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What does a psychologically safe workplace look like? Well, it turns out it can look like a whole lot of different things. This largely depends on your organization’s unique culture and needs. What one company struggles with, another may excel at, and vice versa. But looking at the issue from a bird’s-eye, organizational view might not be that helpful, because psychological safety at work is recognized, built, and cultivated at the team level.
As your teams interact and collaborate with each other, they need to be able to show up authentically. After all, how can you expect a human being to give their all to a cause, a group, or a situation that doesn’t see and value them? And it’s not just about inclusion. Your people also need to be able to learn and make mistakes without feeling like their jobs are in jeopardy. They need to contribute meaningfully, work with autonomy, and have the necessary support and guidance. They need to feel safe to express hard things, honest things, and suggest changes without being shut down or ignored.
That’s what a psychologically safe workplace looks like. We’re talking about:
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.
There are many contributors to psychological safety research over the years, including Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, William Khan, Amy Edmonson, and Timothy Clark. They have each brought their own unique view on psychological safety training and development. Google has also contributed to the research with their psychological safety case study, Project Aristotle.
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 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.
If you google the words psychological safety meaning, you might find conflicting answers as to what psychological safety actually means. In short, psychological safety is an environment or culture where you feel safe to be human and make mistakes without fear of punishment or harm.
Why is psychological safety important? Because without it, your teams will not feel safe to innovate or ideate. They’ll shut down, working with a sense of fear that whatever they do, they could get punished for. Teams that are punished for the vulnerabilities of being human lie low, do what’s asked of them, and get out as soon as possible. They don’t give discretionary effort, they don’t feel accountable for their role, they arre ghosts in cubicles, and sad ones at that.
Also, psychological safety and inclusion are interconnected. For organizations that emphasize in diversity, equity, and inclusion, psychological safety enables them to truly unlock the value of the diversity on their teams. Without that foundation of true inclusion, where people are accepted for what makes them human, you can’t convince your team members that they belong.
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. This psychological safety theory works in any industry, whether that’s in healthcare, in government, in academia, in manufacturing, or in tech.
The first stage of the four stages of psychological safety model 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.
Although every team is different, we can give you a general idea of examples of psychological safety at work. We like to frame our psychological safety examples in the context of what it might look like if you don’t have psychological safety on your team.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Organizations that are so enthralled with titles, positions and authority that they neglect ideas, insights and perspectives from others lack psychological safety. Bias, whether conscious or unconscious, often determines who is allowed to create value in an organization, and who isn’t.
If your teams want autonomy, they have to learn to love accountability. Unearned autonomy with no accountability can lead to disorder, discomfort, and dissatisfying results. On the other hand, too much accountability with no autonomy can lead to micromanaging, hand-holding, and paternalism.
When was the last time you challenged the status quo in your organization? Are questions welcome on your team? Organizations without psychological safety might claim they have a speak-up culture, but if ideas are unwelcome, unacknowledged, or kept in a suggestion box, the levels of psychological safety there are extremely low.
Organizations with high levels of psychological safety know how to disagree productively. Without psychological safety, disagreements get no farther than opinions, insults, and the stubborn need to be right.
These lack of psychological safety examples at work should help you diagnose whether or not a psychological safety initiative would help your teams. If you’re still not sure, find more resources at leaderfactor.com/resources.
You can 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.
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.
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.
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.
Looking for ways to learn how to promote psychological safety in your organization? You should probably start with a psychological safety assessment. LeaderFactor’s Psychological Safety Team Survey (so clear and simple you could probably call it a psychological safety quiz), is the only tool equipped with insight into your organization’s pockets of rewarded and punished vulnerability. If you’re looking for psychological safety in the workplace training, an organization-wide keynote or executive workshops may be right for you.