe to be their full selves at work. After that, teams need to feel safe to make mistakes without fear of punishment or failure. They need to be enabled through the learning process. Third, teams need to feel safe to contribute meaningfully. And finally, they need to feel safe to challenge the status quo when bringing concerns or feedback to the table.
So what is psychological safety at work? It’s intentional interaction and behavior, aligned with the four stages, to help meet the needs of human employees doing a human job. Your employee’s unique vulnerabilities will need to be rewarded in unique ways, so there’s no one correct formula for creating psychological safety at work. However, understanding the principles behind the concept will help you take it from theory to practice.
A lack of psychological safety in the workplace will often result in fearful, silent employees. These employees work hard to fly under the radar, they show up at work and do their job, hoping to make few (if any) mistakes so they don’t get punished. They rarely innovate but are amazing at executing exactly what’s asked of them. They may be consistently micromanaged, and thus can’t work autonomously or be passionate about their role. In any case, these are all symptoms of a toxic culture, examples of lack of psychological safety that could be preventing your teams from reaching their full potential.
How does this happen? Well, culture is a complicated blend of values, assumptions, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and customs. But essentially, it’s just interaction. As you interact, you either intentionally or unknowingly create a culture.
Your employees have expectations. Fears. Assumptions born from previous experiences, both positive and negative, that influence how they show up every, single day. These expectations are unspoken. They’re hidden rules that (in most organizational cultures) you’re expected to figure out in a painful trial and error. They learn that there are people you speak freely with and other people you tiptoe around. There are things that can be said, and things that can’t. There are groups you know you’re welcome to join, and cliques that seem to require some sort of secret password before they’ll even consider letting you in. You, as a leader and as a team member, contribute to and participate in all of it. Always.
So, if you haven’t made an intentional effort to shape 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.
The psychological safety model, with its four stages, is the solution to this default culture issue. As teams approach psychological safety intentionally, they become more aware of their team member’s needs. They know that certain team members experience certain vulnerabilities, and they do what they can to reward those efforts. A psychologically safe workplace can unlock the power of diversity and encourage discretionary effort like no other culture can.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Psychological safety in built on teams. Not at the individual level, although that sure is important, and not at the organizational level, although those top-down values are also critical. No, building psychological safety starts with being aware of how your team rewards and punished acts of vulnerability in the workplace. Generally, it’s the leader who sets the tone for these interactions. If feedback is constantly shut down, if mistakes are always punished, people are going to stay quiet, and they aren’t going to try new things. When you understand that the levels of psychological safety your organization feels are specific to the teams themselves, whether cross-functional or intact, then it becomes clear who contributes positively, and who contributes negatively to your organizational culture.
The benefits of psychological safety are far-reaching, and we’re sure many of them are yet to be discovered. Here are a few examples of psychological safety at work and why it would be beneficial for your organization to adopt a new culture initiative that involves psychological safety: Organizations with psychological safety are open to feedback and criticism from all voices, which helps teams innovate instead of stagnate. Psychological safety unlocks the power of diversity because team members feel accepted for who they are and what they bring to the table. Teams who operate under psychological safety work quickly to learn from mistakes, iterate, and ideate.
The importance of psychological safety in the workplace can be boiled down to the importance of people in the workplace. People are the lifeblood of any good organization. When people’s innate needs are met, they can bring their full selves to work and contribute meaningfully, exponentially.
Interested in how to create psychological safety in the workplace? Try a few of these specific behaviors that will help you know how to promote psychological safety on your teams:
When performance falters, it means our inputs are not producing the outputs we expected. Something is wrong in what we thought the cause and effect relationship would be. When this happens, approach your team members with curiosity rather than criticism. Engage them in a root cause analysis. This will often diffuse the stress and emotional tension that often surrounds poor performance.
Many team members deliver mediocre performance because they don’t realize their strengths. When someone points out their contribution and strengths, they’re shocked and accelerate to a higher level of performance. Do that. Identify the hidden or undervalued strengths that your team members have and bring them to their attention. Ignite the desire to contribute more.
A leader’s coaching continuum ranges from telling at one end to asking at the other. A good leader uses the entire continuum. Too much telling breeds dependency and learned helplessness. Shift as much as you can to the ask end. Lead through questions more than answers.
Having challenger safety means that the members of your team can debate issues on their merits and find the best one without creating fear and interpersonal conflict. Disagree in a warm and friendly way so others don’t take offense. If you keep practicing this skill, your team will develop an incredibly high tolerance for candor.
Speaking first when you hold positional power softly censors your team. Listen carefully, acknowledge the contributions of others, and then register your point of view.
Inviting your people to venture out of their tactical and functional silos creates more opportunity for divergent thinking, allowing them to connect things that aren't normally connected. Of course, you must manage the process carefully and discern when constructive dissent is giving way to destructive derailment.
Psychological safety training for leaders is one of the best ways to guarantee that psychological safety will permeate throughout your organization. It has to start from the top. Most psychological training objectives should be centered around establishing common ground and common language. Once everyone knows what psychological safety is, why it’s important, and how to talk about it, creating that culture becomes much easier. Leaders will know which psychological safety workshop activities will help their teams succeed.
If you want to approach your organizational culture by design, instead of by default, you should start with a foundation of psychological safety. It’s psychological safety that will allow all other culture changes and initiatives to stick, spread, and stay on any team, in any organization.