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Psychological Safety Model: The 4 Stages

Psychological Safety Research

The concept of psychological safety is as old as the first human interaction. But it’s only been in recent years that we have consolidated the concept under a unifying term. Here are some of the social scientists that have contributed to the foundation of psychological safety history

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 Model

This psychological safety model, developed by Timothy R. Clark, is a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. He argues that leaders can transform their teams and organizations into sanctuaries of inclusion and incubators of innovation if individuals feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo.

This model is outlined in Clark’s most recent book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, which takes psychological safety from theory to practice. It’s the first practical, hands-on guide that shows leaders how to build a culture of psychological safety in their organizations and create an environment where employees can be vulnerable. With reflection questions and key concept reviews, Clark explains how to help your teams feel included, fully engaged, and encouraged to contribute their best efforts and ideas.

Psychological Safety Leadership

Learning how to create psychological safety elevates any team in any organization. It promotes dynamic innovation where team members feel safe to challenge the status quo and learn new things. Psychological safety and inclusion also work hand-in-hand to create a culture of rewarded vulnerability where people feel safe to be their authentic selves at work. Leaders who implement psychological safety on their teams will find themselves ahead of the curve and ready to face dynamic challenges head-on. 

Psychological Safety Case Study

In 2014, Google conducted its “Project Aristotle” 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. This psychological safety theory, that a team’s success depends on its ability to make mistakes without fear of threat or harm, is transforming organizations all over the globe. The psychological safety Google study was a pivotal moment for leadership and management researchers everywhere. Leaders finally have a concrete answer to the question they had been asking for years: How do I unlock the potential of my teams?

Psychological Safety PDF

We have created a number of different guides to help you get started on your psychological safety journey. This psychological safety pdf contains over 120 concrete behaviors to help you implement psychologically safe behaviors on your teams. If you’re interested in implementing psychological safety in learning measures in your organization, The Complete Guide to Psychological Safety is a great jumping-off point. Or, if you’re looking for something more model-specific, download our 4 stages of psychological safety pdf, which includes an excerpt of Timothy R. Clark’s book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

Psychological Safety at Work

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. A foundation of psychological safety at work will make all the difference on your teams. A psychological safety survey will help you determine the current levels of safety on your teams, and the right survey will help you know what to do next.

Psychological Safety Examples

Examples of Psychological Safety at Work

In order to know how to promote psychological safety at work you have to know what it looks like to have psychological safety at work. Here are some psychological safety examples:

  • Teams that are high-performing, inclusive, and innovative.
  • An organization with no hidden problems or pockets of toxicity. 
  • Team members are committed to, not compliant with, your culture.
  • A place where everyone has a voice, and everyone is listened to.
  • Employees that exceed expectations and improve without coaxing.
  • Applications pour in while top talent never wants to leave. 
  • A place where high levels of accountability drive success. 

As the foundation of culture, psychological safety will transform your organization and empower your team members to be inclusive and innovative in their everyday interactions. But psychological safety, just like culture, is delicate and dynamic. It’s perishable, not permanent. It requires intention too. No other cultural initiative or employee development program can succeed without first creating a culture of psychological safety. Research has shown it’s the #1 variable in team performance, the key ingredient for creating inclusive environments, and the heart of high-performing, innovative teams.

Psychological Safety Exercises

Ask yourself these psychological safety questions before determining which psychological safety exercises are right for you and your team. Then, start building psychological safety at work and on your team by modeling and rewarding vulnerability across psychological safety’s four stages. Here are some practical and actionable psychological safety exercises to try the next time you’re in the office: 

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 team exercises.

Psychological Safety at Workplace

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. Here are some psychological safety scenarios to look out for and implement as you determine the levels of psychological safety in your organization and learn how to create psychological safety at work.

Making a Mistake When You Have Psychological Safety

Mistakes are raw material for growth and improvement. But not everyone sees them this way. In fact, not everyone is allowed to. High-stakes environments exist and are regulated areas for a reason. But outside of those areas, mistakes shouldn’t be punished. In fact, if we’re not making mistakes, we’re probably not pushing hard enough. It feels different to work in a space that celebrates learning and expects that mistakes will occur naturally in any innovative environment. Rewarding mistakes in your organization is a refreshing way to set yourselves apart from your competition.

Sharing Something Personal When You Have Psychological Safety

No one should be expected to pretend like they don’t have a life outside of work. Things happen. That’s life. Support your colleagues in their personal lives so they know that they can share personal parts of themselves without fear of rejection, embarrassment, or uncomfortable pity. Work to infuse empathy into your team dynamic so that your teams feel safe being their authentic selves. 

Trying Something New When You Have Psychological Safety

You'll rarely be good at anything you don't practice. It's unlikely that you'll get it right on the first try, so trying something new is opening yourself up to failure. That’s vulnerable. A culture of psychological safety has a built-in safety net for teams to try new things without fear of being punished. Teams who operate under conditions of psychological safety understand that exploration isn’t a waste of time and are more willing to push boundaries to innovate. 

Psychological Safety and Racism

Creating psychological safety and inclusive leadership are almost synonymous. Inclusion safety, the first of the four stages of psychological safety, is not earned. It’s owed. Every human has title to inclusion safety as a nonnegotiable right. We hunger for and deserve dignity and esteem from each other. If there’s no threat of harm, we should give it without a value judgement. As the basic glue of human society, inclusion safety offers the comforting assurance that you matter. If you’re a leader and want your people to perform, you must internalize the universal truth that people want, need, and deserve validation. Inclusion safety requires that we condemn negative bias, arbitrary distinction, or destructive prejudice that refuses to acknowledge our equal worth and the obligation of equal treatment.

Psychological Safety and Change Management

Learner safety, the second stage in the four stages of psychological safety, can help leaders navigate change management. When we sense leaner safety in our environment, we’re more willing to be vulnerable, take risks, and develop resilience in the learning process. A leader can maintain a culture of learning only if he or she consistently minimizes vulnerability through a consistent pattern of positive emotional response.

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