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How to Promote Psychological Safety as an Early Adopter

What do you do if you want to bring psychological safety to your organization, but don't find yourself in a position of authority? Or if you do have some authority, how do you approach the topic of psychological safety with your teams and others who are not as familiar with the concept? In this weeks episode Tim and Junior will help you gain a better understanding of change management and cultural transformation.

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Episode Show Notes

What do you do if you want to bring psychological safety to your organization, but don't find yourself in a position of authority? Or if you do have some authority, how do you approach the topic of psychological safety with your teams and others who are not as familiar with the concept? In this weeks episode Tim and Junior will help you gain a better understanding of change management and cultural transformation.

(02:26) What is the current state of adoption for psychological safety? At a practitioner level it's only been in the last five years or so that the term has achieved any meaningful level of traction. We are still early in the adoption curve. "If you look at the trend lines, though, we are on hockey stick trajectory, in terms of category growth and attention and search traffic and investment, and all of these other metrics that are really good indicators as to where this is going."

(16:44) Is psychological safety a passing fad? How does it stack up against employee engagement? Where does it fit in to other DEI initiatives? It is not a passing fad. Why? Because "we now have this mounting body of empirical research that shows that psychological safety is related to a variety of critical outcomes". Psychological safety is related to key outcomes like employee engagement, retention, inclusion, innovation, and employee wellness.

(32:09) How to get buy-off from leaders using the value equation. Some leaders are "not thrilled" about the term psychological safety others need to see a stronger connection to their key outcomes. It's your job to understand the stakeholders you are working with and to present psychological safety in a way that resonates with them. See our links to previous series on "What's driving demand for psychological safety?".

(40:13) Don't muscle or smuggle change. The two classic failure patterns of organizational change management are muscling (trying to force it through) and smuggling (try to minimize it or do it covertly). "You've gotta square up to the reality of what a change initiative requires and what adoption requires."

Important Links
What Psychological Safety Is Not - Podcast
What Psychological Safety is Not - Post
What Psychological Safety is Not - Webinar

What's Driving Demand for Psychological Safety Series
Pt. 1 What's Driving the Demand for Psychological Safety?
Pt. 2 Exclusion and Social Injustice
Pt. 3 Competitiveness and Innovation
Pt. 4 The Impact of Psychological Safety on Engagement and Retention
Pt. 5 How Mental Health and Wellness is Driving Demand for Psychological Safety

Episode Transcript


0:00:00.0 Producer: Welcome back, Culture by Design listeners. It's Freddie, one of the producers of the podcast, and today's episode is on how to promote psychological safety as an early adopter. What do you do if you want to bring psychological safety to your organization, but don't find yourself in a position of authority? Or if you do have some authority, how do you approach the topic of psychological safety with your teams and others who are not as familiar with the concept? I'll give you a hint that Tim and Junior will touch on later in the episode, and that is, understand your audience and the key outcomes they care about. In one of our previous episodes, What's Causing Demand for Psychological Safety, we touch on these key outcomes. But today's episode will help you gain a better understanding of change management and transformation. As always, today's show notes can be found at Thanks again for listening. Enjoy today's episode on how to promote psychological safety as an early adopter.


0:01:07.8 Junior: Welcome back everyone to Culture By Design. I'm here with Dr. Tim Clark, and today we'll be discussing how to promote psychological safety as an early adopter. This topic comes highly requested from the audience. It's something that we've run into time and time again, and so we're gonna deliver today. Many of us may not find ourselves in positions of authority. We may not have decision making power regarding the adoption of psychological safety, maybe as an area of focus or as an area of investment, or maybe we have both of those things, but we're very, very early. This could be brand new to your organization. So we're going to share the current state of psychological safety as an assessment training category, and then share with you some of our psychological safety client experience in introducing and promoting the topic. So, Tim, I'm excited to dive into this with you today.

0:01:58.0 Tim: I am too. I would say to the listeners, buckle up. This is really gonna be about change leadership. You know what we say in change Junior, we say that, well, one of the principles is change before you have to, but if you think about that, if you change before you have to, that means it's gonna be really hard because not everyone realizes that we need to change. And that's exactly the point. That's where the opportunity lies. But that's what we're gonna talk about today. It's gonna be a good episode.

0:02:26.3 Junior: Awesome. So psychological safety is a relatively new category. It's only been in the last five years or so that the terms achieve any meaningful level of traction, at least, at the practitioner level. And the practitioner level is an important qualifier because, in academia, this concept has been around for quite a few decades. And for those of us who are deep in psychological safety, many of our listeners probably are, you might find yourself in that category. We feel like it's everywhere. We see it in our feeds. We get newsletters, we listen to podcasts, we're watching videos, we're tuning into conferences. We are inside the Chamber of Psychological Safety.

0:03:09.7 Tim: That's a way of saying it.

0:03:11.5 Junior: It's our part of the internet. Different people find themselves in different places of the internet, depending on what their interests are. And algorithmically, the internet is becoming pretty good at delivering you the content that you're interested in. And so it may seem that psychological safety is everywhere, but we're getting a disproportionate amount of that attention. There's pretty interesting, if you look at psychological safety relative to other categories. So I wanted to mention that because we can't forget that this is still a relatively small portion of the world, a small portion of the internet, and we can easily lose sight of the fact that we're part of a somewhat small community who's very committed to this concept.

0:03:56.9 Tim: Well, Junior, if we are inside the chamber, if we're insulated, it's pretty easy to project our experience on others and say, oh, well, you think the way I think. And so we're all extremely committed to this. We have a shared understanding, we have shared aspirations. We know where we're trying to take the organization, and that's not true. So we have to be very careful about that. We have to understand that there's a distribution of understanding of commitment as it relates to psychological safety as a concept and as an applied discipline.

0:04:29.6 Junior: It's interesting to think about the last several years because if psychological safety is relatively small today, then it was microscopic a few years ago. If you look at the trend lines, though, we are on hockey stick trajectory, in terms of category growth and attention and search traffic and investment, and all of these other metrics that are really good indicators as to where this is going. So here's an interesting one for you that I like to point out. According to Google Trends, the worldwide search interest for psychological safety increased by over 200% between January, 2020 and March, 2022. Very interesting. So as you can imagine here at LeaderFactor, we're keeping our ear to the ground. This is what we do, and we can say, with a lot of confidence, that this category is not going away. So Tim, any comments on that? 

0:05:27.2 Tim: Well, it just makes me think about the genesis of this. Where did psychological safety come from as far as we can tell, based on an extensive review of the research literature. The first really serious treatment of the concept came in 1954 from the noted psychologist Carl Rogers, in an article that he wrote called Toward a Theory of Creativity, published in 1954. So to Junior, to your point, 1954, well, did that signal the introduction of this concept and an explosion of interest in research around this concept? No, unfortunately. Well, but it's pretty typical. The pattern is that it was gradual, decade after decade. It was gradual. There were a few contributions here and there. So it's just been recently, really in the last couple of years, where there's been an explosion. So there's this gradual development of the concept or the research around the concept, and then there's this explosion, and we're gonna talk about why that is. So I think we just need to put things in perspective. We get totally fired up about this, we're passionate about it. We see the impact and what it really means for organizations, but we have to trace our steps and understand the slow evolution.

0:06:46.4 Junior: That's right. Part of the way we wanna frame this, is by talking about adoption curves. And many of you have probably seen that standard adoption curve looks like a standard distribution. You've got your tails on the left and the right, big hump in the middle, and every new product category, every technology has an adoption curve. This curve represents the cumulative rate at which a population adopts a product or a service or a technology. And psychological safety, as a category, has its own adoption curve. And I think it's important to look at it that way, because it sets context and gives us an interesting lens to look through as we look at how it's going to map into the future. So if you look at the telephone that had an adoption curve, electricity, cars, radios, refrigerators, all the way to ChatGPT, 5 million subscribers in five days.

0:07:42.4 Tim: Is that what it was? Wow.

0:07:44.4 Junior: Yeah. Fastest ever.

0:07:47.2 Tim: Fastest ever adoption curve. Yeah.

0:07:49.9 Junior: So these adoption curves are usually chunked out into several different categories. And if you think in your mind's eye on the left side of this curve, the very first part of that distribution represents 2.5% of the cumulative adoption. So these people are very early, and what they're often categorized as is enthusiasts, I have to be the first to try this. So these are those people that each of us has in our lives. Have you tried this brand new app? Have you tried this brand new restaurant? Have you tried this? They're adventurous, they're enthusiastic, they see something new.

0:08:28.7 Tim: They're pioneers.

0:08:30.7 Junior: They're pioneers. They want to go and check it out. Most of the human family is not that way. And maybe we're that way in some categories like technology and we're gonna go to our tried and true restaurant, but these adoption curves exist throughout all of those different categories. So two and a half percent enthusiasts. Next, we go to the next segment of the curve just to the right, which represents 13.5%, give or take. And these are visionaries. I wanna show you this helpful tool that I found. So they've seen maybe some proof of concept from someone else who tried it. They saw the enthusiast go out and do it. It worked fairly well. And so they want to give it a go-to. Not a lot of data, not a lot to go on. They're gonna take a leap, they're going to go on a little bit of an adventure, but they've got a little bit more confidence and they want to go and try it out.

0:09:24.3 Junior: Next we have the big chunk of the curve just to the left side of the middle, 34%. These are the pragmatists. So this is where a huge portion of the opportunity lies for us, and we'll get into that. On the backside of the curve, just to the right of the middle, you have another 34% chunk. These are conservatives. I was skeptical about this. I should have tried it earlier.

0:09:50.4 Tim: With the conservatives. I think the point for them is that whatever the new thing is, it needs to pass the test of obviousness. And when it does, then they say, I'm in, right? Because I can see the benefit, I can see the return on investment, so I'm in, but they wait. They wait until we get to that point, and then they come along.

0:10:13.8 Junior: And it's interesting to think about this adoption curve as it relates to organizations and the rate at which they adopt new technologies, new processes, new training categories. And if the organization can be characterized by that conservative nature over a long enough time horizon, that will bite them. If they say yes too late, and many other organizations said yes sooner, assuming that it was an appropriate or an advantageous technology or new process, then they're going to get beat out. So this distribution has probably found the averages probably hold true over a big population, but each organization kind of has its own culture when it comes to adoption. I think it's kind of an interesting point. So then on the very far right, you have 16% of the population skeptics. So these are the last people to adopt whatever it is we're talking about. They are the last people to get a radio in their house. They're the last people to get a telephone, and they're the last ones to use ChatGPT.

0:11:19.7 Junior: So before us today, we're watching the adoption curve for psychological safety. And based on all of the indicators that we are paying attention to, any of those that have any credence, it's probably safe to say that we are somewhere in the land of enthusiasts and visionaries, that 2.5% and 13.5% on the front end. In other words, there is only 16% maybe. And maybe that's generous of the adoption that's going to happen. I think that that's probably generous, but of the adoption that's going to happen over time. But we're seeing this hockey stick, as I talked about. So search trend data, investment, the amount of money that's pouring into categories related to psychological safety, it's really interesting to see. So here's another indicator that we're looking at is investment.

0:12:13.7 Junior: So follow the money and you'll start to see what the adoption looks like. So the 2021, Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report showed that 47% of organizations increased their investment in mental health programs in 2020 and 34% plan to increased their investment in 2021. The areas of mental health and wellness for which psychological safety is an umbrella, if we look at it that way, are receiving much more attention, much more money. And so if we look at all of those indicators, they're screaming at us, okay, this is a growing category, but understand that you're early in the adoption cycle.

0:12:52.7 Tim: So junior, I guess we could say it's early days, but at the same time, we could say we have tremendous momentum, that is building and it's kind of a juggernaut and it's moving forward with great energy. And we'll talk more about why that is, based on data, based on evidence. But I think you're right in saying that this is where we are. We're still with enthusiasts and visionaries, those two cohorts. Soon we'll be moving into the pragmatist though.

0:13:21.0 Junior: Yeah. Yeah, that's right.

0:13:23.2 Tim: That's not far off.

0:13:24.5 Junior: No, it's not far off. I think about our own experience just in the last few years. I remember vividly when Tim first showed me the model for the four stages of psychological safety and think back of the napkin sketch. And at that point in time, years ago, we weren't even sure, we were confident maybe, maybe that's a little bit generous, that psychological safety would even be the term that was going to get the adoption that we thought it would. So we were still very early days. And what we've seen now is the adoption of just the term itself, psychological safety, to reference what it is we are talking about, a culture of rewarded vulnerability. That in and of itself is such an interesting indicator to me, because now if you look at the number of people who would recognize the phrase psychological safety, it's way higher than it was in the past. The average person in professional earth probably understands at least a little bit or has heard that once or twice. That was not true just a few years ago.

0:14:36.4 Tim: Junior, lemme give you an example. I don't remember exactly when I did it, but I set for myself a Google alert on the term psychological safety a few years ago. And so then Google goes out and it will identify anything within a 24 hour period, any source that includes the term psychological safety. And it will come to me in the alert. And back then, we would go days without getting anything. [laughter] Days.

0:15:09.9 Junior: Yep.

0:15:10.0 Tim: And then little by little, we start to get a little bit more traffic. And we'd get one, and then we'd get two and then finally we got to a point where it seemed that there would be at least one reference, one source per day on average. And we got to that point, and then it increased, the volume increased, the citations increased. We got to, I don't know, maybe one and a half a day or something like that. But there was this gradual increase that's been absolutely amazing. So now the alerts that come into my inbox every day, we probably have... And I could go back and and measure it, but I'm thinking that there are at least seven or eight a day, every single day. So just the sheer volume based on the Google alert is an indication of the growth of this category.

0:16:01.6 Junior: The last thing I'll point out relative to the growth of the category is that what we've seen, the outcomes that we've seen indicate to us that this category has staying power. And I think that that's important to point out because it's not flavor of the day. There are a lot of training categories over time that burn hot and fast and then go away. We do not see this as a flash in the pan, not like instant pots. Did you see that? 

0:16:26.2 Tim: Yeah. Down 50%. Yeah. And I do like my instant pot, but yeah.

0:16:31.9 Junior: Oh yeah, me too. We're all moving to air fryers. So these adoption curves are really interesting things.

0:16:36.8 Tim: Insta pots to air fryers. That's so true.

0:16:40.5 Junior: Yeah. That's right. I wonder what will be next. I don't know.

0:16:44.4 Tim: But for all listeners out there, really think about this, it is true. Is this a passing fad? That's a question we need to ask. Is it a current buzzword? Is it a catchphrase? Will it lose its luster over time? I don't think so. Is it here today, gone tomorrow? I'll tell you why I don't think so. Because, well, think about employee engagement. Is that... Did that go away? No, it didn't go away. It had staying power, it had endurance. But I will make the bold claim that psychological safety is even more important than employee engagement. Why? Because it lives upstream of employee engagement.

0:17:19.1 Tim: Employee engagement is actually an outcome of psychological safety. And think about how important employee engagement is. That's how crucial psychological safety is. The research is undeniable. We've come to a place where we have this unimpeachable position for psychological safety. We understand how it contributes to a number of critical outcomes. And that cause and effect relationship is not going away. Therefore, the category of psychological safety will only build over time. That's our very strong point of view.

0:17:57.4 Junior: So why could it be that organizations are sometimes slow to adopt psychological safety as a training and assessment category? Let's dive into that for a little bit, because understanding these motivations will help us unpack our approach. It'll help us determine the appropriate point of attack, as it were. So the first thing is a lack of awareness. It could be that the organization generally is unaware of what psychological safety is. Maybe they've never even heard the term. And that's something that we'll run into quite a bit. Because if you look at us as an organization, we're in the business of helping organizations achieve cultural transformation through psychological safety. That's what we do. We teach psychological safety, we measure it, and we help organizations improve it over time. So we have a unique point of view. We've probably worked with more organizations in the world and bigger, smaller, and mid-size organizations than any other organization on planet Earth inside psychological safety. And it's a pretty safe claim to make. And what we've seen is that usually inside of the organization, our first point of contact will be in that enthusiast and visionary category, and you may be one of these people, you're bought in, you understand psychological safety, you understand the way that it ebbs and that it flows.

0:19:23.0 Junior: You understand its definition, you understand its application, you understand the outcomes, and that's the world that you live in, but just one, two, three people away from you may not have even heard of psychological safety, we're still in that mode of awareness such that some may not have even heard of the term. So that could be the first barrier that we need to overcome is even putting it on the map for the organization and when that is the case, simplicity is our friend. And so that would be my first recommendation, and we'll get to more recommendations and tools later, but be very careful of the way that you introduce psychological safety, because if it appears to academic, if it appears too complicated, then that can be a real non-starter, and so some of the way that if someone, let's say, I'm in an Uber and someone asks what I do, we help organizations improve their cultures. Oh, interesting. How do you do that? Well, through psychological safety. What's that? Well, have you ever had a question and you wanted to ask it, but you ended up not raising your hand 'cause you thought it was a little risky? 

0:20:30.3 Junior: Yeah, that's happened before. That psychological safety. So when psychological safety is there, you raise your hand, when it's not, you don't. So you gotta introduce the concept using that type of language, and it will immediately land.

0:20:43.1 Tim: Simple everyday example people can relate to immediately.

0:20:49.0 Junior: Precisely. And so that would be a comment from me regarding the lack of awareness when you're trying to achieve awareness, do it with simplicity.

0:20:57.1 Tim: Junior. You mentioned in your last comment, you mentioned an important principle, and that is that awareness precedes adoption. Now, I'm gonna site an academic reference here, but for listeners, you may wanna check it out. So there was the great researcher, and professor named Everett Rogers, and he wrote a book called The Diffusion of Innovations, which talks about the adoption curve that Junior just took us through, and that's one of the principles that he lays out is that awareness has to precede adoption, but you make a great point, Junior that, okay, how are you going to create the awareness? It has to be based on common everyday experiences that people can relate to, that's how you increase the awareness. So I appreciate not only the principle, but the application to make it real.

0:21:53.2 Junior: Next, we've got a lack of understanding. This is something that we run into time and time again, it's something that we're seasoned in addressing, and many people have heard of psychological safety, so the awareness may be there, but they may not have a complete understanding of what it is and what it isn't, and what it isn't, is almost especially important to help people understand because they get lost, and so if you... There are several resources that we can point you to, we did an entire episode on what psychological safety is not, but it's not a shield from accountability, it's not artificial niceness, it's not cuddling, it's not rhetorical reassurance, and some people believe that it's those things and they'll dismiss psychological safety at the start, because there's some baggage that comes along with some of the implied definitions that people come up with or maybe that they've been exposed to through another channel, it doesn't quite understand what it is, we're very explicit about what psychological safety is and isn't and it's our burden, it's our responsibility to help people understand that.

0:23:03.2 Tim: And those misconceptions are real and they're dangerous, and large complex organizations will sometimes grab a hold of one of those misconceptions and run with it. And we've seen that happen.

0:23:14.5 Junior: We'll put the LeaderFactor note in the show notes, just a one-page PDF that you can look at, that will be maybe helpful for you. So Tim, passing fad. Tell us about this one.

0:23:25.4 Tim: Well, I alluded to it just a minute ago, psychological safety is not a passing fad because we now have this mounting body of empirical research that shows that psychological safety is related to a variety of critical outcomes, like what? Well, like employee engagement to begin with. But it doesn't end there. It's directly related to employee mental health and wellness, it's directly related to diversity, equity and inclusion. It's directly related to physical safety, it's directly related to the learning agility in the organization, it's directly related to competitiveness and innovation, and your ability to create an incubator of innovation in the organization.

0:24:21.0 Tim: And then overall, I just wanna say, so with respect to DEI, let's just talk about inclusion. There is no DEI initiative that will be successful until you first learn how to activate diversity with inclusion. Inclusion is the activator, and inclusion is stage one in the four stages of psychological safety framework, stage one, inclusion safety, it is the foundation of all human... Healthy flourishing human interaction, you have to put that foundation in place, and so if you think about psychological safety being directly related to all of these critical outcomes, it's not going away, we will only see continuing momentum and energy and adoption.

0:25:12.1 Junior: And here at LeaderFactor, we hope to continue to add to that body of research, we're dealing with mountains of data that are coming in right now.

0:25:21.6 Junior: And we have access to some very interesting demographic data that we're starting to correlate with all sorts of things as it relates to psychological safety. An interesting one that we did was with talent ratings, so we correlated psychological safety scores on the four stages teams survey to talent rating [chuckle] and found some really interesting things inside the organization, as you can imagine, it ended up being tightly correlated those with high talent ratings in the managerial roles had the highest psychological safety, so pretty cool. And that leads into the next point, which is difficulty in measuring psychological safety can be a difficult thing to measure without, I suppose, several things one of which is an understanding of how it works. If you don't understand how it works, if you look at it as just a binary variable, then it's gonna be pretty difficult to measure because the outcome of your survey would be yes or no. There are several things we need to look at to get to psychological safety, which are the four stages, you need a validated insurance.

0:26:24.5 Junior: So that's one of the things that we've solved for, so if you're ever interested in running that survey with just a team, piloting that, reach out to us and we can do that for you. Next is focus on tangible outcomes, organizations prioritize tangible outcomes, things that are easy to measure, revenue, production metrics, and if they don't see a tie to the bottom line, many organizations become hesitant and some organizations are different, but that characterizes most where they're looking at the bottom line and saying, "How does this affect it?" So we did an episode 46, the Impact of Psychological Safety on Engagement and Retention. That's got some very good data in there, and so if you're interested in some of those bottom line impact metrics regarding turnover, psychological safety is highly related to turnover, and there are a lot of dollars to be saved in attrition. If you look at the opportunity of psychological safety, so that's one thing I would point to.

0:27:22.1 Tim: Yeah, Junior, there are several very credible third-party sources of research that relate to retention/ attrition as it relates to psychological safety or its opposite, which would be a toxic culture, and how that drives attrition, which it's absolutely beyond question at this point, especially over the last three years as we've seen employees quitting organizations, even if you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the monthly numbers for quits, voluntary quits is what they call you voluntarily leave your organization. Over the past year, the quits have been higher than at any other point in recorded history, it's not just because the labor market is attractive and people are finding new opportunities, the biggest driver is that they're leaving toxic work environments, they don't wanna say directly related.

0:28:21.9 Junior: And the labor market, it's becoming decreasingly attractive, yet those quits are increasing. So if you look at voluntary separations just over the last several months relative to market growth, they're inverted. It's pretty interesting to look at some of those statistics, and you can go directly to BLS, and look at those numbers. We talk about some of those in a few previous episodes, so we're gonna go through a couple more of these motivations for organizations to be slow to adopt, and then we're going to give a few recommendations. So this next one, fear of addressing sensitive topics, we bump into this occasionally, maybe more than occasionally, but psychological safety lives in the world of what many people perceive as feelings, as your experience, as emotion, mental health, diversity, equity, inclusion, employee resource groups, these types of things come to people's minds and they think, those seem like risky business, probably easier to just not do it. Sure, point taken, it's not an easy thing to do to have these types of conversations sometimes, but you have to come to terms with the cost of doing nothing, and it's very costly, that's a big cost that you're gonna have to pay.

0:29:39.5 Junior: You will pay it eventually, and then maybe it will be bleeding out your top talent, maybe it will be a disengaged workforce, maybe it will be slowed innovation. It could be any of those things. And so one of the ways that we approach this is to talk about those difficult issues through the lens of human versus-human characteristics, that's the easiest way that we found to do this 'cause they can get dicey, it can get really dicey, really fast. And so on a personal note that's been just the best card that I could ever pull out, the best thing that I could lean on during these conversations is to help people understand that the way that we view the world is through that lens, if you are human and we talk about this in stage one, inclusion and safety, if you're human and you don't present me with harm, I'm obligated to include you, it's a question of your humanity, and whether or not you're presenting me with harm.

0:30:36.0 Junior: It's not a question of human characteristics, we're talking above that level, we appreciate the human characteristics. We appreciate the differences. Those are important things. We're not trying to get rid of those, but when we have the conversation at the level of our shared, the commonality of us as humans makes the conversation a lot easier, so that can be one of the reasons that organizations are averse to the topic is that it's sensitive by nature.

0:31:02.5 Tim: They've had some difficult experiences, Junior. They've waited out into these initiatives, into these areas, they've tried to make gains and they've come away with some negative consequences. It's been a stinging experience so they don't wanna do it again. But as you say, the conversation happens above demographics, it happens above psycho-graphics and cultural attributes, we elevate humanity as the highest loyalty, we subordinate human characteristics. How else can you create an environment of deep inclusion? There's no other way, there's just no other way. We can't... If we give any preferential treatment to human characteristics, we sow the seeds of division, and so it does take place, the dialogue takes place above that, and then the intervention takes place above that, and the terms of engagement are defined above that, and it works. It absolutely works.

0:32:05.1 Junior: So next we have threat to leaders, unpack that one for us, Tim.

0:32:09.8 Tim: Some leaders [laughter] as we have come to learn, Junior, haven't we? Are not excited about psychological safety that much, they perceive it as a threat. Who would? Well, two distinct categories of leaders, leaders who are incompetent, and leaders who feed on status and position, now think about it, psychological safety does represent to some extent an equalizer and a leveling device, as far as influence in the organization, it can redirect and redistribute the patterns of influence, the influence traffic that exists in the organization. And so if you're not competent as a leader, you're not excited about that.

0:32:52.1 Tim: You would rather hide behind title, position and authority, or if you feed on status and position, you're not happy about that because you love the incentive structure as it exists today. It benefits you, it rewards you. You don't wanna give that up. So these are two categories of leaders that won't necessarily be excited about the fact that you're adopting and implementing psychological safety and you're pursuing cultural transformation through the means of psychological safety, so just know there will be detractors, there will be those that will fight you along the way and say, "Why are we doing this?" And they'll come up with all manner of excuses about why not to do it.

0:33:31.4 Junior: So you may be up against that, you may have seen that before, so just be prepared for that, 'cause that may be part of the situation. Lastly, we've got general resistance to change, so new training assessments, infrastructure requires time, it requires money, it requires attention, if it's resource heavy or it appears to be, they may shy away. So one of the things that we talk a lot about at LeaderFactor is the value equation. So think about this in your mind's eye on the top, on our numerator, we've got the dream outcome times the perceived likelihood of achievement.

0:34:08.1 Junior: So we have this thing that we really want, we want a healthy, vibrant culture with high psychological safety, and then we multiply that by the perceived likelihood of achievement, and if we think that it's very likely, high number, if we think that it's not likely, low number. That is divisible by the time delay, multiplied by effort and sacrifice, so hopefully that doesn't sound terribly complicated, but those are the four things that we're looking at, a dream outcome and perceived likelihood of achievement, and on the bottom, time delay times effort and sacrifice.

0:34:42.2 Junior: So the value increases as we crank up that numerator and decrease the denominator, so we want our dream outcome to be up there, we want it to be amazing, and it is, culture affects everything. If we can increase the likelihood of achievement, that drives the value up even more, and then what do we wanna mitigate? Time delay and effort and sacrifice. So if we go to an organization as LeaderFactor and say, "Hey, we're gonna help a little bit with culture and it may work and it may not," it's gonna take a really, really long time. And it's very resource-intensive. What do you think the prospects are gonna say? Not a chance. Not a chance. I'm not gonna give you the time of day.

0:35:24.2 Tim: Well, why would you? 

0:35:25.3 Junior: Yeah, why would you? Of course, you wouldn't. On the flip side, if we can help them understand just what the stakes are and help them understand how quickly we can start to make change, how quickly we can bring value, then it starts to become a little bit more appetizing, so this value equation is relevant to all of us across a whole host of scenarios and the adoption of psychological safety is one, and we'll get into our approach and how we really tune up that value equation, so now we're gonna get into our recommendations. So these are all the motivations, or at least most of them, for slow adoption of psychological safety. And we as early adopters, and I'm including all listeners in that, need to come to terms with all of those motivations, understand them, and then use a few tools to our advantage to help organizations adopt this philosophy. And part of the reason we do this so unabashed is because of the stakes for humanity, humans need this, organizations need this, they need to feel included, they need to feel like they can learn and contribute and challenge the status quo. Is better for all of us, is better for the world, and it's something that we desperately need.

0:36:41.3 Junior: So our first recommendation is to understand who you're selling to, and this is something that we learned very early on, there's a fork in the road as to our approach varies very early in the relationship, and it's figuring out the overarching motivation for the conversation regarding the person on the other end. They're probably concerned in an overarching sense with one of two things, innovation or inclusion, they're concerned about the performance of the organization, the rate of innovation and the bottom line, or and... Sometimes and they're concerned with the people themselves, and are they feeling included? Do they feel a sense of belonging? And we tune the approach based on those two things, because one of the ways to turn off the bottom line-driven person very quickly is to reinforce the idea that what we're talking about might be really soft and it might be very kumbaya, and it might be very non-research backed or performance-oriented or any number of other things.

0:37:48.4 Junior: And the inverse is also true. One of the ways to turn off the human-oriented person is to start talking about the way that this affects the bottom line, because they wanna talk about people. And so you have to acknowledge where they're coming from in order to help position this. Not in a manipulative way at all, but to give them the relevant information to help them solve the problem that they're coming with.

0:38:14.3 Tim: Well, Junior, so I love the way you framed it. So yeah, the big fork in the road is, are we going to have a conversation about people meeting their basic human needs or are we going to have a conversation about profit and profitability based on innovation as the life blood of growth. If I'm sitting down with someone whose motivational profile is about profitability and driving innovation is the life blood of growth, and we start talking about satisfying basic human needs, then to that person, the signal to noise ratio is not going to be good, and that person is going to hear a lot of noise and is not going to wanna continue the conversation. I need to be able to speak to that person about innovation and the direct connection between psychological safety as the great enabler of innovation and the key to your ability to create an incubator of innovation. Otherwise, they're not with me.

0:39:22.4 Tim: Conversely, if I'm speaking to someone about human capital, and that's what resonates with them, and they're concerned about engagement, they're concerned about retention, they're concerned about productivity, they're concerned about employee health and wellness, they're concerned about creating a sanctuary of inclusion in the organization, and I talk about innovation and profitability, and how psychological safety enables that, then again, the signal-to-noise ratio is off for them and they're hearing a lot of noise. So first, assess the motivational profile of your audience, why do they care, why do they care about psychological safety? What is their primary motivation? What is that? You've got to lay that bear and then speak to that, so I love the fact that you said there's a fork in the road with these two things. Exactly.

0:40:13.5 Junior: And there are some other tangential motivators as well, so we did an episode on what's driving the demand for psychological safety and sometimes... Well, during that conversation, ask the person, which of these things is the reason that you're here, engagement and retention, mental health and wellness, innovation, inclusion, and often people will point to exactly why they're there, and then you can kind of tune the conversation to accomplish that. So next, we've got don't muscle or smuggle. I love these two words, Tim, we've talked about them a lot as it relates to change management, I would love if you could kinda lay this out for us.

0:40:55.0 Tim: Sure, well, in the discipline or the applied discipline of organizational change management, there are two, I would call them classic failure patterns, one is muscling, one is smuggling. Now, you may be able to define these as... When I mentioned those terms, to muscle is pretty intuitive. When we try to muscle change, we're trying to force it through, we're trying to press people into service, and that happens a lot, and we can make quite a bit of progress through muscling. The problem is that we end up putting the organization on a compliance track, not a commitment track, and they are reluctant to really be committed because they've been pressed into service, and so they don't want to release their discretionary efforts, they haven't adopted individually, so that's muscling. You can see the liabilities associated with muscling.

0:41:55.8 Tim: The other classic failure pattern is smuggling. Smuggling is a little different, smuggling means that you bring in the initiative as a covert action, you try to hide it, you try to do it in a corner, you try to minimize it. When people ask you, well, why are you doing this? Or are we... You just minimize it? It's no big deal. Hey, we're just... No big deal. So think about it, why do people smuggle change? Why do they try to take change initiatives into the organization as covert actions and minimize them or hide them? 

0:42:29.8 Tim: What are they worried about? They're worried about an explosion of resistance, and so they try to frame the initiative as something that it isn't. They try to minimize it in order to mitigate the risk of the resistance, but what does that do? It simply prolongs the inevitable. You've gotta square up to the reality of what a change initiative requires and what adoption requires, and what commitment requires, and what implementation requires, ultimately, there's no shortcut, you can kind of delay the work.

0:43:01.2 Tim: Just think about this, there are two things that are always true when it comes to large-scale organizational change, the performance of additional work, that's number one, the absorption of additional stress, that's number two. There's no way around those two requirements, you always have to perform additional work and you always have to absorb additional stress, but if you do it right, if you create and build and enlist a coalition from the beginning, going back to what you said Junior, to very thoughtfully increase awareness and understanding of psychological safety and how it works and what it does and the outcomes that it leads to, then you can move through the adoption curve in an accelerated manner. So what are we saying, please avoid these two classic approaches to change, muscling and smuggling, we see people doing this all the time.

0:44:01.5 Junior: And pointing back to that original fork in the road, and relative to your comment about building a coalition, it's in your best interest to build that coalition with people that have varying motivations on both sides of innovation and inclusion, because when that coalition can speak to both motivational profiles, your chances of success go up. We had a conversation with a client just this week, and this is what the client said, and I'll paraphrase a little bit, but she said, I'm excited about LeaderFactor, and you could put psychological safety in as a LeaderFactor as proxy, I'm excited about psychological safety. I'm excited about the framework, I'm excited about its connection to innovation, I would not have chosen this framework if it were just about psych safety, to put it frankly, everyone's too busy, so it has to connect to something bigger, it has to directly tie to us to become profitable this year. That's what everyone's focused on.

0:45:02.0 Tim: That's pretty honest, isn't it? 

0:45:03.6 Junior: Yeah, I wanted to toss that in because this person's likely similar to many of you and us in that it needs to tie to some of these other things, and if it doesn't, and we try to muscle or smuggle it through it's not going to work. So our next recommendation is to bring data, and ideally, this data includes a combination of qualitative and quantitative data, often one of the failures that we see is that there's just one or the other in the way that the client's trying to approach the problem, it's just qualitative or it's just quantitative. You need both.

0:45:44.1 Junior: Now, some data is better than no data, so some organizations will have a single item on an engagement survey, and that's better than nothing, but there's so much more opportunity and it's difficult to give any color to that single item without some form of qualitative data to explain the outcome. And we're looking at it in a pretty flat way, if we're looking at a single item, but one of the things that we've seen, we just got survey results back from one of our clients, it's their third survey in about nine to 12 months, I'm not certain.

0:46:21.1 Junior: So they've done three surveys and each time the results came back better and better, and it's kudos to the client because they've done a tremendous amount of training and intervention in between the measurements, which we always encourage, but now that organization is on fire because it's undeniable, the survey results, both quantitative and qualitative, point to the improvements that they've made and they're seeing amazing outcomes, and so bringing that type of data to your organization, and we'll talk about easy ways to do that, but is invaluable, and most organizations will not get to full adoption without that type of data backing up the argument.

0:47:10.3 Tim: Yeah, I couldn't agree more Junior, we believe in the maxim, "In God we trust, but everyone else, bring data." This is the way that we approach psychological safety and cultural transformation in LeaderFactor, it's all about data, it's all about a scientific evidence-based approach, and as you said, Junior, we need quantitative and qualitative, sometimes people don't understand a complementarity of these two categories of data. The quantitative data, the measurable data helps you know where you are, it tells you what is going on, it gives you a baseline, for example, you take a team, they take the four stages team survey, they understand where they are based on the four stages of psychological safety. They have a baseline, but they don't know why they're there, they don't understand the nuances, they don't understand exactly what's going on, It still doesn't give us contextual understanding, but then you bring in the qualitative data based on the open-ended questions, and you bring that in and it gives you... It gives you the why, it gives you the how, it gives you the detail so that you can understand the what, it gives you the explanatory power concerning the quantitative data.

0:48:34.1 Tim: Quantitative data alone is not enough if you're trying to effect organizational transformation and cultural transformation. So when you bring these two together, that's where the magic happens. Now you understand where you are and why you are there, and now as you create the future state, you define a future state, you can then put an action plan in place that's very detailed about what you need to work on. For example, if we're working on stage one, inclusion safety, we can see where we fall short, we can see, for example, behaviorally where we do not model and reward vulnerability as it relates to inclusion. Or it could be related to stage two learner safety or contributor safety or challenger safety.

0:49:25.9 Tim: We have the quantitative and the qualitative data, we have the full picture. In the 2020s, as we move further into this decade, I don't know how you justify a large-scale intervention for cultural transformation, unless you're taking this approach where it truly is data-driven and evidence-based. There's no other way to justify it from a business case point of view and a return on investment point of view.

0:49:58.1 Junior: That's well said. I was on a client call last week, and one of the people on the call said, "Well, we already know that the psychological safety in our organization is less than desirable, so there's no need to measure it." And there are a lot of things you could say to that, but it was interesting to me to think about that perspective and understand that the specificity of our approach would be so lacking if we didn't understand with more specificity and more nuance the current state and the variation of people's experience across demographics. So one of the things that we'll often look at is gender, geography, tenure, we'll break it down by org chart in the hierarchy and show results that way, and kinda slice and dice the data that we get to tell the story that then informs the intervention that subsequent. And so if you don't do that and you have this generalized blanket approach that's based exclusively on awareness, which is what many organizations do, you are not going to get there, and if you do, it's gonna take forever.

0:51:15.4 Junior: So that data helps inform all of the subsequent intervention and I can't emphasize that enough because much of our effort in terms of attention, money could be going to the wrong place if we're not sure about what it is we're actually trying to effect and what the current state is. So that leads into the next point, which is, start small and build a case. And this is our approach. And so for those of you who are looking to improve the rate of adoption, I would highly recommend that you listen closely to this, start small, build a case, you go back to that value equation, we wanna minimize the denominator as much as possible, we wanna minimize the time delay, we wanna minimize the amount of effort and sacrifice.

0:52:01.6 Junior: And so we're gonna do that on the time front and on the monetary front, and we're going to survey an intact team, and then we're going to give the results, and it will take us almost no time at all, and then we'll be able to show, okay, this is the state of the state here, this is the state of the culture today in this team, and what we often find is that the results are never perfect. So think of any engagement survey, any 360, any assessment that you run, there's always opportunity. And specifically with psychological safety, the do-nothing scenario is more difficult to justify than almost anything else, because you're talking about humans feeling included, it ties all the way back to bullying, harassment, some of the qualitative data that you might find when you use survey, it's hard to argue against.

0:52:56.7 Junior: And so that becomes almost impossible to dismiss. And so that's one of the first things that I would mention. We did this recently with a healthcare organization, we presented the data, and they then had to decide, do we do something or do we do nothing. And it's pretty difficult for a well-informed group of leaders to look at those types of survey results and say, oh, well, we'll just leave it be. It'll probably be okay.

0:53:24.7 Tim: No, junior, it's just like I was with a large multinational organization the other day with the executive team debriefing their survey results for the top two layers, and they had a very sizable gender difference in psychological safety for all four stages, it was a very significant gender-based gap. What do you do? Do you look at that data and say, that's interesting. You can't do that. No responsible leader can look at a significant gender-based gap and say, "Well, that was fascinating, what's for lunch?" You can't do that. You are obligated, you have a stewardship and a fiduciary obligation, a moral obligation to the organization to close that gap. What is going on? And unless you have an accurate baseline in this case with demographic analysis, you would never even know... Well, you could sense it anecdotally, and based on your own experience, but you wouldn't be able to systematically measure the gender gap, which is exactly what we did.

0:54:25.4 Junior: So how to promote psychological safety as an early adopter? To wrap up and to summarize, we're early on this adoption curve, we are not in the space of instant pots, we are in the space of enthusiasts and visionaries, we're tapping into those first two groups and then leading into the pragmatist. So in order to do that well, we need to do a few things. We need to know who we're talking to. Are they coming at psychological safety through the lens of innovation or inclusion? Don't muscle or smuggle the change, bring data, start small and build the case.

0:55:05.8 Junior: And lastly, I will put create a plan to show ROI. This can be difficult depending on the data you have access to, but if you can link your initiatives to attrition and to engagement into some of those other metrics, it's in your best interest to do that. So these are the things that we have found to be successful. These are things that we've used, boots on the ground with many organizations that are early in that adoption curve. And as we've gone through the organization, these initiatives tend to expand and you bump more and more into the laggards on the adoption curve that want to know some of these things. And if you can satisfy their needs, then they'll show more commitment and we'll be able to penetrate the organization even better.

0:55:50.7 Junior: There are a few resources that I wanna point to, if you have not listened to episodes 43, 46 or 49, highly recommend that that's what's driving the demand for psychological safety, that's got a lot of data in it, it can help arm those conversations. And then 46 is about engagement and retention, lots of data in that one, and then 49, what psychological safety is not. We talked a lot about the awareness, but then the understanding on understanding what psychological safety isn't is very, very important.

0:56:21.9 Junior: So thank you everyone for your time and attention. We appreciate your listenership. Tim, I'm wondering if you can finish us with that quote from...

0:56:33.8 Tim: Adam Smith.

0:56:35.4 Junior: That's an interesting one to end on.

0:56:37.0 Tim: It is he said, "All the members of human society stand in need of each other's assistance and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries." And that is so true in organizational life. And I think that underscores the importance of psychological safety and creating a culture of rewarded vulnerability where we can work together and through modeling and rewarding vulnerability, each other's vulnerability, that we create an environment where we can really thrive and flourish, because we will continue to stand in need of each other's assistance, as Adam Smith wrote many, many years ago, so I think that's a nice parting thought.

0:57:20.8 Junior: It is. So with that, if you found value in today's episode, we would appreciate your likes, your reviews and your shares. Take care everyone. We will see you next time. Bye-bye.


0:57:38.5 Producer: Hey, Culture by Design listeners. You made it to the end of today's episode. Thank you again for listening and for making culture something that you do by design and not by default. If you've enjoyed today's episode, please be so kind to leave us a review, it helps us reach a wider audience and accomplish our mission of influencing the world for good at scale. Today's episode show notes and other relevant resources related to today's topic can be found at And with that, we'll see you in next episode.


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