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Stage Four: Challenger Safety

It's the end of our four-part series on The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, and this week Tim and Junior are talking about the fourth and final stage: challenger safety. What does it take to innovate on dynamic teams? At the end of the day, a lack of innovation is a culture issue, and knowing that is a game-changer. A culture-changer, if you will. Our hosts share their practical tips on how to do just that, and more, in this value-packed series finale.

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Episode Show Notes

What is challenger safety? (1:12) Challenger safety is the fourth and final stage of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. Do you feel like you can be candid about change? Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better.

What does challenger safety look like across industries? (4:00) Whether you’re an executive at an up-and-coming startup in Silicon Valley, a nurse in a state hospital, or a tenured professor at a prestigious university, every job needs challenger safety.

What’s the social exchange for this stage? (8:00) When we create challenger safety, we give air cover (protection) in exchange for candor. Tim and Junior discuss why we should value candor in the workplace. After all, what’s the point of bleached, sanitized feedback?

What happens when organizations try to hide their lack of challenger safety? (16:00) Silence is expensive. When teams claim they have a speak-up culture, but do everything in their power to keep their teams quiet, their ruse quickly becomes obvious. Eventually, the candor will come out.

How do we avoid echo chambers? (20:00) If all a leader wants in a meeting is validation that they already have the best ideas, they should have a meeting with themself. Tim and Junior explain that avoiding the dangerous traps of groupthink involves harvesting the power of candid feedback.

Where does the word innovation come from? (22:00) Junior and Tim are surprised to learn that the Latin root of the word “innovate” means to renew or alter. 

What is pride of authorship? (27:00) It’s exactly what it sounds like: the sense of ownership that someone feels over their idea, solution, comment, or deliverable. It suffocates feedback and encourages echo chambers. 

Is innovation an engagement issue or a culture issue? (34:00) As the precursor to employee engagement, psychological safety creates a culture of rewarded vulnerability that allows innovation to happen.

How do I neutralize the power difference of hierarchies? (40:45) Hierarchy can easily stifle innovation. When superiority and hierarchy dominate your company culture you definitely won’t innovate.

What’s the difference between social and intellectual friction? (46:30) In these moments of collision, a leader’s task is to simultaneously increase intellectual friction and decrease social friction. High intellectual friction lets your team harness creative abrasion and constructive dissent and arrive at real innovation. 

What happens if you fail to have challenger safety? (53:40) You’ll want to hear it straight from Tim and Junior themselves. Listen to the end to find out.

Resources Mentioned in the Episode:

The Psychological Safety Behavioral Guide

LeaderFactor Note #26
HBR Article: Don’t Let Hierarchy Stifle Innovation

Podcast: Don’t Let Hierarchy Stifle Innovation

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Episode Transcript

0:00:02.3 Producer: Hey Culture by Design listeners, it's Freddie, one of the producers of the podcast. And for today's episode, you're in for a real treat. Today is the fourth and final episode in our four-part series on the four stages of psychological safety. Today we will cover challenger safety, which asks the fundamental question, can you be candid about change? There are a lot of references to other episodes, including the three previous episodes of this series, inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, which we will include links to in this episode's show notes, and links to all the relevant resources as well. This may be the end of our four-part series, but it is not the end of the Culture by Design podcast. Tim and Junior will be back next week, continuing to help you build world-class cultures by design. If you enjoyed this episode, or you've enjoyed and found the four stages and four-part series practical and useful, please leave us a review. It helps us accomplish Leader Factor's mission of influencing the world for good at scale. Now to Tim and junior.

0:01:17.0 Junior: Welcome back everyone to part four of the four stages of psychological safety. This is the fourth episode in our series across all the four stages.

0:01:21.4 Junior: The past three episodes have been fantastic. Tim, welcome back.

0:01:26.1 Tim: Good to be with you. This is going to be a good one.

0:01:28.2 Junior: It is. How have you been?

0:01:29.9 Tim: Doing well. And I'm excited to talk about challenger safety because this is the culmination. And so this is where everything comes together. So I'm excited for this conversation.

0:01:41.9 Junior: Me too. I've been thinking about it a lot. The first three episodes have been an actual blast to record. I've had a lot of fun recording these with you. And if you haven't had the opportunity to listen to the first three episodes, we would highly recommend that you do that. Not that you'll need to for context for today's discussion, but if you have a chance and you haven't, we would recommend that. And as always, if you'd like a little bit more content, we would recommend the book, The Four Stages of Psychological Safety. Many of you know, but Dr. Clark is the author of that book and we've had a really fun rise since that book came out. So the culminating stage, stage four, challenger safety. What is challenger safety, Tim, if you had to describe it?

0:02:20.8 Tim: Challenger safety is the condition, the environment, the culture that allows you to challenge the status quo without fear of negative consequences. But here's the thing, when it comes to challenging the status quo, the set of negative consequences that most people worry about is a different set of consequences than with the other stages. If I'm thinking about challenging the status quo, taking on the status quo, taking on the way we do things, what am I worried about? What's at stake? So what I'm saying is what's at stake is different. So Junior, let's just talk about this. What do most people think is at stake personally? What could go wrong? What could be the fallout? What could be the adverse consequences? If you challenge the status quo and it doesn't go so well?

0:03:18.7 Junior: Yeah, that's a good question. And I think it would be helpful. We'll go ahead and link to the model in the show notes. There may be some of our listeners that haven't had a chance to look at the model. We often discuss the model and talk about it as a ladder of vulnerability. And that vulnerability increases as we move up the ladder. We're higher off the ground. It's more risky for me to challenge the direction of the organization, challenger safety, than it is for me to extend my hand and introduce myself, inclusion safety. So inclusion safety, what's the downside risk? The downside risk is that I feel I don't get that sense of belonging that I want. And maybe it's not active exclusion. But if it's not proactive inclusion, maybe I feel a little bit shorted. I feel in learner safety that I don't have an opportunity to learn. Maybe a question gets shut down. There's a little bit of social rejection. Contributor safety, I don't get to contribute meaningfully. By the time you get to challenger safety, though, and you're sticking your neck out a little bit, you're challenging the direction, all of a sudden the stakes become much higher.

0:04:30.0 Junior: So you ask, what are those stakes? It could be your entire career. It could get that way.

0:04:36.8 Tim: That's what we need to acknowledge.

0:04:38.3 Junior: Exactly. You think about some of the instances over time and in history, we could point out many, where challenger safety was needed. It was desperately needed, but it wasn't there. And we had catastrophic outcomes, both at organizational levels and at personal levels.

0:04:57.5 Tim: Can I give you an example, Junior? This is incredible. Last week I was with an energy company in Canada and they have a manager whose sole job is dam safety. That's his whole job because they have a lot of dams associated with hydroelectric power. And his job is to make sure that none of those dams fail. And so one thing that he said is when we're in meetings and we're discussing dam safety, we have to have challenger safety. We protect each other and we protect the dams with challenger safety. Now that's a kind of an outlier, an unusual circumstance, but yet we all need it. Even though we know we need it so much because challenger safety is what you need when you want to change something, modify something, alter something, improve something, fix something, and then of course innovate. Innovation is part of all of that. If the disincentive, if the fear is too high because you think you're putting your career on the line, your reputation is at stake, your personal standing, those big things, even though it's very important that you challenge the status quo, most people are going to back off. They're not going to do it.

0:06:23.1 Tim: And yet we desperately, I'm using that word intentionally, we desperately need them to weigh in and challenge the status quo. It's that essential.

0:06:35.5 Junior: It's fascinating that we're still so hesitant to challenge the status quo, even in scenarios where the stakes can be so high. There can be situations of even life or death and maybe it's not that straightforward, but sometimes it is and there's still that hesitation, which goes to show there's a lot to talk about today. There's a lot of nuance in challenger safety. There's a lot of liability and risk in challenger safety and there's a lot of upside to doing it well. It's pretty interesting when you get it wrong, it can go desperately wrong and when you get it right, you can achieve some of the most noteworthy things that have ever been achieved.

0:07:14.3 Tim: Yeah. I mean, let's just take an example from healthcare. How many times, right, the hierarchy in healthcare is pretty strong. It's pretty strong. And it's reinforced every day. How many nurses didn't say something when they suspected that there might be a wrongside surgery or that we were doing something wrong and how many lives have been lost? The last report that I saw showed that roughly 100,000 lives are lost in hospitals every year that could have been avoided and that's just in the United States. 100,000. How many times has someone lower on the totem pole in the clinical hierarchy, they were going to say something, they were going to challenge the status quo, but they didn't do it. It happens with regularity. There's no doubt. That's just another example.

0:08:05.7 Junior: It is. And we're going to be unpacking that today. So stick around and we're going to talk about what Challenger Safety has to do with innovation and how we can enable that in our teams and organizations to create areas of high performance and make sure that we get these things right. So let's talk about the social exchange. We've done that in the last three episodes. I think it's appropriate here. Each stage has a social exchange. I do something, you do something. The social exchange for stage four Challenger Safety is air cover in exchange for candor. Air cover in exchange for candor. Think about that just a little bit. We're going to start with candor. Tim, in your opinion, why is candor part of the social exchange? Why are we trying to optimize for candor?

0:08:54.6 Tim: Because we need free flowing feedback. We need unedited, unvarnished input that is not filtered in a substantive way so that we have the full benefit of your thinking, your analysis, your point of view and why. So we need that. We need that to come respectful always, right? Psychological safety is based on respect and permission. And so we always want to patrol those borders to ensure respect and to ensure permission, but we need the full substance of your view. So that's candor.

0:09:37.4 Junior: I love unvarnished because if it's not unvarnished, then what is it? It's polished, it's curated. And that's not the type of information that we need. That is not the fuel for innovation. We find what happens when all of the feedback is curated and polished and that's not what we want.

0:09:57.2 Tim: Let me give you an example on that one, Junior. We got a riff on that for just a minute. I was with an executive team and the CEO said just the other day, hey, if the feedback I'm getting is scrubbed and bleached and sanitized by the time it gets to me, we're in big trouble. Love that. I can not afford to get the feedback in that kind of a processed form. I need it. I need the raw version of it because then we need to wrestle with it and then we need to go through the analysis together. If you scrub it and bleach it and sanitize it before it comes to me, then what you're saying is, well, we've done all that work and here's the recommendation. Now that's fine to have a recommendation. Don't leave out the things that you're worried about. Don't leave out the risks and the costs and the contingencies. We need to wrestle with those things together. So we need full candor. Now what's another thing that works against that, Junior, is the bias and the norm in many organizations where leaders say to their direct reports or subordinates, look, you know, don't bring me a question, bring me a solution.

0:11:12.5 Tim: Well, do you know what? Some of the very best feedback or input that comes to the top is a catalytic question that opens our minds. And so that old rusty conventional wisdom is very dangerous. You can not expect that you're going to get polished, crystallized solutions that come to the top, nor should you because it's a collaborative process.

0:11:46.0 Junior: I've been shown too many times and had too many experiences where, albeit ignorant questions, sparks an inquiry or a conversation that we otherwise wouldn't have had that becomes brilliant. And there's something to be said about context and believability and expertise. Those things are important. But if we neutralize all else, I think we do that at our peril because there sometimes in that ignorance lies insight, even if it's not intentional. But it may be regarding a problem that we've looked at a thousand times, but it takes someone with a different perspective. And maybe the lack of context is actually what makes it brilliant because they're not burdened by the context and they can ask a penetrating question that leads us to some place that we wouldn't have arrived otherwise.

0:12:45.5 Tim: That's right. Yeah, they're not constrained. They're not encumbered by the assumptions and the paradigms that we live under every day. So we need candor, but the candor is not going to come, as you say, Junior, in the social exchange unless there is air cover. Now think about this, if a leader says to the members of a team, I want your honest feedback, I want your candid input, and this is a speak up culture, but the air cover is not there, the stage four challenger safety is not there, you are essentially asking me to muscle through the fear. That's what you're asking me to do. Who's going to do that? Maybe a few brave souls that are outliers, but everybody else, they're not going to do that. Why? This is something that leaders need to think about. Are you asking people to muscle through the fear because the conditions do not exist where people feel that stage four challenger safety? That is a diagnostic question for leaders. Leaders are responsible for conditions. So have you done your part to create the conditions that are conducive to challenging the status quo? And you can look at the patterns that surround the types of questions that have been asked in your team, what happens afterward?

0:14:10.0 Tim: And that initial behavior, I think about this pretty often when it comes to air cover, what's the initial reaction after the question? Because that's a lot of what people are paying attention to. A question that's asked and it's met with what? Curiosity?

0:14:23.8 Junior: Is it met with a little bit of impatience? Is it, hey, I really like that idea. Here's some resource, go explore it. Air cover is an interesting analogy when I think about air cover, because it's not just at home base, for lack of a better term. There could be times where you're required to give air cover cross-functionally. Maybe there's someone that you're supporting. Really good point. They're not just out on their own in some pitch or some idea or some meeting. And so I think that that's an important consideration is we're not talking air cover just in your immediate vicinity, but maybe you need to accompany someone to somewhere they're not normally engaging and provide some support there.

0:15:15.9 Tim: That's a good point. And let's translate that for a minute. Air cover translates into emotional, social, psychological, economic, political protection. That's what it means. And you've got to be able to provide that so that you can reinforce and reward that challenging behavior, which is so hard to do in the first place. Now this kind of leads to another point, Junior, which is teams that don't have stage four challenger safety, they try to fake it, they try to fake it. They want to appear that they're participating. They want to have goodwill. They want to contribute and yet the conditions aren't there that they need. They try to fake it. So how do they fake it? They fake it by being quiet and nice. These are the default patterns for teams that do not have stage four challenger safety. So they developed a superficial collegiality. It's the veneer of civility, but they can't really debate the issues on their merits, can they? It's not really a meritocracy. We can't have ideas colliding and rubbing against each other and sharpening each other. That's not going to happen because the conditions don't prevail. The team in the team's efforts to conceal the fact that it does not have stage four challenger safety, it will reveal itself in the patterns of being quiet and nice.

0:16:45.0 Tim: For all the listeners out there, I want you to think about this again. Silence is expensive. It's expensive. So if there's too much silence, that's a warning sign. If the niceness has gone to a place of, as I mentioned, superficial collegiality, that's a warning sign. These are signs that you have not arrived. So I just wanted to point that out, Junior.

0:17:14.6 Junior: I appreciate it because if there's too much silence and that's the pattern, then obsolescence is the inevitable end because in silence, what can you do? You just execute, if that. Silence is based on execution because we don't need to coordinate anything else. There's no talk of innovation. And that's what we're going to get to next is the innovation implication in stage four challenger safety. But I think a lot about the expense of silence being very far reaching. It's expensive on a personal level too. So not only do you get low innovation, you get low engagement. And some of the other hygiene factors that people are looking for at work start to erode because of that silence. And so people are good at figuring out the intent of another human. We're good at that. We've become very good at that over a very long time. And the superficial niceness isn't lost on anyone. It's not like they go in and are faked out. We know pretty quickly that it is superficial. And we can get wrapped up into those norms ourselves and understand over a pretty short period of time that if you want to stick around here, it's probably better to just be nice and quiet.

0:18:38.0 Tim: That's really true, Junior. We have the sensory equipment. We go into a social collective. We go into a meeting. We start doing threat detection. It doesn't take us long to figure out what the norms are. It doesn't take us long to figure out if we can challenge the status quo and if that behavior will be rewarded or punished. That doesn't take you very long. You don't need to take a class in it. It's intuitive. You have the equipment. It's part of the original equipment that you've been given as a human being. So if you don't think it's there, then you're going to back off. And so we'll see the quiet and nice patterns. We will see teams trying to compensate for not having that. So what do they do? They have the sidebar conversations after the meeting. They have the kangaroo courts, but they can't have the hard hitting dialogue in the meeting. Those are workarounds. And there's another thing that I've seen again and again and again. The candor will come out. It's just a matter of where and to whom. It's going to come out. And if it can't come out in a healthy forum where you can really debate issues on their merits, it's going to come out informally right after the fact.

0:19:49.6 Tim: And so we're going to see it. It's going to come out, but we need to be able to harvest that input. So basically what are you going to see in the formal meeting? It's going to turn into an echo chamber of like-minded people. We don't need echo chambers. If all we get is an echo chamber, you just need to have a meeting with yourself. That's not going to help anything. The homogenization of thought is the enemy. What do we need? We need cross-functional, lateral, divergent thinking in the room. And we need to be able to accommodate that and really take advantage of that. That's what stage four is all about.

0:20:31.7 Junior: Well, it's ironic because we spend time creating the echo chamber. It takes time and energy to keep that up. And yet we're pouring all of this energy into it and then need to keep energy for the actual work that needs to get done. So by the time we're done keeping the facade up, we now have no time or energy for anything else. So to recap, the social exchange for challenger safety, air cover, and exchange for candor. We want candor because it's the fuel for innovation and we need air cover to feel comfortable giving the candor. So we're going to talk a little bit about innovation. We wanted to make some space for this. One of the things that I did this week was look up innovation. I spent a lot of time thinking about innovation, presumably hopefully doing innovation, but I've never looked at the definition, ever. You mean the real definition, the etymology.

0:21:22.8 Tim: Is that what you're saying?

0:21:23.7 Junior: That's what I'm saying. Okay. What I would need to know if I were at the spelling bee. Right. In Latin innovat. I don't know if I'm saying that correctly, but that's the root. And that word in Latin means altered or renewed. Not sure what I was expecting. That's fascinating. But I don't know that I was expecting that. I think I was expecting something like creation or new or something along those lines a little bit more tabula rasa. But this means, I mean, what is altered or renewed? It means that something existed in the first place that you then made better or changed. And so we talk about this sometimes that most innovation is derivative and that it's incremental. Something exists and then we tweak it. And we also acknowledge the fact that this rarely happens in isolation. And so I want to spend a little bit of time talking about innovation as a collaborative process, as an iterative process, and also the fact that it's derivative. So what do you think about that definition altered or renewed?

0:22:33.2 Tim: Not fascinated by it, especially if you put the two words together. So altering something and renewing it at the same time. But to renew means that there's got to be something that you've added so that it's now a little different. But to your point, the vast majority of innovation is incremental and derivative. Absolutely true. There's very little innovation that is truly what we might call radical and disruptive. Not very much of that. I mean, you just go take a look at a Tesla. I remember when the Tesla's first came out and people said, wow, that's really innovative. Really deconstruct the car. It's all incremental innovation. Little things that we added. There's nothing there that is really radical, disruptive. Now when it all comes together, it becomes disruptive. But if you break it down, there are a lot of marginal gains come together.

0:23:33.4 Junior: Yeah. Not to take away from the innovation of Tesla. No, no, not at all.

0:23:38.5 Junior: But it goes to show that what we perceive most often as most radical is still just a chain of renewals or alterations. That's right. That's what I think is really fascinating. And if you do that fast enough and you cover enough ground, that's when it appears to be radical. Even those moments of what we might call lone genius still have antecedents that were previous discoveries. There's nothing that's truly coming from nothing. It's coming from somewhere and it's being tweaked. So why are we talking about this? Because stage four is all about this. And in the model that we'll link in the show notes, you'll see that in between stage three and stage four, there's a threshold. And that threshold we call the innovation threshold. So Tim, why is the innovation threshold where it is in the model between stages three and four and not somewhere else?

0:24:37.1 Tim: Because that's where you cross over into this realm of innovation where challenging the status quo becomes so essential. So the raw material that you need for innovation is intellectual friction. That's your raw material. Without intellectual friction, there will not be innovation unless you do it all by yourself in your head. But that's not how innovation works because innovation is primarily a social process. So we cross over and we need the intellectual friction. But let me come back to a point, Junior. I want to emphasize this or at least acknowledge that challenging the status quo is very difficult because the status quo becomes very hard. It becomes calcified. It becomes fossilized. We reach an equilibrium and it sets like concrete and it resists efforts to change it. So we become fossilized. We become deeply grooved in our thinking patterns and our behavioral patterns and very resistant to challenges. And so this happens again and again. We reach a new equilibrium. It becomes calcified. Okay, now we need to challenge it. Well, it's entrenched. And so you can see that it's going to take some effort to dislodge the status quo and do the next cycle of innovation.

0:26:11.8 Tim: This is not going to be easy. And this is a social process. So we need that intellectual friction as the raw material. But then that leads to some challenges, some big challenges.

0:26:24.7 Junior: It makes me think that many times we contribute to the status quo as well. The status quo may be of our own making. And that becomes really difficult if you created something that becomes the status quo. Maybe it was innovative at the time and it's become accepted. It's become the norm. But it's been sitting for a little while. It's difficult or it can be to go poke that after a while and say, this isn't the best idea because what if it's your own? Are you not criticizing your own thinking? Is that going to be seen as weird? Was there a better solution at the time? And so you can see that many times we create that status quo, which I think can contribute to our reticence to move it afterward.

0:27:11.0 Tim: Yeah, we're very proud of it. We're vested in it. It's part of our identity. We're bound up in it. And so we start to get very touchy and defensive and territorial. And we take it personally when people start to challenge that status quo, because we look at it as an extension of ourselves. And this is where it becomes a problem. Because if you're a leader, you cannot extend pride of authorship to the status quo that much or you're in trouble. And this is where you have to let go of your ego defense mechanisms. If you don't, then you'll never give people permission to challenge the status quo. Because to you, it's tantamount to challenging you personally. So you don't want to do that. But yet, as I said, use the word again, we desperately need to do that. Right? Innovation. Last time I checked, most every organization on the planet, innovation is the lifeblood of growth. We need to innovate.

0:28:17.8 Junior: Yep. I checked last week. It's still true. Still true. So innovation, you mentioned is a cultural issue. Some people may think that innovation is a technical issue. It's a skills issue. It's rooted in technology. A lot of people think when they think innovation, they think electricity, computers, code. And I think for good reason, there's reason for people to think along those lines. But it seems in your opinion that innovation is upstream, at least its roots. Why do you think that innovation is a cultural issue?

0:28:56.1 Tim: Because the nature of innovation, let's go back to what Steve Jobs said. He said, innovation is just connecting things. Okay, but let's blow that up a little bit. Connecting things means that it's cross-disciplinary. It's cross-functional. So we need lots of things to come together to do combination and what we call recombination so that we can come up with ideas, a hypothesis, a prototype, go test it, iterate, refine, do it again. Well, how does that happen? That means that people are coming from different disciplines to contribute something, to connect different things. And then an innovation comes out of that. That is primarily a social process. That is primarily a cultural capability in the organization. That doesn't just happen, at least not on a consistent basis. So what we're saying is that to create an incubator of innovation is a very deliberate thing and it has certain cultural norms that we know need to be there to enable that process to happen. And a couple of those norms that we know that go together would be the high intellectual friction and then the low social friction that comes with it. That's a companion set of behaviors.

0:30:24.4 Tim: Now is it linked to your expertise and your intellectual horsepower and your capability and your experience and your knowledge and your skills? Absolutely. But we're talking about people coming together in a collaborative effort. It's a cooperative system by nature.

0:30:46.9 Junior: One of the things that I've seen more recently, we had, there was a sales issue and part of the sales team was working on a particular issue and it wasn't super poignant. It wasn't really annoying, but it was an issue nonetheless, but not public enough for it to go cross-functional. Time had passed and there was a meeting or a lunch and some of the product team was with sales. And so you had salespeople and developers and usually they're living in different parts of the org chart and different parts of the office and they don't get too much cross-pollination. And one of the developers said, well, they had heard about the problem and like, what if you did this? Like, yeah, that would work. That solves the problem.

0:31:33.1 Tim: You're not supposed to know that though, because you're from development.

0:31:37.1 Junior: No, I know. It was really fascinating to see that unfold because here a piece of the organization was stumped and yet it was somewhat an elementary issue if looked at through a technical lens. And so it was proved to me that one of the ways to spur this on is to leave your part of the org chart, leave your area of the hierarchy, go somewhere else, even if it's just through observation and it will start to spark new ideas and different insights simply because the environment's different, the paradigm's different, the skill sets are different, the characteristics are different. So you're leaving that echo chamber where everyone's saying, yeah, I don't know the answer either. I guess it's something we just have to live with and going somewhere else where someone has an idea, an idea that just might work. And again, they may not understand the contextual implications and they may ask what to some might be a naive question, but that leads to a solution that's rather brilliant. And you think about all of the lost time that would have happened if they both would have continued in their silos and never had that conversation.

0:32:54.3 Junior: But all it took was a couple minutes and bang, that issue was resolved. I've been seeing that lately. And again, some of these things I'm seeing enough to convince me that the status quo is not okay, that you need to create these opportunities for people to talk to each other, to have those types of natural conversations. And often really cool things can happen even if you don't know that that's why you're there. So I think some of the spontaneity adds to this, that people are interacting. Yeah. I love what you just said. Even if you don't know that that's why you're there, you didn't know that you were there to innovate. You had no idea.

0:33:33.0 Junior: No, I didn't know we were there to solve that problem. That wasn't on the docket. It wasn't on the agenda.

0:33:38.2 Tim: Yeah. I love that. I want to bring up another obstacle though, Junior. This is a massively important obstacle that gets in the way over and over and over again. And it's authority bias. Authorities are structured as hierarchies with different layers and roles and responsibilities and a division of labor and all of that. We need that. We need that to execute. We need that for accountability. We need that for communication. We need that for all the things that we do. But the hierarchy breeds what we call an authority bias. And social psychologists have helped us understand what this means. An authority bias means that we overvalue opinions from the top of the hierarchy and we undervalue opinions from the bottom of the hierarchy by virtue of where the opinion comes from. And it can get to the point that we value source rather than substance or over substance. And this is where it gets dangerous. So what happens is that the power distance between you and me becomes an obstacle. And because of that, that power distance, we develop an exaggerated deference to the chain of command. What does that exaggerated deference to the chain of command translate into?

0:34:56.5 Tim: It translates into we're going to praise your ideas. We're going to agree with you. We're not going to challenge you. We're going to acquiesce. We're going to be obsequious even. That's what it translates into. Do you know how dangerous this is? An exaggerated deference to the chain of command based on authority bias. This is not conducive to innovation. Innovation doesn't care where an idea comes from. It has no concern for the provenance of an idea. It does not care. Innovation is all about the substance of ideas and what can be combined with what. And so what we're striving for, if we go back to stage four challenger safety, we're striving to create cultural flatness in which we become agnostic as much as possible to title and position an authority. Why? Because we're trying to solve difficult problems. We're trying to create new solutions. We're trying to make breakthroughs. We're trying to innovate. So it doesn't matter where ideas or suggestions come from. We need to go through that process and see what we can do. And until we have cultural flatness, we can't really create a true idea meritocracy. I can't stress it enough. It's a huge obstacle.

0:36:27.9 Tim: So we need to neutralize this liability, which we always see in hierarchy. What does it come down to? It comes down to the modeling behavior of leaders. They are the ones that can neutralize this authority bias and start to draw people out and demonstrate that, oh, we have a different norm here. Do we still have the hierarchy? Yes. Do we still need to execute? Yes. Are we still accountable? Yes. But over here on the innovation side of the ledger, where we introduce variance instead of reducing variance on the execution side, you have your participation rights. You have your license to disagree. Please use it. So I just want to spend a minute on that, Junior, because authority bias in the hierarchy continues to be a big obstacle in many organizations.

0:37:24.2 Junior: I appreciate you bringing it up. It deserves a lot of attention. It's something to keep in mind as you start to move up the hierarchy that by default, authority bias starts to grow. The power distance becomes greater and greater. And it's not something that will be neutralized by itself. It's not that you, through no fault of your own, are creating it. It's there by default. So what would you say to a leader who has positional power, who is moving up the ladder, so to speak? How do you neutralize the power distance? What are some things that people might do? Well, there are many.

0:38:08.9 Tim: We have a lot of resources on this, don't we, Junior, that can help organizations. But let me just choose a word to help us. Let's use the word dissent. The leaders are responsible to invite dissent, encourage dissent, recognize dissent, reward dissent, continue to emphasize the obligation of dissent. Assign it. Assign dissent. Thank you. Dissent, dissent, dissent. Now, we're not going to turn it into anarchy. We're not talking about that. We're talking about productive and constructive dissent. We're talking about creative abrasion based on a high tolerance for candor. This is what we're talking about. The organization, if the organization can learn how to work with dissent, amazing. Now you will be able to create that incubator of innovation.

0:39:08.2 Junior: That's one of the behaviors from the behavioral guide. So we'll link that in the show notes as well. We've got 30 some odd behaviors in stage four, challenger safety. And one of the things that I've pulled from that that's become very meaningful for me as a leader is to pay attention to the emotional response to bad news. I just want to call that out as one example that's been really useful for me over the last while. If you think about bad news, bad news is often a key ingredient in innovation. Something didn't go the way that you expected it to go. Something went awry. And many times bad news is bad news in the short term. But if something's done about it is good news in the long term. But if your emotional response to bad news is negative when someone tells you something that would be considered bad news and you quickly shut it down, oh, don't worry about that. That'll fix itself, right? It's one thing we could say to bad news. If you shove that under the rug and that becomes the pattern, then very quickly you start the bad news becomes less and less.

0:40:22.6 Junior: Doesn't mean that it's not there. It just means that you're not hearing about it. If your emotional response is positive to the bad news, thank you so much for bringing that to my attention. I appreciate it. I think that there's an opportunity here. I've seen people like just wide eyed at a response like that. They're like, no, like this is actually bad news. And you're like, yeah, I appreciate that. Thank you. There's something to be learned here. What do you think we can learn?

0:40:48.0 Tim: Yeah, clarified cause and effect for us. Thank you. Yeah. We expected something different, right? But we got this, but now we know.

0:40:57.0 Junior: But that the attitudinal difference, it has ripple effects because people are going to encounter bad news all the time. And if the attitude is dismissive or if it's pessimistic, that ripples and there's an aura of negativity around the bad news and we don't want to hear about it and we want to just focus on everything that's going so lovely. But if you can spin that and encourage people to bring things that aren't going so well, then that can really help as fuel. I see it as rocket fuel sometimes. And you have to really check yourself because there's that knee jerk reaction to respond negatively to bad news. It makes all the sense in the world. Of course, you don't want bad news per se, but you do. So that's another thing that I would point to from the power distance perspective is one way to reduce that, I think.

0:41:51.2 Tim: Yeah, it's fantastic. And that's just one suggestion from the behavioral guide, Junior isn't it?

0:41:55.0 Junior: Oh yeah. There are many.

0:41:56.6 Tim: There are many.

0:41:57.4 Junior: To recap this part of the episode, we've been talking about the innovation threshold that that lies between stage three and stage four. That innovation really doesn't happen until we cross that threshold. We're past contribution and we're in this realm of the unknown. It's foggier in stage four than it was in stage three. We can't see as many steps ahead. The path is a little bit more treacherous, the path a little bit more obscure. And so with that comes the added risk that we as leaders need to neutralize if we're going to capitalize on the opportunity that lies in the fog, which is the innovation. And so you've mentioned a couple times friction and maybe five or six times friction. So friction is a part of innovation. It's a part of disruption. You also talked about two types of frictions, social and intellectual. So help us understand what's the difference between those two things and why is friction a part of this whole equation?

0:43:03.7 Tim: Social friction, as I said before, Junior, is the raw material for innovation. So when people have a point of view, if it's not just pure instinct, which is also legitimate, by the way, right? Using your gut. But typically we use data and we have a logic tree to get to a conclusion. And what's interesting is that people, they can have the same data set that they have access to and they can draw different conclusions. So that's one thing. The other thing is that with innovation, we have to bring two kinds of intelligence together, at least two, and there are probably many others. But the first kind of intelligence is what we might call searchlight intelligence. That means we're looking at the big picture. We're up in our hot air balloon and we're trying to synthesize things. We're trying to connect things at a high strategic systems level. That is searchlight intelligence. But what's the opposite of that? So a searchlight, and then we can go all the way down to what? We can go down to a microscope. And so then we have a very narrow focus and this is where people have deep expertise in very narrow domains where they know a lot about a little, but we need to bring that all together.

0:44:32.7 Junior: There's going to be friction when ideas are colliding and rubbing against each other. That's all what we need. But when we go through that process, it generates as a natural byproduct, it generates often social friction because then it gets personal. Hey, I was a part of that solution. And so then we get defensive and we take things personally. The social friction, if it's allowed to rise at the same time and at the same rate as the intellectual friction, at some point will shut down the intellectual friction. It is the mortal enemy of the intellectual friction. And so the teams that master this, stage four, challenge your safety, they are able to elevate intellectual friction to incredibly high levels, but they keep the social friction down at the same time. Not easy to do, but is it possible? Yes, it's possible. They keep it down so that they can keep the intellectual friction going. That's the great enabler because here you have this incubator of innovation and it feeds on intellectual friction. You don't know when you might have a solution or a breakthrough or an answer. You don't know when that's going to come, but you've got to keep the social friction at bay so that it doesn't jeopardize the entire process and bring it to a halt.

0:45:56.0 Tim: That's the defining characteristic of a team that gets all the way to stage four, challenge your safety, high intellectual friction, low social friction.

0:46:04.0 Junior: I like being able to distinguish between those two things. I remember at least one idea of what intelligence is, is the number of distinctions that you can make about a given item or environment. The story is often told that the Inuit have like seven or nine words for snow. Most of us have one word for snow, but they have words for snow that this is snow that's dry and fluffy and is good for this. This is snow that's good for an igloo. This is snow that's good to ski on, but this is snow that's not good for that. The level of distinction inside a given item or environment in that case is really, really high. They're able to operate more effectively in that type of an environment. It makes me think about this idea of friction because many people when they engage in innovation, those collaborative discussions and there's some friction, they might just call it that friction, no qualifier, no more distinguishment, but calling out this is social friction, this is bad. This is intellectual friction. This is good. That ability is really powerful. I've seen that in our own team. Giving our team the language to differentiate between those two things has provided better outcomes.

0:47:27.4 Junior: Some people will say if we're just looking at it as friction, then maybe we'll just stay away. In that friction lies the raw material, as you say, for innovation. We don't want to lose out on that. Inside the friction, there's some good friction and there's some bad friction. Being able to make that distinction is really important. Even in meetings, I've heard, I'm feeling the social friction rise. I've heard that from our team.

0:47:53.5 Tim: That's right. Let's take a break.

0:47:55.1 Junior: Yeah, let's take a break. Let's take a break. That's fine. Being able to monitor that level of social friction is a skill. It's an art form because you want that intellectual friction to be high, but the natural consequence that you mentioned is that social friction rises almost at the same pace. We do not want that to happen. If we do that, then people are going to get stung. That air cover might not be there. The vulnerability that they're engaging in is punished. It's not rewarded enough for them to do a second time. Pretty soon, that's when you find yourself over a long enough timeline in an echo chamber, a place where you don't want to be, and you're stuck in stage three contributor safety and you're banging up against the innovation threshold and you keep coming back down. Or it could be a team that can't manage the intellectual friction.

0:48:51.5 Tim: They just splinter, they fragment, they fall apart. They are no longer able to engage. This happens a lot with cross-functional teams. Then they disband the team because they can't work together, even though the team consists of incredibly talented people, but they can't work together.

0:49:11.0 Junior: Intellectual friction, we want that to be high. Social friction, we want to be low. There's a graphic that we can also put in the show notes, a slide that I really like that portrays that principle. What happens if we don't do this well? Let's say that we're not managing the social friction. We're not managing the power distance. We're succumbing to the authority bias and we're doing the things poorly that we've decided we need to do well in this episode. What happens? What's the outcome? What do you see in organizations that's symptomatic of some failure in these areas?

0:49:50.9 Tim: Well, there's a whole host of unintended consequences.

0:49:55.6 Tim: Think about the unintended negative consequences at the level of the individual. The disengagement, the lack of fulfillment and where that leads. It has a direct link to retention and engagement and productivity. Then at the team level, it's the same thing, the performance of the team by every metric. Then the organization begins to put itself at risk as it starts to lose competitiveness. It may be enjoying some great competitive advantage today, but it's going to be slipping away and it will not have the incubator that it needs to generate innovation over time. That's how central this really is to the viability of an organization.

0:50:46.5 Junior: It really is. It's that central. Without it, we over a long enough timeline become obsolete. Something that we've talked a lot about over the last three episodes that I'm finding as a trend is obsolescence does become the inevitable end if you don't do these things well. You're fighting that constantly. That's one of the big ironies that we've stumbled upon as we've talked through these episodes is that we know that innovation is important. We know that inclusion is important. It's important for people to learn. It's important that they contribute. You get a lot of nods at first blush with all of these principles. In theory, it's very straightforward. Yet in most organizations, we don't do them well. It requires a lot of deliberate effort. It requires culture by design. I think that that's one of the big takeaways for me as we conclude not just this episode, but the four-part series is an ode to the name of the podcast, culture by design. If you're not intentional about these things, they won't happen by themselves. You don't stumble into high-performing teams and high-performing cultures.

0:52:04.5 Tim: Yeah, unfortunately, it's not organic. It's not spontaneous.

0:52:08.4 Junior: No. The default is that it's inadequate. It's sometimes toxic. If you let these bad patterns go unruined, then you can find yourself in a place that you don't want to be. Any last thoughts about challenger safety, Tim, as we wrap up today?

0:52:28.3 Tim: I think yes, I do have one thought. That is that please understand that if you're in a leadership or a formal managerial role, actually, you don't even need to be, the principle holds true. That is that to nurture and foster stage four challenger safety may be in many ways the supreme test of a leader. Now, think about why. Because it brings together your competence and your character. It's the intersection of your character and your competence to create those conditions where people are rewarded for challenging the status quo. That is an incredible test for a leader. There's something to think about. Do you pass that test? If we came and shadowed you for a day, would we be able to find conditions that nurture and enable stage four challenger safety? If we interviewed all of your people, what would they say about those conditions and about the tone that you set, about the norms that you shape and reinforce? This really is a huge reflection on you as a leader. As I said, it could be the supreme test of a leader in many ways. There's a thought.

0:53:55.3 Junior: That's a wonderful thought. That's an invitation that I'll take you up on personally. That's something that I'm going to think more about. To summarize our conversation, the path that we've traveled today, challenger safety, feeling safe to challenge the status quo without fear of being punished or marginalized in some way. There's a social exchange. We give air cover in exchange for candor. I provide a safe environment and defend your vulnerable position in exchange for your honest thoughts and feedback. That's what we want because that's necessary for innovation. The candor is necessary for innovation, which is the lifeblood of our organizations. The innovation requires disruption. It requires friction. There's social and there's intellectual. We want to increase intellectual friction and decrease social friction. We do that. We do those things. We find ourselves past that innovation threshold and right smack in the middle of stage four challenger safety. It's a difficult place to stay. Even if you get there once, it requires a lot of effort to stay there. In order to help you do that, we have some resources for you. The notes, number 20, 26, and 27. We put out leader factor notes once a week.

0:55:05.0 Junior: We've got a library of those. Those three speak to challenger safety. We also have the behavioral guide that I mentioned earlier. We'll put a link to the model as well as that graphic on intellectual and social friction. If you've liked this series, we would love to know about it. Let us know what you think. Leave a review. Follow us on LinkedIn. Subscribe to the newsletter. If you want more of this content, you can find it. We're trying to put out a tremendous amount of content and would love your support, your feedback and your ideas. So you've got ideas for future episodes, questions you have, things you'd like us to cover. Go ahead and let us know. Post on LinkedIn, tag us. However you want to get ahold of us, we're across all channels. We appreciate your listenership. We appreciate your attention and following us on this journey through the four stages. It's been an absolute pleasure talking about inclusion, learner contributor and challenger safety. It's an aspiration that I hold dear personally. It's a journey that I'm on. Tim, it's a journey that you're on. We're all on and we're here to help at leader factor.

0:56:09.0 Junior: Everyone that's undertaking that journey of a professional lifetime as we've talked about. So Tim, thank you. And we'll talk to you next episode.

0:56:16.9 Tim: Good to be with you, Junior. Thank you.

0:56:24.2 Tim: Thanks for joining me today on the Culture by Design podcast. Be sure to subscribe and listen to new episodes every week. And if you'd like to see more of the work we're doing, go to

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Episode Transcript

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