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The Social Exchanges of Psychological Safety

In this week's episode of Culture by Design, Tim and Junior discuss The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety in a way you might not expect. Using social exchange theory, they'll do a deeper dive to add some color to The 4 Stages model and give you additional tools and frames to use when you look at psychological safety.

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Episode Show Notes

In this week's episode of Culture by Design, Tim and Junior discuss The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety in a way you might not expect. Using social exchange theory, they'll do a deeper dive to add some color to The 4 Stages model and give you additional tools and frames to use when you look at psychological safety.

What is social exchange theory? (01:47) According to social exchange theory, people are motivated to engage in social exchanges that they perceive as beneficial. Tim and Junior discuss four key concepts related to social exchange theory: Costs, benefits, reciprocity, and power. 

What is psychological safety? (13:03) Psychological safety is a culture of rewarded vulnerability and lies at the heart of healthy social exchange. In order for a culture to be truly psychologically safe, the environment must provide something and then the participant must provide something. Tim and Junior explain that each stage within The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety has a social exchange. 

The social exchange for Stage One: Inclusion Safety (16:39) In stage one, we are given inclusion in exchange for lack of harm. Tim and Junior explain how this works and what the difference is between worth and worthiness.

The social exchange for Stage Two: Learner Safety (23:30) In stage two, we are given encouragement to learn in exchange for engagement in the learning process. Tim and Junior explain how this works and who has the first-mover obligation.

The social exchange for Stage Three: Contributor Safety (30:02) In stage three, we are given autonomy with guidance in exchange for results. Tim and Junior explain how this works and the ratio between autonomy and accountability.

The social exchange for Stage Four: Challenger Safety (38:15) In stage four, we are given air cover in exchange for candor. Tim and Junior explain how this works and how to protect our people in their most vulnerable state. 

Episode Transcript

0:00:02.4 Producer: Welcome back, Culture by Design listeners. It's Freddy, one of the producers of the podcast. In today's episode, we're going to talk about the social exchanges of psychological safety, although you don't have to be an expert on the four stages of psychological safety to really enjoy today's episode. If you're not familiar with the four stages, I encourage you to pick up a book, visit our website or listen to our podcast series. Today's episode on the social exchange gives you more insight into the mechanics of psychological safety and why it works the way it does. The social exchanges help you move from a theory to practice in a very practical way, you'll walk away with a clear understanding of why psychological safety improves team performance and how you can implement it at work and in your personal life. As always this episode's show notes can be found at Thanks again for listening and thank you for your reviews. Enjoy today's episode on The Social exchanges of psychological safety.

0:01:06.5 Junior: Welcome back, everyone to Culture by Design. My name is Junior, I'm here with Dr. Tim Clark, and today we'll be discussing the social exchanges of the four stages of psychological safety. Tim, how you doing today? 

0:01:17.7 Tim: Doing great, Junior. How are you doing? 

0:01:19.5 Junior: I'm doing well, my condense at pump in my furnace on the second story broke.

0:01:25.6 Tim: Oh.

0:01:25.7 Junior: And so we're dealing with some wet ceilings this morning, but other than that... We're doing very well.

0:01:30.2 Tim: Other than that, everything's fine? 

0:01:32.1 Junior: Everything is okay. It depends on what you think. Okay, is. But as far as I'm concerned, it's okay, there are worst things. But I'm excited to be here.

0:01:39.9 Tim: Yeah, your number came up. And it was your turn.

0:01:42.4 Junior: Yeah, we all take our turn. I've had a lot of turns. And that's great.

0:01:46.7 Tim: Really? [laughter]

0:01:47.3 Junior: Yeah, but it's good. So many of you have heard of or know deeply the four stages, what might be less familiar to many of you are the social exchanges that go along with the stages, so if you've seen the model, the model doesn't have those social exchanges as part of it, we would love to put it in, but we just don't have our own, so even if you are familiar, we'll be doing a deeper dive today to add some color to the model and give you some additional tools, some additional frames with which to look at psychological safety. So Tim jumping in, what do we mean when we say social exchange? 

0:02:24.2 Tim: What we mean Junior is that in a Social collective, you have people interacting as part of that interaction, they are making exchanges with each other all the time. That's what interaction is, that's the essence of interaction. Well, what kind of exchanges are they? Well, they're social exchanges. They are emotional exchanges. They are political exchanges. They are economic exchanges, but they're all exchanges, as you said Junior, we're gonna be talking about the kinds of the nature of the exchanges that occur within each of the four stages, they're different as you move from Stage one, inclusion safety to stage two learner safety to stage three contributor safety, and finally to stage four, challenger safety, the nature of each of those exchanges is a little bit different, and so maybe as to lay a little bit of ground work, there's an entire body of research and theory in this area of exchange or what social theories of reciprocity, and one of the early theorists in this area was a French sociologist and anthropologist named Marcel Mauss, and he wrote an essay in 1925 way back in 1925 called The Gift, forms and functions of exchange in Archaic Society.

0:03:58.3 Tim: So he studied the way that members of pre-modern societies would make exchanges with each other. Now, we're not going to go into all of the theory and all of the details, but I do wanna make a point early on, here a junior. That I think is very important, and this is something that he was able to identify. And I think it's important, and I think it's consistent as we look at the way that we exchanged, the way that we reciprocate in social or human collectives, what he noticed is that the giver does not merely give an object even in an economic exchange, often, but also a part of themself, right? Because the object is tied to the giver. And so when you give a gift, when you make an exchange, regardless of whether it's political, economic or social, or psychological or emotional, you're giving a part of yourself, it's not purely a transaction that is detached from the human being, you're giving a part of yourself. And he said the objects are never completely separated from those who exchange them, so because of this bond, and this does create a bond because you're giving of yourself, you're giving a piece of yourself, you're giving a part of yourself because of this, the active giving creates a bond with an obligation to reciprocate on the part of the recipient.

0:05:43.4 Tim: So does that make sense? So when you're giving something, almost regardless of the nature of the exchange, you're giving a, You're giving a part of yourself, and because of that, you can't completely separate that from yourself, and that creates a bond between you and the recipient, that's really amazing, and that plays a big part in each of the four stages of psychological safety, I would say, especially in stage one, inclusion safety, we'll talk about that. But I thought that it would be good to lay a little bit of ground work here when you give a gift, you're giving a part of yourself, and in doing so, you are creating a bond and an obligation of reciprocation.

0:06:33.4 Junior: It's really fascinating research. Our head of CS Ben as a training Anthropology and introduced me to Marcel Mauss and very interesting guy, a very interesting career, and a lot of the research is fascinating, so a lot of that early research that he did in reciprocity in gift exchange informed additional sociologists that down the road, continued to develop the social exchange theory, and so the theory itself was first proposed by George Homans in 1958 and continued to be developed, and so they're antecedents that go way back to Mauss and even before him. And it continues today. But what is really interesting to me about this is that at a glance, it makes a lot of intuitive sense to us, there's cost-benefit analysis going on all the time as we're interacting with people, and the way that this ties in is that this happens where there are people anywhere there are two or more people, they're interacting, and that exchange can be anywhere from very healthy to pathological, and what we're trying to do as humans is predict which of those it's going to be, where on the spectrum is it going to be.

0:07:50.2 Junior: As we engage with the people around us, so according to the social exchange theory, people are motivated to engage in those exchanges that they think are going to be beneficial, that are gonna be on the healthy side, and they're going to avoid the ones that they think are going to be pathological, so they're looking at the costs and the benefits of every exchange, and as you said, it could be economic, it could be social-emotional, and they're more likely to continue in that exchange if they think that the benefits outweigh the costs, right that might seem fairly obvious, but there are four concepts... I think this ground work's important, there are four concepts that we're looking at as we evaluate, the first is the costs, that's the very first thing, the things that we have to give up.

0:08:35.9 Junior: Or put at risk in order to participate in a relationship. So think about this personally, think about this professionally, we do this all the time, maybe unwittingly, and these costs could include time, they could include effort, emotional labor, other resources that we have, then we look at the benefits, okay, so I'm gonna engage in this relationship, in this exchange, what am I gonna get? I could get any number of things, they could be monetary, they could be physical, they could be intangible, they could be love, companionship, support and status, there are a host of rewards and those rewards vary depending on the situation and who you are and what you think is valuable, then the next one is reciprocity, the expectation that people will give in like kind and like measure depending on the exchange.

0:09:24.4 Junior: So if someone does something nice for one person, they expect the other person to do something nice for them, and then the fourth one, which is pretty interesting, which we consider is power, the ability of one person to influence the behavior of another person, and this can be based on things like resources and social status, personality, hierarchy. So I think that it's important, I'm glad that we've spent some time here because as we move into the social exchanges, be thinking about those four concepts, costs, benefits, reciprocity and power.

0:10:00.3 Tim: That's fantastic, Junior. It just makes me think of even very simple exchanges, for example, we had an electrician come out this week to help us fix some lights. Some things at the house. And it... To begin with, the transaction was purely economic, right? And so there was a monetary cost for me, there was a labor cost for the electrician, and we engaged in that reciprocity, but what also happened is that in the course of making that economic exchange, we started to make some other exchanges that are informal and that are not part of the... As I say, the formal contract, for example, we got to know each other, and so we started making Social and Emotional changes, isn't that interesting? That surround that kind of wrap the economic exchange. So we started wrapping that economic exchange with social exchange and emotional exchange, and we've created a bond, and that's the way that it goes, and that's the way that we hope it goes if both parties are doing their part, if they are acting with integrity, if they are exchanging with quality to the expected standard, good things happen, and then we can also see Junior, where if one party does not fulfill their commitment, that things begin to break down very quickly, so it's really interesting and helpful to deconstruct the nature of exchange, the components that you've just laid out and then start applying those concepts to exchanges that you're having right now, how's that going? 

0:11:48.5 Tim: And if you have an exchange or a relationship that's not going well, you can do a little root cause analysis using just these elements that you just laid out, Junior, cost, benefit, reciprocity, power, and you can see the origin of the breakdown, and you can also see perhaps what needs to happen to repair and restore that relationship and make that exchange healthy and productive again.

0:12:16.0 Junior: Yap. One of the things you mentioned was, you said if both parties do their part. And so that's important. I really like that phrase because there are two parties, and in this case, we're going to be talking about the environment created in part by a leader, in part by the organization itself, so we'll call it the environment, and then we have on the other side, the participant in that environment, which in most cases, given our context is going to be an employee, and so psychological safety is a two-way street, the environment must provide something and the participant must provide something, and all four of those elements need to be in balance. And if they're not, then we're going to see some symptoms.

0:13:02.7 Tim: Yeah.

0:13:03.5 Junior: Which is really neat to be able to unpack those and go back to root cause and see where the breakdown is. Now, these exchanges are going to occur across the four stages of psychological safety, and so adding some definition using the four stages, I think will be very helpful in helping all of us evaluate the environment and not just say, Well, there must be something wrong with the social exchange, and instead say, there must be something wrong with the social exchange, and it looks like it's a stage three breakdown, and there are the elements that we can point to, which we'll get into, that will allow you to pinpoint what is likely going wrong.

0:13:42.7 Junior: And so we'll give you finer instruments, if you've got a chain saw, if you've got an axe, we're going to get down to the scalpel level, and in so doing, allow each of us to act with a little bit more precision, which I hope will be very helpful.

0:13:57.9 Tim: Yeah.

0:14:00.7 Junior: So the four stages represent the natural progression of human need, we've talked about that before, we're satisfying four basic needs in a sequence, and the first one is belonging, the second one is learning, the third is contribution, and the fourth is feedback or critique, can we challenge? And there's a social exchange that happens at each of those, so let's start with stage one, and we'll work our way through all four. So stage one, inclusion safety, we're asking the question, Do I belong? Tim, can you help us with the social exchange for stage one? 

0:14:33.7 Tim: Right. The social exchange for stage one is that you are included in exchange for your humanity, now, this is a foundational exchange, and the reciprocity is unusual because the community, the team, the social collective is including you and has an obligation, and we would say a moral obligation to include, you to invite you into their society in exchange for what? In exchange for you being human and not presenting the team with a threat of harm, so your reciprocity. So they're obligated to include you, but your reciprocity is simply to be human and to be respectful of the people that are including you into their society. Isn't that a fascinating exchange? 

0:15:28.0 Junior: It is.

0:15:30.2 Tim: So there's no heroic obligation on your part to do something that you can't do... It's something that everyone can do. So inclusion safety... Let me go back, it's inclusion in exchange for your humanity and a lack of harm, and what we're saying about stage one is that it is something that you are owed, it is not something that you earn, it is actually an entitlement, it is actually a human right? It is actually tied to your inherent and intrinsic worth as a human being, there's not another social exchange, quite like this isn't that true, Junior? And as we move into stages two, three and four, we will explain those, but those are quite a bit different. This social exchange is the one social exchange that is based on a moral imperative that you deserve to be included as a human being, isn't that fascinating? 

0:16:34.3 Junior: This one a lot of people gloss over, I found.

0:16:39.0 Tim: Yeah.

0:16:39.9 Junior: We've spoken with hundreds and thousands and maybe tens of thousands of people at this point about these types of principles, and it's interesting to see which ones catch attention and which ones don't, and this is one that people, as I said, gloss over pretty often because it seems bagged in. It seems obvious yet, so much of the dysfunction in our relationships can be tied back to a breakdown here in stage one, inclusion safety.

0:17:11.2 Tim: Yeah.

0:17:11.8 Junior: And so I would invite all of us to spend some time thinking about this one and doing some introspection, asking ourselves how we do here, is this the actual exchange that we embody, or are we embodying a different type of exchange? What I mean by that is the healthy exchange is inclusion, we include other people based on what? Their humanity and the lack of threat of harm, are we doing that? Because the alternative is a worthiness test, which we'll get into, but this is often a breakdown, and so it's worth asking ourselves that question. How well do we do here and do we really truly embody that exchange? So Tim, one of the interesting things here about stage one is that I think it is an opportunity for a lot of introspection, we need to ask ourselves if we truly embody that exchange, inclusion in exchange for someone's humanity, or if we're using a different test, which we'll get into a worthiness test, because this is something that we often get wrong, and I think we don't spend enough time thinking about.

0:18:22.0 Junior: I know that you had talked about a monk recently. Let me tee that up. And Let you take that.

0:18:27.7 Tim: Right. Last year, the beloved Buddhist monk, from Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh, he passed away. And as many of our listeners will know, he was beloved all over the world for his kindness and nonviolent approach to solving problems. And he made a couple of statements that help us understand the nature of stage one, inclusion, safety, and the exchange that goes with it, and what we're able to do for each other, even by our mere presence. So this is what he said, He said, even before you do anything to help your wholehearted presence already brings some relief. Because when we suffer, we have great need for the presence of the person we love. If we are suffering and the person we love ignores us, we suffer more. So what you can do, he says right away, is to manifest your true presence to your beloved and say the mantra with all of your mindfulness, dear one, I know you are suffering...

0:19:39.7 Tim: This is why I'm here for you. And already your loved one will feel better. To be loved means, first of all, to be recognized as existing. Now, Junior, let's underscore that last statement, that last sentence, because this capitalizes the principle of stage one inclusion safety. To be loved means, first of all, to be recognized as existing. What is inclusion, safety all about? It's about providing inclusion. That means that you feel included, you feel accepted, you feel a sense of belonging. You're being recognized as existing. Isn't that an incredible statement that he makes? To be loved means, first of all, to be recognized as existing.

0:20:28.3 Junior: So Tim, let's talk about worth versus worthiness. There's a Frederick Douglass quote that we often cite, I know of no rights of race, superior to the rights of humanity. And when there's a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go on the side of humanity. Normally we just quote the first third of that. I've went and found the second third. 'cause I'd never heard it before. And I like that. The reason I like the second half of this quote so much is that it tells us where to err. And erring on the side of humanity when it comes to human interaction is a useful tool. If there's ever any disconnect, if there's ever any dissonance, you're not quite sure where you want to go, erring on the side of humanity, even if it's a high cost decision, I think is the right thing.

0:21:16.2 Tim: That's right.

0:21:17.7 Junior: So this emphasizes the social exchange and the fact that people's humanity is the first thing before we get into the social exchange, it's the first thing that we need to recognize that we have another person in front of us. So I think that the discussion so far has led us to this point, which is each person is inherently valuable. And that's the first thing we need to recognize when we enter a social exchange. If we do that reasonably well, I think that most of the social exchange past that point will go well. And one of the implications of this line of thinking that I've been kind of toying around with is what are the legitimate reasons for exclusion? If all of these things are true, the only legitimate reason only as in singular is to prevent reasonable harm. That's the only legitimate reason to exclude anyone. Yet think about all of the other reasons that we use to exclude people based on the worthiness tests that we apply and some other form of qualification or evaluation.

0:22:28.9 Tim: That's right Junior. And that's why applying a worthiness test for stage one inclusion safety and that social exchange is illegitimate. It's got to be based on a worth test because of the inherent and intrinsic worth of human beings. And that worth is, it's fixed, it's a constant, it's not a variable. And as soon as we begin to apply a worthiness test, then it all starts to break down. And we begin to sow the seeds of division and we fracture and we tribalize and then we begin to exclude. And what we're saying is, as you said, there are no justifiable grounds for exclusion, save one, which is the threat of harm. Now that sounds very, it's simple, but it's hard to do. And in human collectives, we often don't do a very good job, isn't that true? 

0:23:30.5 Junior: Yeah, we often don't. And I think that that's true for all of us, we often don't. So the next time there's a breakdown at this level, ask yourself, what test was I applying? It was probably a worthiness test, and it probably had something to do with the variable like social status or economic status or politics or something else. And you probably used one of those criteria in your worthiness test and the person didn't pass. And so you excluded. So think about how you can take that out and apply a worth test instead. So moving on to stage two, learner safety, we're asking the question, can I learn? Can I learn from my mistakes? Can I make mistakes? And the social exchange here is encouragement to learn from the environment in exchange for engagement in the learning process from the participant in that environment.

0:24:25.3 Junior: This one's interesting too, because it is also an entitlement like the first stage. And this gets a lot of questions. Well, is it really an entitlement? We believe that it is. We believe that it is owed to you and that the organization, you as a leader, the environment have the first mover obligation, that you come with the encouragement to learn in exchange for the other person's engagement, but you're not waiting for their engagement to then encourage them out the gate. At the onset, you're saying, we are encouraging you to learn and you're providing that environment for them.

0:25:00.7 Tim: That's right, Junior. And it's helpful to go back to the definition of psychological safety as a construct, that it's based on respect and permission. Well, for stage two learner safety, what is the nature of respect? The nature of respect, the definition of respect for this stage is that we respect the inherent need that you have to learn and to grow and to develop mastery. We acknowledge that, we recognize that, we accept that. And then we give you permission to do those things because we recognize and acknowledge that those are basic human needs that you need to satisfy. And so with that respect and with that permission granted, we can make this exchange no problem because we understand your basic human needs and we understand the permission that we need to give you to allow you to meet those basic human needs. So we will encourage you to learn in exchange for you engaging in that learning process. So that's the reciprocation, that's the two-way street that we are talking about here when it comes to stage two learner safety.

0:26:18.6 Junior: Encouragement is an interesting word here because some might say, well, encouragement to learn, what does that mean? That just one time at the beginning of the relationship, we say, hey, you know, it's a learning environment and you're welcome to make some mistakes and if you need anything, let me know. Will that be sufficient encouragement for most people? Probably not. So how many pieces of encouragement will it take? Depending on the person, it's probably gonna take more than one and sometimes many more than one depending on where they're coming from and what context they're operating in. And so that encouragement needs to be also more than verbal. Depending on the context, it could be a whole host of other things. It could be monetary, right? There's monetary encouragement. Hey, here's some resource for you to go and learn in exchange for your engagement in the learning process. So I think that encouragement, we can't just pass that off and say, well, you know, it's quick, it's verbal and then we're done. I've encouraged you, the job is over. It's often gonna be a little bit more than that.

0:27:22.8 Tim: Oh, it's gotta be more than that, Junior. We're taking the person into account, we're taking the context into account. And so that encouragement needs to be personalized. It needs to be customized. It needs to be tailored to the needs of that individual in that context under those conditions and given the objectives, the learning objectives that we have. It's one by one, it's an individual thing. This is not a factory model. This is not something that we do at scale. This is something that we do at an individual level. We are trying to set that person up for success. We're trying to understand their goals and their needs and also their limitations, maybe their weaknesses. What if they don't have a lot of confidence in the learning process? What if they have come out of an experience that was traumatic? What if they have never done something before and this is their first time trying it? All of these things come into play. And so that exchange needs to be very personalized. Now you may say, well, hang on a second. I have a team of 10 people and I'm in charge of leading that team. Each person's different. Does that mean that I need to give personalized and customized coaching and guidance and encouragement in the learning process to each one of those? 

0:28:49.4 Tim: And the answer is yes. Now, of course, you don't have all the time in the world. That's a scarce resource, but you do need to know them well enough that you can give them customized and effective encouragement in the learning process. Absolutely.

0:29:05.0 Junior: Yeah. I love the idea of personalizing and making sure that that's custom depending on the needs of the individual. Because what we often do is we provide the same approach, the same resource to everyone on the team. You say, hey, it's here for you if you want it. And we don't take into consideration the fact that every single one of those people is on a different path. They're at a different place in their own journey of learning. And that's also true for experts. Often, if you have a technical expert, you'll think, well, they're done learning and I don't need to pay attention to that anymore. That's not true. Regardless of their expertise, regardless of their tenure, regardless of their role, humans need to continue to learn. If they don't and they become stagnant, well, two, they're going to become less valuable to the organization, and they're also not going to feel any sense of fulfillment at an individual level. You just can't if you're not progressing in learning.

0:30:01.9 Tim: That's true.

0:30:02.7 Junior: So let's go to stage three, contributor safety. And we're asking the question, can I contribute? The social exchange here is autonomy with guidance in exchange for results. The environment gives autonomy with guidance, the participant gives results. So we've entered a new realm. We've moved into the performance realm. Now, this social exchange, contributor safety, the autonomy is something that is earned. Autonomy is not owed to you. It's given based on your demonstrated track record. And so this is a fundamental shift. We've moved through those first two stages, which were entitlements. And now we get into the final two stages, which are things we need to earn.

0:30:49.7 Tim: That's a really good point, Junior. As we shift into this performance realm, as you said, the autonomy is not free. You have to earn it. You earn it on the basis of results. You earn it on the basis of performance. And we are applying a worthiness test to you. In other words, a performance test. And that is appropriate, because we're managing risk in the organization, and we operate the organization on the basis of shared accountability. And so if we manage risk prudently, we can't over delegate to you and give you more autonomy than you can handle, because then that becomes dangerous. We're taking unnecessary risks. We subject ourselves to liability exposure that is not wise. And so we need to delegate to you in an appropriate way based on what you're able to handle. But you have to demonstrate that to us. And so think about the exchange. Autonomy, we're going to give you an appropriate level of autonomy with guidance in exchange for the results that you demonstrate, the performance that you demonstrate.

0:32:03.3 Junior: I like the idea of autonomy and guidance as a ratio. It's not something that we've talked a lot about, but I was thinking about it in the context of the levels of accountability, task, project, and outcome. We've talked about this over the last couple of episodes. So depending on where a person is along those three levels will determine the ratio of autonomy to guidance. And I think that the autonomy and the guidance are push and pull. So if you have 10, maybe your autonomy is a six, your guidance is a four, maybe it's eight, two, maybe it's one, nine. If the person that you're managing is at a task level, in other words, they're responsible and have a proven track record of doing work at the task level, a single unit of work, it's going to be low autonomy, high guidance. So it's gonna be some backseat driving to start. Maybe someone's being onboarded, they're new to the environment, they're new to what's going on. You're not gonna just give them a huge amount of autonomy and just a little bit of guidance and say, here you go, best of luck. You're gonna start out high guidance.

0:33:13.5 Junior: As they move to level two project process, they're gonna gain some more autonomy and they're gonna lose a little bit of guidance. When I say lose guidance, I don't mean in a bad way, we're just gonna be less prescriptive about the way that the work is getting done and the frequency might be slightly less. Then we move all the way to outcome where we have ultimate autonomy and just enough guidance, just enough to make sure that we're aligned, we have appropriate expectations, but we're not going past that. We're leaving the critical thinking and the ownership we've transferred to the individual. And so at least for me, that was helpful as I've thought about that this week, is that the autonomy and the guidance are two separate things whose ratio we will change depending on what level of accountability the person's operating in.

0:34:00.5 Tim: I love that, Junior. I love the way you frame that on those two axes really. And let me just add a point to the guidance part. The guidance, to give good guidance requires clarity, role clarity, and clarity about expectations. Without that, then we run into a problem. So the ambiguity anywhere here is not going to be helpful. Whether you require a lot of guidance or a little guidance, you need role clarity. You need clear expectations. You need a clear understanding of what the objectives are, how we're going to achieve those, what the risks are. You need clarity, and a lot of times people don't have role clarity, and they don't have clear guidance to begin with. The expectations are not clear and they flounder. But I love the way that you've said this. It really does come down to that ratio, that balance between autonomy and guidance, depending on where you are and what you're able to do, and the level at which you're able to perform right now. That's really true. I love that.

0:35:06.5 Junior: And I want to make the point that the ratio will never be 10-0, autonomy to guidance. That can be really difficult for high performers on your team. If you've given them too much autonomy and not enough guidance. So I love that point about role clarity and expectations, because if those aren't clear, if they don't have at least that much guidance, regardless of how good a person is, regardless of how critical their thinking is, regardless of how independent they are and driven, they're not going to do well. So there needs to be at least enough guidance on the front end.

0:35:52.0 Tim: Think about if a person does have the demonstrated ability to do more and you are micromanaging them. Well, that's going to turn into a lot of frustration. It may turn into disengagement. It may even turn into attrition. Think about the opposite misapplication where they can handle perhaps a lot of autonomy, but you take it too far to where you are an absentee landlord and you're not providing the appropriate level of guidance and feedback and support along the way. Well, that's going to create a different kind of frustration because there's no acknowledgement, there's no recognition for what they're doing and they may still need some guidance along the way, even though it may not be a lot. But you're not there yet. So if you're a micro-manager one and/or an absentee landlord or at the other, and you're mis-applying this ratio of autonomy and guidance, wow, the unintended consequences of that are enormous with that person with performance and then ultimately with business impact and result...

0:37:07.6 Junior: I'm glad you brought that up, and I feel like that's the side that I are on, and I've made mistakes in the past year where I'm like a 9.9 autonomy and a 0.1 guidance, and after the fact, people are like, Hey, so... Where exactly are we going? What exactly is my role in this? And I thought early on, and this is something that I still need to think more about and improve, that autonomy was like the ultimate thing on the pedestal that we were working towards without also recognizing that that guidance need to be there. And so when I say Stay away from 10:0, I'm telling myself, Hey, Junior, stay away from 10-0, because that's not a good place to be. You need to have an appropriate level of guidance regardless of how good your people are, and I think that that's what has made it difficult, it almost works against this idea is having phenomenal people is you start to let them go a little bit too much to the point that not that they can't do great work, but they're not feeling that support, and so I really appreciate that you brought that up.

0:38:15.0 Junior: So let's move into stage four, challenger safety. We're asking ourselves, Can I challenge the status quo? The social exchange here is... I just love it. It's air cover in exchange for candor. Air cover in exchange for Candor, what do we mean by air cover? Air cover is a military term, it's protection by armed military airplanes to ground forces against enemy attack, so think about that, you've got these armed military airplanes that are up in the air that are providing support to the people on the ground. Yeah, I just love that visual. And so think about that, and they exchange, we have the air cover, and then what do we want from that candor? That's what we're hoping to gain. And it's also important to recognize that we're in the performance realm here.

0:39:06.6 Junior: That air cover is something that you earn in exchange for your candid feedback and your performance, you need to be credible, and so that comes after we've gone through the contribution phase, you've got a demonstrated track record of performance, your believability score is high because you've demonstrated and now we want your candid feedback.

0:39:31.5 Tim: That's right. And Junior, the premise would be that everyone is entitled to participation rights, and you should be able to exercise those rights to give feedback, to make suggestions, observations, challenge the status quo, give a contrary point of view, register and opinion that challenges a default in the organization that's great, but to your point, you need to build credibility for believability, so you may have those participation rights which come with your job, that's great, you can exercise those rights, but... Do you want people to take you seriously? 

0:40:10.1 Junior: Exactly.

0:40:10.8 Tim: And to carefully consider the substance of what you're saying, you have to earn that.

0:40:17.0 Junior: People miss this and the believability thing is big for me, and I will always recognize that people have inherent worth, they are able to contribute to the conversation regardless of where they are, but if you want anyone to take you seriously, you have to be good at what you do. You have to have some context, you can't just walk around and point out all of these problems all the time and just critique and agitate the intent behind that feedback also has to be such that we take you seriously, because if the pattern of an individual is just a poke holes, and that's all... It's not even for the greater good is just... I just wanna go and show how bad this is, that's not helpful. That's not useful, Danny, one...

0:41:03.0 Tim: Well, junior, I might frame it this way, You have participation rights, therefore you have the right to register an opinion, but people don't have the obligation to listen necessarily, they do have the obligation to be respectful, but they're going to consider your opinions and your points of view, and your suggestions on their merits, based on the substance of what you're saying, I'm not remotely suggesting that people have any kind of right to be rude or demeaning or dismissive of what you're saying, but ultimately they will consider the substance of what you're saying on the merits.

0:41:50.6 Junior: So air cover in exchange for candor, let's talk about a few examples. We found some pretty compelling examples that we would like to share that I think embody this principle, the first one we wanna share is Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, so we won't give too much context, I assume that most people know this story, but Rosa Parks won't move. On the bus. And it doesn't end there. Now, I don't know the nuance to this story, but Eleanor Roosevelt writes in her column called My Day, this is published on December 1st of 1955. This is part of what she said, the quiet dignity of Mrs. Parks and refusing to move from her seat on the bus has awakened people of all races to a realization of the injustice and humiliation of segregation. So what is Eleanor Roosevelt doing here? This is what air cover looks like. Hey. That behavior over there. We're gonna protect that. That was okay. That was good. I wanted to defend that behavior and seeing that from someone who's in a position of power is what makes this also so much more powerful, you've got the air cover in exchange for the candor.

0:43:15.5 Junior: Now, to Rosa Parks credit, she definitely went first.

0:43:20.4 Tim: She did.

0:43:20.9 Junior: And I don't think she was sitting there waiting for air cover.

0:43:22.4 Tim: No.

0:43:24.5 Junior: She went out, leap of courage and in defiance refuses to move, but how much more powerful after the fact that we have some of this air cover... Now, I wish we would have had even more air cover, and I wish we would have had it sooner, but I think in this instance, in isolation, this is a great example of what air cover might look like.

0:43:48.7 Tim: Well, that's true, junior, and it highlights the point that air cover can come before and during and after, an act of courage, whatever it may be.

0:43:57.8 Junior: Yeah, and I think along those lines, when someone sees that, a participant observer, let's say that's also in a situation, they might be more inclined to do the same thing later, to refuse to move, to give candid feedback, and the way that that behavior shows up will vary case to case, but when they see, Hey, okay, this type of behavior is rewarded, this type of behavior has some air cover, then I'm more likely to engage. So the next example we wanna give as Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, many people won't know those names, if you've seen the movie Hidden Figures, you'll know those names. These are two African-American mathematicians two women who worked at NASA during the space race, and they started as lower level employees, but Were absolutely essential to the success of the space program.

0:44:53.9 Junior: And Katherine Johnson was responsible for calculating their the trajectories for many of the early Space Flights, including Apollo 11, which was the mission to the moon, now, they had colleagues in the organization that were very helpful, very helpful, that two direct managers, cashmeres Sonoiki and Vivian Michael, who protected, both of them and their candid feedback, saw their potential and helped insulate them inside of the organization so that they could contribute in a meaningful way, and without that, who knows what the outcome would have been, but we wouldn't have been as far along as we made it at that point in time. And so I really like that example of that protected participation wasn't even candid feedback necessarily, but their participation definitely had some air cover.

0:45:51.3 Tim: It's a wonderful example, Junior. And we don't know all the inner workings of that one as well, right, we don't have...

0:45:57.5 Junior: No.

0:45:58.7 Tim: Insight information, but we know we can see the outcomes and we can see the progression over time. Yeah.

0:46:05.0 Junior: The next one is Alan Turing. Turing is the father of Theoretical Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, so you may have seen a movie about Alan Turing as well, popular movie. He broke the Enigma code during World War II. Now, why do we talk about Turing, because Turing had some air cover, Turing was a gay man and was persecuted for his sexuality, but he was protected by his friend and mentor, Max Newman, and Newman helped Turing get a job at Bletchley Park where he worked on the Enigma code, without that air cover and support from Max Newman, it is highly likely that the Enigma code would not have been broken in the time that it was, and that we would not have had the outcome that we had, it's highly likely that that would not have happened and that would have been devastating.

0:47:01.8 Tim: That's amazing to think about. The cause and effect chain. That goes back to that one person, Alan Turing. Absolutely amazing.

0:47:10.9 Junior: Oh, it's fascinating.

0:47:12.2 Tim: And then the time critical nature of breaking that... Right.

0:47:15.9 Junior: Yeah. Well, you look at all of these, just so these three, these are big Rosa Parks, the space race, Alan Turing in the Enigma code, and these outcomes hinged on man, really tiny hinges, just these little inflection points based on human interaction and people's willingness to step up and give air cover to people's candor and their engagement. And whatever the objective was. And so it makes me think about my leadership and will there be opportunities and instances that come down the road for me where I will need to step up and provide air cover, or well, I will need to rely on the air cover of someone else to give candid feedback and just how varied those outcomes might be, depending on whether or not I'm in a position to give air cover or whether I need some myself, and just how different things can be depending on how that goes.

0:48:18.5 Tim: Yeah, no, it's very true. So this is where we can take the opportunity to do some self-reflection, Junior, and think about the way that we are mentoring others, to think about the way we're coaching others, supporting others, the ally-ship that we provide, particularly to those that maybe need some help you need some extra help. Extra support and opportunity. So this is where we can think specifically about what more we can do... Yeah.

0:48:53.0 Junior: And we talked a little bit about this last episode, but what are we risking when we give candid feedback, we're risking a whole bunch of stuff, so to pull this back to the social exchange, when we're looking at costs, the person giving the feedback is saying, Well, I might lose my social status, I might lose my professional credibility, I might lose my reputation if I'm wrong, I might even lose my job if the person doesn't like what I have to say, and so all of that's happening when someone's evaluating whether or not to give candid feedback, and if they don't have that air cover, they're gonna look at the cost of the social exchange and opt out, and you're not gonna get that feedback, loop will break and you will have worse information than you would have had, and your decision-making will feel it.

0:49:39.5 Junior: So this happens peer-to-peer as well, not just top down, and I wanna make that point that we can give air cover to our peers, it's not just people beneath us in the hierarchy, and that air cover can come in many different forms, public validation, resource allocation, anything that protects the feedback loop, and the reason I like air cover so much as the term is there's this aura of defense that goes along with it, I'm gonna defend you, I'm gonna protect you in your giving of the feedback, and hopefully because of that, we'll get more of it, and that's the type of culture that we will establish, and as we get more feedback and more accurate, less filtered information will make better decisions. So Tim, as we wrap up today. Final thoughts.

0:50:26.3 Tim: Yeah, I was just gonna say that when it comes to stage four and the exchange between air cover in exchange for candor, I think this is where people slow down and become incredibly meticulous in doing their risk-reward calculation because the nature of vulnerability is such that... These things are on the line, mistakes are high, the margin of error is low, and so they're gonna be very careful as they weigh the costs and the benefits of challenging the status quo, and they're going to be looking and watching and observing and perceiving very carefully to see if that air cover is there, and is there a historical evidence that would suggest that if I challenge the status quo, if I give this candid feedback, if I give my candor that I will receive air cover in exchange for that, they're looking for evidence that that can be the exchange, and if they don't see enough evidence, they will likely not do it. So again, this is where the institution has to provide the norm and the evidence that the air cover is there, otherwise most people will opt out.

0:51:42.7 Junior: So it's incumbent upon each of us to go generate some evidence, so those are the social exchanges of psychological safety stage one, inclusion in exchange for your humanity and lack of harm, stage to learn our safety, encouragement to learn in exchange for engagement in the learning process, stage three contributor safety, autonomy with guidance in exchange for results, and then finally, stage four challenger safety, air cover in exchange for candor.

0:52:12.9 Junior: So hopefully that was a helpful conversation today to shed a little bit more light on the four stages model, it's an area of the model that not as many people are familiar with, and I think that it's terribly actionable, and so when you look at the symptoms that you might be experiencing, when you see a breakdown in the social exchange, this should give you some more places to go and look, to have a more differentiated answer as to why it's going wrong, and hopefully some things that you can do to fix it. So thank you everybody for your time and attention. We appreciate your listenership very much, if you liked today's episode, leave us a like a review and share it with someone you think might find it valuable with that. We will say, good bye and see you next time. Take care.

0:53:05.4 Producer: Hey, Culture by Design listeners, this is the end of today's episode. You can find all the important links from today's episode at, and if you found today's episode helpful and useful in any way, please share it with a friend and leave a review. If you'd like to learn more about Leader Factor and what we do, then please visit us at Lastly if you'd like to give any feedback to the Culture by Design podcast or even request a topic from Tim and Junior and reach out to us at info at or find and tag is on LinkedIn. Thanks again for listening and making culture a something you do by design not by default.

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Episode Transcript

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