What is Psychological Safety?

In this week's episode Tim and Junior take a step back from the four-part series on The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety to give listeners a broad overview of psychological safety as a concept, from the history, to the framework, to the patterns and norms of culture as a whole. The content for this episode is based on the debut of The Complete Guide to Psychological Safety, LeaderFactor's newest ebook available now.

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Episode Show Notes

The definition of psychological safety (2:00). Tim and Junior discuss how vulnerability plays into the definition of psychological safety and what it means to create a culture of rewarded vulnerability.

Defining culture is like squeezing Jell-O (6:05). If culture is human interaction, psychological safety gives us the terms of engagement to interact.

It's impossible to not have any culture (11:45). Just like fish have water, humans have culture. You're in it, and it's in you.

The history of psychological safety (13:20). Numerous social scientists and psychologists have contributed to the psychological safety space, and Tim and Junior synthesize their contributions to a timeline.

How did the four stages come about? (30:00) Tim explains how his professional career in the world of leadership and culture contributed to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety framework.

What factors drive and contribute to the demand for psychological safety? (45:00) Mental health, social justice, and a variety of other social and cultural factors have played a hand in the demand, and Junior and Tim give us their take on the what and the why.


Episode Links:
A Complete Guide to Psychological Safety
What is Psychological Safety
The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Book

Episode Transcript

0:00:02.4 Producer: Welcome back Culture by Design listeners, it's Freddy, one of the producers of the podcast, and today's episode is our first episode following the four-part series on the four stages of psychological safety. If you haven't yet had a chance to listen to that four-part series, I highly recommend you listen to this episode first. Today's episode covers what is psychological safety, and it's a great preface to the four stages and the four-part series that we just finished. Tim and Junior will explore psychological safety as a concept, its origins, and how it led to the four stages book itself. If you're a student of human interaction, you're going to love this episode. As always, you can find important links, a link to the book, The Four Stages of Psychological Safety in today's episode show notes or online at leaderfactor.com. Thank you for listening and thank you for your reviews. Enjoy today's episode on what is psychological safety.

0:01:08.0 Junior: Welcome back everyone to Culture by Design, a Leader Factor podcast. My name is Junior. I'm here with Dr. Timothy R. Clark. Tim, how are you?

0:01:14.1 Tim: Hey, doing great Junior. Good to be with you for this episode.

0:01:17.8 Junior: I'm excited about it. We recently finished our four-part series on the four stages of psychological safety. That was an absolute blast to record. I really enjoyed that. We're moving on to not greener pastures, but pastures that are still green. We're going to talk about what is psychological safety today, what it is, why it's important and what to do about it.

0:01:39.9 Tim: So we're just going to talk about the basic concept, right? We did stages. We did the four stages. We're going to do a deeper dive into the basic concept.

0:01:49.7 Junior: The basic concept as basically as we can put it. There's some complexity that belies that first layer. That's true. We're going to dig into a little bit of that, but we'll try and put it as simply as we can. If you haven't had a chance to listen to that four-part series, we'd highly recommend it. After this episode, I think would be a great place. If you haven't had a chance to listen to that series, do that after this episode. It'll keep you occupied for a little while longer. When you make it through this episode and that series, you'll know a lot about psychological safety, probably more than most people out there.

0:02:19.9 Junior: This is who we are and what we do. And we're dedicating our professional lives to exploring this and other adjacent concepts and creating practical content tools for all of you. So hang around today till the end of the episode. We're going to be sharing a really big ebook. I don't want to say how many pages because I'm not entirely sure. Think it's something like 30. And the ebook is called the Complete Guide to Psychological Safety. So we're going to be talking about that and some other resources that you can access. So stick around to the end. So with that introduction, Tim, let's go ahead and jump right into the definition of psychological safety. And then we'll backtrack a little bit and talk about the history. But what is psychological safety?

0:03:02.9 Tim: Right. So we define it in five words. A culture of rewarded vulnerability. You have to let that sink in a little bit. You got to ruminate on that for a minute. A culture of rewarded vulnerability. That definition rests on the premise that human interaction is a vulnerable activity. Whenever humans interact, they're engaging in a vulnerable activity. If they're doing that, then that means that we have the opportunity to punish or reward that vulnerable activity. If there's a pattern of consistently rewarding vulnerable activity, then that would constitute psychological safety. So that's really what it comes down to. But why is that important? Who cares about that? Well, if you think about it, everything that we do, that we want to do to be successful, to be productive, to be ourselves, to learn, to grow, to make things better, to innovate, you can't do any of those things, or at least you can't do them well, without rewarded vulnerability. Because if your vulnerability is punished and you get shut down, then what are you going to do over time? You're going to withdraw and retreat and recoil. You're not going to engage. You're not going to release your discretionary efforts.

0:04:33.8 Tim: So all of this hinges, the success of human relationships, the success of human endeavors, it all hinges on whether we reward or punish each other's vulnerability. So let's talk about, in practice, some of those acts of vulnerability, those that could be punished, those that could be rewarded. So even introducing yourself could potentially be an act of vulnerability, right?

0:05:04.0 Junior: We've had people tell us that even showing up somewhere is a vulnerable activity. Being present is a vulnerable activity. So we've made a list, and I won't go through the list in a comprehensive way, but here are some instances of punished vulnerability. And think about these in your own life, if you've been party to these experiences, dismissing requests for help, reacting poorly to mistakes and failures, not taking no for an answer, asking someone to try something new without clear expectations, ignoring effort and expecting perfection, refusing to provide more resources, taking feedback poorly, shutting down candor or challenges to the status quo. These types of things happen all the time. Could be as simple as raising your hand and asking a question, a genuine question. What happens on the other end of that question can determine what happens in the future. If somebody says, that's a stupid question, I'm going to be less likely to ask something again in the future. If they say, hey, thanks for going out on a limb there, I see that, I see your point, I appreciate you bringing that up. I'm more likely to ask the subsequent question. And so those are really, really important things to pay attention to.

0:06:19.6 Junior: So let's go into rewarded vulnerability. What does that look like? Really acknowledging and actively respecting boundaries, expressing gratitude for candid emotion, giving people space to process, making yourself available and interruptible, valuing honesty over correct answers, clarifying outcomes and expectations, offering a way forward after a mistake. Those things are rewards to vulnerability that will help us along this path to achieving high psychological safety. So there's something I want to ask here, Tim. The definition, although it's five words, took a long time to do. Required a lot of thought, required a lot of effort, a lot of hours, a lot of years, potentially. And one of the first definitions of psychological safety, there was a swap in there, a word change, and it moved from environment to culture. And I'm curious, and maybe other listeners have this question, why is it that you chose the word culture?

0:07:22.9 Tim: Well culture is a big word. It's actually an amorphous word. It's a word that we have a hard time pinning down. It's like squeezing jello. If I asked 50 people what culture is, I'm going to get 50 answers. There's going to be a lot of variance there. So to answer your question, Junior, I want to talk about culture for a minute. If I ask you what culture is, you will probably in your definition somewhere say, well, it includes values and assumptions and beliefs and attitudes and behaviors and assumptions and mores and customs and traditions and artifacts. We could keep going on. A long list of things that you could put into the basket that we call culture. Well, let me try to squeeze the daylights out of that and let's ring it out and let's give a kind of a lean definition, a really focused definition of culture. How about four words? The way we interact. That's my definition of culture. The way we interact. Here's why. When we interact, when we finally engage with each other, all of those other things come into play. They're manifested. All your attitudes and assumptions and beliefs and behaviors and et cetera.

0:08:53.9 Tim: It's all manifested at the interface, at the human interface. So for me, what we really care about is the way we interact in organizations, in an organizational context. So if that's the definition of culture, the way we interact, then psychological safety gives us a way to interact. It gives us terms of engagement to interact. And going back to the definition, a culture of rewarded vulnerability. In other words, the prevailing norm in the social unit, in the social collective, in the team, in the organization, the way we interact is going to be that we reward each other's vulnerability. And we're going to create a culture around that norm. So now you can connect culture, the way we interact to psychological safety, a culture of rewarded vulnerability. Hopefully that provides some clarification for people. And it also makes it more real, more practical as you think about interacting with other people every day. And as you think about what you do in the workplace and how you work with others. So I hope that's helpful.

0:10:27.3 Junior: It is. And as I hear you explain psychological safety, the definition, the way you talk about culture, the way that you talk about vulnerability, there was nothing in there that was work specific. It's not confined to the professional sphere. Is that true? No, it's absolutely true. It extends far beyond that fence.

0:10:51.4 Tim: Yeah. It's not specific to context or any aspect of life. It just refers to social situations and social collectives of all kinds.

0:11:02.5 Junior: So when we say social situations of all kinds, we as humans are party to social collectives of all kinds. And some of them are professional, many, or maybe even most are not. And so that's one of the points that I want to make early on is that what is psychological safety? That's not a question that we answer in the confines of work and professional life. It's something that extends past that. It's much broader. It has to do with fundamental components of the human experience. If you interact with one other human being, psychological safety is a part of your life. And that's true for everyone who has ever lived. And so we live under this umbrella of psychological safety. Maybe that's the wrong way to put it because it may not be there as much as we would like it to be, but we're affected by its presence or its absence, every single one of us. So it's not-Yeah. So Junior, just back up, just maybe use the word culture. Whenever you have an interaction with another human being, you're under the umbrella of culture. But what kind of culture is it going to be? That's the question mark.

0:12:17.0 Tim: Now here's another interesting corollary. It's impossible to not have a culture. That's not possible. Whenever you have a group of human beings that are interacting on some kind of, any kind of a sustained or regular basis, there is a culture. Patterns of interaction emerge. Norms emerge. There will be a culture. We don't know what kind. We don't know what norms will emerge to become the prevailing norms. We don't know what potential norms may get pushed out and not become part of the culture, but we do know that we will have a culture. That's a fascinating thought. Fish have water. Humans have culture. It's in and around us. And you can't get out of the culture and dry yourself off with a towel. And so I'm going to step out of the culture for a minute. I think I'll get back in a little bit later. Well, you are swimming in culture all the time, but as you swim, you move to different waters. The culture changes, right? The norms change.

0:13:28.3 Junior: So culture is inevitable. An ode to the podcast. Hopefully it's a culture by design and we're going to talk about that a little bit today. So humans have always been party to these dynamics, these social exchanges, but it's only recently that we've started to peel back the layers and look at this concept and call it psychological safety. So 300,000 years ago, we're wandering the plains of Africa. Now we care about psychological safety in 2022. What happened in the interim? So let's talk about the history. So for maybe, let's say, 299,000 of those years, we are trying to survive. And 1844, Kierkegaard talks about creativity as a generative and destructive force. So we put together a timeline that talks through the evolution of the concept of psychological safety. Now it has antecedents that go back very, very far that we don't even call out. Or psychological safety is not being used for some time. But we decided to start here with Kierkegaard. And then we move into Schumpeter in 1942, talking about creative destruction.

0:14:50.7 Tim: So Junior, hang on a sec. Let's go back to Kierkegaard for a minute because this is important. What he's saying, he identifies creativity as both generative and destructive. But what he's saying is that creativity, doing it, produces anxiety in the person who engages in it. And so what he's identifying is that there's some anxiety, it could be high or low, that is part of this process of being creative. Okay. So it's not-And you can't disassociate those two things. No, it's not a neutral behavior to go be creative and produce things.

0:15:34.6 Junior: Yeah, they're not separable. No.

0:15:36.7 Tim: So there's an antecedent. Then we keep going.

0:15:40.2 Junior: So Schumpeter, creative destruction. Innovation destroys the status quo. And that speaks to the innovation portion of psychological safety that we will get into. But it's interesting to look back that far and look at some of those contributions. 1943, Maslow identifies belongingness needs. We hear that word a lot in the same conversation of psychological safety is belonging. And here's a quote, if both the physiological and the safety needs are fairly well gratified, then there will emerge the love and affection and belongingness needs. And so we're moving up the hierarchy. And I suppose that that's part of the pattern in this history where we've moved through enough of Maslow's hierarchy to now be concerned about some of these belongingness needs that we might describe a little bit differently, but that's the box. That's the top of the pyramid that we're talking about. So 1947, Herbert Simon suggests that fully functioning organizations need quote, attitudes of friendliness and cooperation. Yeah.

0:16:49.6 Tim: So think about that. What he's saying is to be a great organization, in other words, to interact effectively, to have a great experience, to be productive, you need to have attitudes of friendliness and cooperation. Well, you can see how close that is to psychological safety.

0:17:09.9 Junior: Yeah. And it's only 60 years ago, but the fact that we call that out as something noteworthy is pretty interesting to me, that it's only 60 years ago that we think, hey, you know, friendliness and cooperation are important things.

0:17:26.1 Tim: Well, and let's not overlook the fact that Herbert Simon won the Nobel Prize for the work that he did in studying organizations. And so this is not an insignificant thing.

0:17:39.6 Junior: 1960, Douglas MacGregor referred to non-physical quote, security needs. So security, safety, we're getting a little closer. 1961, Carl Rogers, unconditional positive regard. Tell us a little bit about Rogers.

0:17:54.1 Tim: Well, Rogers, Carl Rogers, just incredible psychologist. And he studied the relationship between the therapist and the patient. He studied that relationship very, very closely to try to understand what kind of relationship would be a fruitful, productive, profitable relationship. And he identified characteristics of that relationship. And he, he, one of the central characteristic was unconditional positive regard. Well, he was focusing on the one-to-one relationship between the therapist and the patient, but it's the same thing, right? We're just expanding that to a bigger social collective where there are more people, but the same principle holds true. So that's a great antecedent right there.

0:18:48.7 Junior: And I think there's a parallel to stage one inclusion safety. So we talk about the basic respect that we owe others because of their status as fellow humans if they're not presenting us with harm. And I think that there's a tie there that's important to call out that the unconditional positive regard is focused at the core of the human and what makes them human. It's not unconditional positive regard to every behavior that any human can engage in, but it's to the human for what makes them human. And so that tie to inclusion safety, I think is pretty fascinating.

0:19:27.8 Tim: It is. I appreciate you pointing that out, Junior. There's a direct tie there. Yeah, thank you.

0:19:32.9 Junior: So 1965, here's where it starts to get even more interesting and more pointed. So Edgar Schein, Warren Bennis, you love this book, Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods, The Laboratory Approach. So they actually call out psychological safety as a term. You'll see those two words printed in the book, which to my knowledge is one of the first times that you'd see them in print, which encourages, this is a quote, provisional tries and which tolerates failure without retaliation, renunciation or guilt. People don't want to be punished for what makes them human. So 1965, that's an important contribution because now we start to see this pop up a little bit more in some of the literature. Now there's not a lot of volume behind that term even past this point, right Tim? No.

0:20:29.1 Tim: Well, and let's just talk about the book right there. It's just, there's a subheading, psychological safety, first known really academics reference citation. Before that, if you do like a Google search history on the term psychological safety, you'll find about two or three references to greasy old safety manuals from the 1940s. No kidding. Wow. I found three that came from the 1940s and I went back to look at the original text and it says psychological safety, but there's no definition. They just put the two words together and it's in the context of a physical safety manual. So it was a nod to acknowledge that, oh, there's a side of safety that's non-physical, but there's no explanation given until we get to, as you say, Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis in 1965. So that's the original citation right there.

0:21:36.6 Junior: I appreciate you calling that out because we can acknowledge that there's a parallel path for another concept of physical safety that predates this by a lot. We're first concerned with not dying, right? We want to cross that bridge first. And so physical safety has to be there in order for us to start talking about these things. So we made tremendous progress in a relatively short amount of time in the area of physical safety because that was so clear and present and something that we wanted to mitigate as much as possible that also had very tangible outcomes, right? For better or worse.

0:22:19.5 Tim: Yeah, Junior, we may want to talk about that a little bit. And I love the way you frame that. So our first concern was not dying. I love the way you frame that. That's so true. So we got to go back. We got to go back to the first industrial revolution. We got to go back to 1788 and when the British parliament passed the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1788, this is the first industrial revolution. This is the time of mechanization and mass production and steam engines and textiles and smokestacks, right? Chimneys that are belching smoke because they're coal fired. So you go all the way back then, what do we find? Chimney sweepers are conscripting and employing boys as young as four years old to work with them. Four years old. Four years old under very dangerous circumstances and for long hours.

0:23:22.3 Junior: I had an idyllic childhood then.

0:23:24.2 Tim: Yeah. Yeah, count yourself fortunate. So British parliament, they surveyed the situation. I don't know how long it took, but this was clear exploitation. They finally called timeout. They said, hang on a second. Whoa, this is not right. And so they passed this law and out of this law came the concept that we call duty of care. The duty of care means you have a responsibility to keep each other safe in the workplace. This is exactly what you were saying, Junior. So your first responsibility is to help each other not die. So we focused on physical safety for over 200 years and the entire concept, the way we framed it, the conceptualization was physical safety. Now that's great. We just happen to be missing a pretty key component.

0:24:18.3 Junior: Yeah. I think that there's a page on our website that says humans are more than bodies, right? And there's more to us than what makes us physical. There's more to us than what is tangible. And we seem to peek into that because we've become pretty good at physical safety. Yeah, pretty good. So we jumped back into the timeline and we find ourselves with William Kahn. In 1990, he wrote a paper, Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. And in that, he explains that in order for employees to feel engaged at work, they need to feel safe to express themselves authentically. So 1990, we move a little bit closer to what we see today as psychological safety. So the concept picks up a little bit of steam. 1999, Amy Edmondson at Harvard added to this. And she described psychological safety as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. And so she did some research in healthcare, right, Tim? Can you tell us a little bit about what she did and her contribution?

0:25:31.4 Tim: Yeah. And this paper that she published in 1999 is a central contribution in which she was able to connect a team's ability to learn with psychological safety. And she ran statistical analysis to show a positive correlation between those two things. So that was a big contribution. So now we have even more momentum.

0:25:53.9 Junior: So next, we find ourselves in 2014, Project Aristotle at Google. And this is a very important contribution. And this really receives a lot of weight in the business sphere in ways that some of the previous work had not. You've got Google on the front page of this. And they're saying what? That as they studied 180 of their own internal teams for three years, they put psychological safety top of the list as the defining characteristic of its most high performing teams. That's amazing. It is amazing. Three year study, 180 teams and psychological safety hits first place on that list. And they're studying all sorts of things. They're looking at the correlation across demographics like age and tenure and geography. They're looking at the makeup of these teams. What makes the high performing teams high performing and the low performing teams low performing? And there's not strong correlation across those other variables that many people would assume are the most important variables. And so the most tenured team is not necessarily its most high performing. If you have a group of like minded people also not correlated to its performance, at least in the high performing teams, perhaps it's correlated low performing, but pretty interesting.

0:27:25.8 Junior: So what's your reaction to that, Tim?

0:27:28.3 Tim: Well, let's just clarify that that study was not an academic study. It wasn't done for academic purposes. It was a practical study because Google is looking at all of their teams. They have all these teams, hundreds of teams, and the teams are comprised of very talented people. And yet some of the teams were performing well, some of the teams were not performing well. So they're looking at this whole thing and they're saying, they're asking the question, well, what makes the difference? We want to know what makes the difference, not so that we can just sit around and philosophize about it, so that we can do something so that we can replicate that pattern across all of our teams. So we want to know what it is. What's the secret sauce here? And they identify five factors, but as you say, number one, psychological safety. So that, as you said, that had huge weight when that was published.

0:28:24.6 Junior: Yeah, because we can summarize that entire study by saying that if you want high performing teams, develop psychological safety in those teams. That is the mechanism by which you will get high performance. So we've moved all the way from 1844 with Kierkegaard. We are now 2020 and the four stages of psychological safety is published. So I want to dig into this and talk about the genesis of the book, the four stages, because you've now, you've decided somewhere along the road to try and make a contribution to add to this timeline, to continue to flesh it out, to make it actionable. It's something that you identified as important. So if we go back, what happened from the time that you entered this arena to now contributing in psychological safety? It's not quite 300,000 years ago, but tell us a little bit about that journey.

0:29:31.0 Tim: Sure. Yeah, for me. So I've been studying organizational culture for 30 years. So I've been in this area for a long time. But as I went through the research literature, as I saw the research beginning to evolve and develop in the area of psychological safety, I was intrigued because there was a question that people were not answering. They weren't asking it, let alone answering it. That is if the premise is that psychological safety is not binary, if it's a matter of degree, if it can be low, if it can be high, if it can be somewhere in the middle, then it logically follows that there has to be a pattern in the way that it increases. It's not going to be arbitrary. It's not going to be random. There's got to be some empirical pattern in the way that it goes from being low to growing to higher levels on a team. So that was the question that I asked. Is there a pattern here in the way that psychological safety increases in a social unit, a team, any kind of human collective? And so that question is what drove me to conduct the research in this area.

0:30:58.1 Tim: And it was an anthropological study originally. It was based on qualitative research. It was based on being a participant observer and doing systematic observation and depth interviews and the pattern emerged and became very clear that you step through these stages. There was a progression. There was a linear progression through four successive stages. So that's a very brief response to your question, Junior, but that's what drove me. That question was, to me, it had to be answered.

0:31:39.0 Junior: Why did you care about psychological safety in the first place? Were you trying to get more out of your teams, the organizations you led? Did you have experiences even prior to professional life that kind of stoked the fire to figure some of this out or that made you interested in leadership? I'm interested in how you came into this in a more fundamental way.

0:32:04.6 Tim: Yeah. I was captured by the topic of culture years ago as I went into graduate school. But then on the practical side, right, so after Oxford, my career took an unbelievably strange twist and I landed in a steel mill of all places. That's how I was doing my placement. Yeah. So that's right. Yeah. That's how they do their placement. So you go from, yeah, you go from ivory tower to shop floor. You take off your chinos and your Birkenstocks and you put on your hard hat and your metatarsal boots. That's what I did. And not too long after I found myself as the plant manager of a large integrated steel the last one left west of the Mississippi river constructed by us steel. So here I am, I am managing the steel plant. We have, what was it? 2,500 production and maintenance workers, about 400, 450 managers, good size organization. It was very clear, so I stepped into a legacy culture that was command and control junior. It was fear and intimidation.

0:33:30.4 Junior: Why did they hire you?

0:33:31.6 Tim: Why did they hire me?

0:33:33.0 Junior: Why did they hire? Like, that seems such like such a bizarre transition.

0:33:37.3 Tim: Oh yeah.

0:33:37.8 Tim: What was the goal and what made them think that you could come in and run this plant? Well that's, that remains a good question. We don't know. We don't know. We don't know. But nevertheless, I did take the helm at the steel plant and I did not have years and years of operating experience. In fact, I had 20 or so superintendents that I inherited as a kind of management team, most of whom were old enough to be my father. And so here we go. We step into quite an environment.

0:34:19.4 Junior: How did you feel the first week?

0:34:22.4 Tim: The first week I would say imposter syndrome to a certain extent. Insecure, very unsure. But I'll be honest. I'll be transparent. I'll give my best. I'll see if I can earn the trust of these people. I'm not going to pretend to be what I'm not. I'll be very, very candid and honest about what I think my strengths and weaknesses are. The one thing that I felt confident in was my ability to build a team based on leaders that could really lead. And one thing that I learned from a very early point in my life, Junior, was that if you are leading by fear, you're not leading. If you have a team that has pervasive fear, if you have an organization that has a high level of fear, that's the first sign of weak leadership. That means that the leadership's not really there. So I felt confident that I could assemble a team of good leaders that could lead with humility, collaboration, empathy, compassion. And so we did. We put together a pretty incredible team and I could see the differences. The legacy culture was stifling. It shut people down. It destroyed their confidence. It did not draw them out.

0:35:55.7 Tim: It did not liberate them. It did not empower them. It was so clear to me that, so now here I am, I'm on the applied side. I started on the theoretical side at Oxford. Now I'm on the applied side. So now I have to go from theory to practice. And so I had all this elegant theory in my head, but now we had to make it happen. And the further I got into it, into the bowels of this industrial beast, I could see that it goes back to my definition of culture. The way we interact truly is the key. It's truly the key. And if you can interact with psychological safety, you can perform at a much higher level and you can empower people to have a career best experience. It's very different.

0:36:50.3 Junior: So you inherit this organization, all these people, you mentioned that you didn't have any operational experience and that you believed that culture, team building and leadership would fill the gap. That's right. What gave you that degree of confidence? Because that's a big bet to make.

0:37:10.8 Tim: Because you can compensate for the other things that you lack. You cannot compensate for leadership. You cannot compensate for your responsibility to create and shape the culture. You can't delegate that.

0:37:26.6 Junior: And you felt that going in, taking the reins, you were convinced that it was a leadership issue. Yeah, it was a leadership issue.

0:37:36.0 Tim: It wasn't about technical expertise. And we can find people that we had incredibly talented people as far as process and technology and engineering and everything that we needed. That was not the deficiency in my mind. It was about leadership and culture. That's where it all comes together. That's where you're going to win or lose.

0:37:58.0 Junior: That's a big point. And to our listeners, I hope that you take a second to think about that, that you can overcome the technical gap, the skill gap with culture and leadership. So if you're going to choose one of those two things, skills or leadership, expertise or culture, you're going to choose leadership and you're going to choose culture. Is that what I'm hearing?

0:38:25.7 Tim: Yeah, you can compensate for a lot of deficiencies that you may have in management skills and technical skills and expertise, domain expertise in various fields. You can compensate for that and you can delegate that. Show me how you can delegate the fundamental leadership stewardship that needs to be performed. If you try to delegate it, you've abdicated leadership. You're not doing it anymore. You've given it to somebody else. You cannot delegate that. You can only abdicate that. The leadership role. Let me say that again. You cannot delegate the leadership role. You can only abdicate it. And if you give it to somebody else, okay, then you've abdicated it, but you can't delegate it. If it's your job, then you have to do that job. That is something that cannot be delegated.

0:39:26.9 Junior: So you're at Geneva, you make this bet that the leadership's going to pay off, the team building is going to pay off, that you can do it. What happened?

0:39:35.9 Tim: Well, we broke every record we ever had. Throughput, yield, quality, cost, everything. It wasn't me, it was the team. But every single metric that we had, we broke. We broke the record. But again, I don't take any credit for that. It wasn't my expertise. It was bringing the people together and creating the team and the terms of engagement so that they could do what they're capable of doing. What a fascinating experience.

0:40:10.3 Junior: So presumably those records being broken, the performance of the team probably gave you a lot of confidence that that worked. My hypothesis was right. Your hypothesis was right. So you applied the scientific method. You're looking at all the data, all the evidence, and you're like, okay, this is moving from hypothesis to theory and now it's a law.

0:40:33.3 Tim: Yeah. So are we going to confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis? Let's put it to the test. And we did.

0:40:39.8 Junior: So you probably tested that hypothesis again and again throughout your career, I would imagine. And it would seem we are where we are today that you got the same data back every time you did it.

0:40:52.7 Tim: I think so.

0:40:53.5 Junior: So now you have a professional life to look back on and say with a high degree of certainty that that was the difference, that the variable was culture, that that's what you needed to pay attention to. And as we say, psychological safety is the heart of culture. So you're exploring culture over these decades and you're honing in on psychological safety. You see that it's not binary. It occurs on a spectrum. There's this idea of progression. So enter the four stages, right? At that point, is that the appropriate place to put it now?

0:41:31.1 Tim: Yeah, I think so. I think so. But let me just restate the premise. So the confirmed hypothesis is that the leader of any organization or any social collective, whatever it may be, the leader is the chief cultural architect. The leader has the most influence on the formation of the prevailing norms of that organization. Now there are other factors and everybody else contributes to. Everybody else, they're cultural architects too. But you cannot argue with the fact that the leader has the biggest impact. The leader is the chief cultural architect. There's no way to delegate that role. You can only abdicate that role. So you write the book, The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, and that comes out in 2020, right?

0:42:29.9 Junior: Yeah. And we've gathered a lot of information since that point. And we've been riding on a rocket in terms of the pace of development and the data that we're gathering, the research that we've been able to do as an organization. And we're confirming this model empirically. We're doing some really cool work. I want to share with the audience some of the things that we've found as we've gone on this journey to help the world become psychologically safe, let's put it that way. And we find that there are two universal goals that organizations and people have when they talk to us. You're trying to do two things. You're trying to, one, create sanctuaries of inclusion. That's how we would put it. And two, incubators of innovation. Now they don't show up at the doorstep and use those words, but they use words that fall under those umbrellas. And they're typically saying things like, well, we've experienced this, we've seen this social injustice, we've seen this public turmoil. And often we'll talk to people inside the HR organization, we'll talk to DEI, we'll talk to talent acquisition and development, we'll talk to training, we'll talk to these pieces of organizations that are using that type of narrative.

0:43:58.2 Junior: And so there's this moral force on the one hand that's motivating demand in this area that we've seen that is unmistakable. And perhaps that's the dominant lens through which people are looking when they're talking about psychological safety, but it's not the only lens. And there's another pocket that people may be less familiar with when talking about psychological safety. And it's, I won't call it the Google lens, but it speaks to some of the high performing teams. It's the innovation piece. That's largely what they found in the highest performing teams. And so teams want, organizations want innovation. They want high performance. There are people who are very much bottom line driven that are arriving at the same conclusion as those who are concerned with the moral force. And they're both ending up in the same place of psychological safety that solves for both of those issues. We have the inclusion piece on the one hand, we have this market turbulence, this dynamic competitive landscape on the other side. And the narrative is so fascinating because psychological safety is aiding both of those use cases. So I apologize for the monologue, but that's-No, no, no, you're absolutely right.

0:45:19.4 Tim: Let's go through it again. Let's go through it again so that people can kind of think about their own organizations as we're talking about it. So as you delineated, Junior, we have moral forces or moral drivers that are driving the demand for psychological safety, moral factors. We also have market factors, as you said. So on the moral side, we have social justice and equity. We have mental health and wellness. That's a big one. So those are two massive drivers on the moral side. On the market side, we have engagement and retention of talent. We have the personal growth and development of talent. That's both a moral and a market issue, to be honest. And then we have, as you said, competitiveness and innovation on the market side. So just think about your own organization. What is the motivational profile of your organization as it relates to psychological safety? Why do you care? What are the market forces that are driving your interest? What are the moral forces that are driving your interest? Think about that. And you'll notice that organizations are motivated in different ways. And your primary driver may not be the same primary driver as another organization.

0:46:46.6 Tim: It's fascinating.

0:46:47.8 Junior: It is fascinating. So one of the things that I think is important to point out as we're talking about these two motivations is that occasionally, psychological safety will be misconstrued. And it's important when we talk about and answer the question, what is psychological safety, that we also answer the question, what isn't psychological safety? Or what is psychological safety not? We're going to do probably a separate episode focused on this question. But I think that it's worth calling out that psychological safety, when we're talking about it this way, we're not talking about it as a shield from accountability. We want to be clear that we're not talking about these ideals just in a vacuum. We know that we need to reconcile all of this with the ever present fact that we compete and that we need to perform. And so we don't cushion or remove accountability from the equation when we're talking about psychological safety. There are some real performance components that are involved. So stay tuned. We'll cover that in another episode. But I wanted to call that out. I think it's important. So the last thing that I want to spend a few minutes on today is talking about how psychological safety fits into all of these other things that we have on our plate, all of these other things that we're responsible for.

0:48:13.3 Junior: In management, sometimes you'll see flavors of the day. You'll see things come and go. Psychological safety is here. And based on what we're seeing, it is here to stay. It is not something that is fleeting. But we're in charge of engagement. Maybe we're doing agile. Maybe we're doing coaching. We're doing all of these things. And we're now hearing this new term, psychological safety, and it seems like something we might want to pay attention to. So is psychological safety peer to all of these other concepts? Where does it live? How should I pay attention to it? What do I do about it? What would you say to that? Where does this fit into our organizational priorities?

0:48:58.9 Tim: Well, that's a great question, Junior, because we have all these tools. We have management tools. We have organizational tools, and we pursue initiatives and priorities all the time. And we're always looking for an edge. We're trying to get better at what we do. So where I would place it is that it's foundational to everything. Now you may be working with other tools or skill areas or methods or behaviors or whatever. That's fine. Psychological safety is a foundation for all of the other management and organizational tools that you may be using. Just build on psychological safety. It's a foundation upon which to build. Remember, it goes back to culture, the way we interact, psychological safety, a culture of rewarded vulnerability. So it's a fundamental, that's what it is. That's the foundation upon which you build, and you can pursue all of your other priorities. I think that's important.

0:50:06.7 Junior: We were talking about this as a team the other day relative to some of the other initiatives that organizations could embark on and could take on. We were even talking about engagement and asking the question, is engagement a function of psychological safety or is psychological safety a function of engagement? In almost everything that we put in front of psychological safety, psychological safety was upstream. It was, as you say, foundational and affected everything else. And as psychological safety improves, the outcomes across all of those other areas improve. Because again, it's so fundamental. It happens human to human. Any time we interact with another person, that interaction is dictated by the level of psychological safety. And that is true one on one. That's true one on group. It's fascinating just how many components of an organization all are affected by psychological safety. So if we position it as foundational and we understand that it affects everything else, whose job is it? Whose job is psychological safety?

0:51:17.3 Tim: Well, it's everyone's job. We talked about the hypothesis just a minute ago that the leader has the primary role in shaping the prevailing norms of the team. And that's true. That will always be true. But everyone else shares in that responsibility. It's embedded in their role. And the reason that this is true is because as humans, we're always modeling. We're modeling behavior and we can't stop modeling. There's no off switch for modeling. You can't stop doing that. And so therefore what that means is that by default you're contributing to the culture and the culture is a living thing. And through your modeling behavior, you can perpetuate and support the norms that exist today or you can influence the team to change the norms. It's going to be one of those two things. You're either supporting and reinforcing the norms that exist, the legacy culture, or you're influencing the culture of the team in a different direction, but you are a cultural architect and you can't separate yourself from that role.

0:52:35.6 Junior: We talk about that very frequently and I love the language that we use, cultural architect, and that's true. Every person, every member of the organization is a cultural architect. Every member of every social collective. And so that's an interesting lens to use because we're taking out the professional piece for a second and we're saying that every human is part of social collectives. If you interact with just one more person, what does that mean? That means that every single person on planet earth affects culture. It could be the culture at work, but it could be the culture at home. It could be the culture anywhere. It could be the culture at the cash register, this little micro culture that you create for 10 seconds when you're checking out at the grocery store. So each of us has responsibility to create the best culture that we can. And if we don't do it by design, we mentioned that at the beginning, then it is by default, by default. So culture by design or by default, that's the last point that we will cover today is that psychological safety won't just happen. The default is not high psychological safety and high performing teams and organizations.

0:53:57.0 Junior: We don't fall into that. We don't stumble into that. It's something that requires intention. It requires effort. It's something that's deliberate. It's something that is, as we say, by design. Tim, what do you think about that by design or by default?

0:54:14.9 Tim: Well, it's really true. We have yet to find a team that has gone all the way to stage four, challenger safety, the culminating stage, the highest level of psychological safety. We have yet to find a team that has done that spontaneously or organically or by chance or by accident. We've never found one because that's not what happens if you just let it go. If you just do culture by default, by chance, by happenstance, by accident, by luck, it doesn't happen. We have not seen one example where that happens. It happens, as you say, through intentional efforts. You're purposeful. You're deliberate. You're saying, these are the norms that we want. This is what we commit to do as we interact with each other. Then you work very hard to model and then reward those acts of vulnerability with each other. Yeah, we can't overstay the importance of this point. You don't fall into it. You don't slouch into psychological safety. That's not how it works.

0:55:27.8 Junior: We need to do it by design because the stakes are so high. Culture by default, what do you end up with? You bleed out your best talent. You talked about talent acquisition and development. You bleed it out if culture is by default. You fail to innovate. You end up with a hostile work environment in many cases. It affects the customers. We have poor customer experience. We have lost productivity, quality goes down. The ripple effects are far-reaching and they're very deep. Alternatively, what can we expect if we do culture by design and create high psychological safety? The exact opposite. We'll have inclusive environments. We'll be highly innovative. We'll be able to attract the top talent and keep them. They will want to be here. We're going to create a culture where people feel safe to do all of those things across the four stages. They feel included. They're safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo. We're going to have a healthy customer experience. Productivity is going to be high and quality is going to be high. You see the stakes at both poles for low psychological safety and culture by default, high psychological safety and culture by design.

0:56:43.2 Junior: Tim, we've had a great conversation today. I've really appreciated the episode. I want to call out just our appreciation for everyone who has contributed to the work in this field. We realize that there has been so much work done over hundreds of years, arguably, to get us to this point. We're excited to be a part of it. We're excited to add our two cents and hopefully bring some practical, actionable tools to everyone. We believe that this is important. The world desperately needs this. If you look around, the world would be a much better place if we could embody some of these principles that we've talked about today. So join us on that journey. If you've enjoyed today's podcast, you've got value from it, please share it. Tag us, tag a friend, someone that would find value in this. That helps us get the content out to the world and continue to do what we do. As I mentioned in the beginning, we'll put a link in the show notes to the download for the complete guide to psychological safety. It'll have a lot of things that we weren't able to talk about today, a more comprehensive history as well as the four stages.

0:57:56.7 Junior: If you haven't had a chance to listen to the series, the four stages of psychological safety, please do that. I think you'll find that incredibly valuable. So with that, Tim, we'll wrap up. Thank you.

0:58:08.6 Tim: Hey, thanks so much for the conversation.

0:58:10.8 Junior: Absolutely. We'll see everyone next time. Bye bye.

0:58:21.8 Producer: Hey, culture by design listeners. You made it to the end of today's episode. Thank you again for listening and for making culture something that you do by design and not by default. If you've enjoyed today's episode, please be so kind to leave us a review. It helps us reach a wider audience and accomplish our mission of influencing the world for good at scale. Today's episode show notes and other relevant resources related to today's topic can be found at leaderfactor.com forward slash resources. And with that, we'll see you next episode.

Show Notes

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Episode Transcript

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