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What Psychological Safety is Not

In this episode Tim and Junior discuss the seven misconceptions surrounding psychological safety. Some organizations and some leaders dismiss psychological safety because they believe that it means a whole host of things, that it doesn't mean. So they dismiss it and they ignore it. When helping leaders understand the topic of psychological safety, defining what psychological safety is not can be just as helpful as defining what it is.

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Episode Show Notes

In this episode Tim and Junior discuss the seven misconceptions surrounding psychological safety. Some organizations and some leaders dismiss psychological safety because they believe that it means a whole host of things, that it doesn't mean. So they dismiss it and they ignore it. When helping leaders understand the topic of psychological safety, defining what psychological safety is not can be just as helpful as defining what it is.

(03:19) What is psychological safety? Psychological safety is a culture of rewarded vulnerability. It is an applied discipline that requires effort and a high bar to create this kind of culture. Individuals and teams progress through four successive stages of psychological safety.

(10:06) Psychological safety is not "niceness". Tim wrote an article featured in Harvard Business Review titled, "The Hazards of a Nice Company Culture". Sometimes a thin layer of niceness is spread over a thick layer of fear. We're not saying, don't be warm, hospitable, or caring. When we are collegial to a fault, what happens? We create false harmony and false compassion. A barracuda may smile at you, but don’t pet it. Niceness without pure intent is counterfeit. It still induces fear and mistrust.

(26:03) Psychological safety is not consensus decision making. Yes, psychological safety should do much to neutralize the power differential created by hierarchy, titles, and position, but I’ve seen employees who believed that their organization’s emphasis on psychological safety invested them with veto power. Psychological safety should give you voice, but it does not change decision making authority.

(42:13) Psychological safety is not rhetorical reassurance. Some leaders try to enact psychological safety with words. They mistakenly believe they can decree it into existence by simply saying, “Psychological safety is a priority for our organization. Please speak up. Give us your honest feedback and candid input. It’s now safe.” Just making a declaration won’t make it so.

Important Links
HBR - The Hazards of a “Nice” Company Culture
What Psychological Safety is Not
The Complete Guide to Psychological Safety
What is Psychological Safety - Podcast Episode
What is Psychological Safety - Website

Episode Transcript

0:00:01.9 Producer: Welcome back, Culture by Design listeners, it's Freddy one of the producers of the podcast. Today's episode is on What Psychological Safety is Not. Now, we spend a lot of time on this podcast talking about what psychological safety is, but today we'll cover the seven misconceptions surrounding the topic. It will be a great episode to share with anyone who does have some of these misconceptions around the topic, or even the term psychological safety itself. If you're new to the podcast, you may wanna check out our series on What psychological safety is and the four stages of psychological safety after you listen to this episode. As always, important links to this episode can be found in the show notes at Thanks again for listening. Thank you for your reviews. Enjoyed today's episode on What psychological safety is not.

0:01:00.0 Junior: Welcome back, everyone to Culture by Design. I'm back with Dr. Tim Clark. Tim, how you doing?

0:01:05.0 Tim: Good, excited to have this conversation with you today.

0:01:08.3 Junior: Me too. Today, we'll be discussing a topic that's not often talked about in the area of psychological safety, and that is What psychological safety is not... Arguably, this is just as important a topic as what it is, and I find this true generally defining what something is, it is often very useful and figuring out exactly what it is, especially when there are common misconceptions, as is the case with psychological safety.

0:01:36.1 Tim: So we were having a short conversation about the fact that some organizations or some leaders don't even like the word or the words psychological safety, and I've seen that just in the recently, last little while, last few weeks, organizations saying We want... Absolutely everything that has to do with psychological safety. We just don't wanna say it. I don't wanna say the words. I've come across several executives that have kind of voice the same sentiment, they don't like it, but I suspect that it's a little bit disingenuous, the motivation to say that... They will say, Oh, it's soft. It's squishy. It's useless. We have a business to run here. We don't have time for that, I suspect though, that really... They are using that excuse to dismiss it because they realize their own liabilities, they realize how difficult it is to create and maintain those conditions, so they get a little glib, they get a little flip and they get a little sarcastic when they talk about it, they don't wanna square up to what it takes to create, it's actually an incredibly disciplined and challenging condition, it's not easy, in fact, it may be the supreme test of your leadership.

0:03:02.8 Tim: So think about that for a minute, and I think by the end of this discussion, Junior, hopefully, all of our listeners will understand the high bar, that it is the discipline that it requires to create a culture of this kind of culture.

0:03:19.8 Junior: It is a high bar and it does require a lot of discipline, so what Tim said, hopefully by the end of this, you'll understand better yourself, we'll understand better as we go back and forth is something that is a learning process for Tim and for me too, as we go through and have these conversations, and it will hopefully equip you with some language with some ideas, some frameworks to use when you run into this issue, because chances are, if you're one of our listeners, you've bumped into this before, where there's some misconception, there is some misinformation about what psychological safety is, and it's important that we have the right talk tracks, the right narrative, the right language to use to help dispel some of that, and so the record straight. So to begin, we'll start off by defining What psychological safety is, and the fact that it's entered the lexicon as it were, and it's a growing training and assessment category, and we've talked about this many times that it's not going away, it's getting more attention now than ever, before, and the way we define it is in forwards, a culture of rewarded vulnerability, I guess that's five culture of rewarded vulnerability, take out the A is for and it's developed across four stages.

0:04:32.6 Junior: Inclusion safety is stage one. Can I be my authentic self? Stage two is learner safety, can I grow? Stage three contributor, can I create value? And stage four, challenger, can I be candid about change and psychological safety is not binary, it's not that you have it or you don't, it occurs on a spectrum and across these stages... So we're not gonna go too deep into it, but if you'd like to see a little bit more about our definition and some of the history, let's go ahead and throw a link in the show notes to the complete guide, the psychological safety is a free download. A really hefty e-book that gives our perspective that you can use as a resource for yourself and you can share with others...

0:05:14.7 Tim: Yeah, it's a really nice resource. By the way, Junior.

0:05:17.2 Junior: Yeah, so let's talk about the complication here, some organizations and some leaders is the psychological safety because they believe that it means a whole host of things, that it doesn't mean they dismiss it, they ignore it, sometimes they outright fight in... They don't want anything to do with it. And there in lies, the purpose of today's episode, so we're gonna go through the common misconceptions in a very comprehensive way to hopefully dispel some of the myths or the misinformation. So let's start at the top. What isn't psychological safety? The first thing that it is a shield from accountability, this is one of the most common misconceptions that I bump into with leaders and organizations, they'll say, Well, people that aren't performing, they just use it as an excuse to get away with their poor performance, and the flag that they bear is that psychological safety means that we value people and we value relationships above all as... And maybe to the exclusion of all else. And therefore, accountability goes out the window and it's just soft and it's Kumbaya, and that's what psychological safety is, which is why we don't wanna have anything to do with it.

0:06:39.2 Tim: Yeah.

0:06:39.4 Tim: We're just giving you a pass on accountability, we're going into this I never never land of where we can... We don't hold each other accountable, there's diplomatic community from having to deliver results and hold people accountable, and surprisingly, this is a very big misconception, people misinterpret and mis-apply it, and this is one of the patterns that we see quite frequently is in that true junior...

0:07:10.8 Junior: It's true, it's not surprising in some sense, because historically, if you look at where the pendulum was, it was over on the side of fear and intimidation, command and control, and there was... And perhaps still is. Well, is in many instances, a lot of manipulation and coercive tactics, and now we're moving away from that, there's less tolerance for that, and we're saying we're entering a new phase, we value our people, and sometimes that pendulum swing so far in the other direction that we find ourselves, allowing people to govern themselves with no structure, and that's not good either. And so those are the polls where you have fear and intimidation manipulation on one end, and then you have anarchy on the other side, and just allowing people to do whatever they will, that's not what psychological safety is.

0:08:05.4 Tim: But Junior, you can see where people would overcompensate and they would overreact and it would be kind of a revolt against the manipulation, the intimidation to fear, the coercive tactics of the past, you can see how people would do that because we do... We tend to over-correct a lot, as you say.

0:08:29.5 Junior: And there are pockets of organizations that find themselves in this position, they have this problem, and instead of holding people accountable, maybe someone needs to get transitioned out and instead of managing them out, they just show them around they stick them in a corner and don't allow to touch too much to mitigate risk, but they keep them in the name of valuing people and in the name of psychological safety. That can be a really big issue.

0:08:56.7 Tim: I give you an example though, that just came to months... Interesting. Early in my career, I think we'd have to go back like 20 years where self-directed teams was all the rage, so we all need to have self-directed teams, and so all the self-directed teams related training was something that kind of swept through like a movement like it had a lot of momentum and energy a couple of decades ago... Well, what was it? It didn't work, because even on a team, you've gotta figure out what the division of labor is, you've gotta figure out how you make decisions, you've gotta figure out where decision-making authority lies, and so this kind of nebulous amorphous conception of a self-directed team, it didn't last, that may be in part of reaction to the command and control pattern of the past, the legacy culture that many organizations had inherited. Interesting example.

0:10:06.1 Junior: Very interesting. So that's the first thing that psychological safety is not... It is not a shield from accountability, in an environment of high psychological safety, we remain accountable just as much as ever. The second thing that psychological safety isn't is niceness, and some people think that those two things are synonymous, psychological safety and niceness is the same thing, if you're psychologically safe, you're just nice, and if you're nice, you're psychologically safe. It's not true. And you wrote an article a while back, the hazards of a nice company culture in the Harvard Business Review. We'll go ahead and link that in the show notes, not talks a little bit about the dangers of nice company cultures is a fascinating article, and you talk about false harmony and false compassion. You speak to that a little bit.

0:11:00.4 Tim: Well, Junior, the word nice is problematic, this is what I've come to understand is problematic because psychological safety as a concept is a function of two things, Number one, respect and number two, it lives at the intersection of these two dimensions. Nice is a word that we use a little bit recklessly and we don't know exactly what it means, so I kind of would encourage us to stay away from the word nice, because organizations that suffer from the catastrophic effects of a toxic nice culture, it means that they've developed superficial collegiality. It means that nice is really... It's just the veneer of civility, so we spread a thin layer of NICE over at the layer of fear. So this niceness is... It's a charade. It's actually a big disable because when you have that kind of a culture, people come together, they have meetings, they can't debate issues on their merits, they can't really go at it, that's not what psychological safety is, psychological safety represents the terms of engagement that would allow you to have the tough, hard-hitting dialogue and conversations that you need to have, so you can see where niceness takes us down a different road, and if it gets worse...

0:12:48.0 Tim: It becomes toxic niceness. Now, one of the things that we should also point out is that certain sectors of society are more susceptible to toxic niceness than others, I can think of five... Five sectors in society, education, government, healthcare, non-profit and voluntary associations. Why? Because these organizations, they usually begin with a benevolent mission, they have a mission to do good in the world, and because of that benevolent mission, it's easy for people to make nice with each other and slide into toxic niceness it because they're surrounded by this benevolent mission. So we have to be careful about that. Psychological safety is not that... Psychological safety, as I said before, gives us the terms of engagement to have the hard conversations to address issues directly. And that's exactly what we need to do.

0:14:00.8 Junior: I'll also call out that. We're not saying, Don't be nice, in the sense that we're saying, Don't be warm. Don't be hospitable. Don't be caring, we're not saying that, but the connotation of nice can imply that it's superficial, so when we're talking about niceness, that's what we're talking about, is the superficiality that can grow with just being nice, and I'll also point out that sometimes niceness is well-intentioned, it's just a skill gap that people don't have the skills or the tools or the understanding to have that hard-hitting dialogue, and so they move away from that and embrace the niceness because they're not quite sure how to foray into that other area where there's a little bit more friction. And so niceness can be the easy way out in many instances, and so one of the things that you can do as a professional is use the level of niceness as an indicator and perhaps a red flag, if you know that a certain pocket of your organization or maybe your own team or maybe you yourself has a little too much niceness, you can see if there's something behind that, if it really is veneer, that's hiding something you don't want to address or see, or if everything is okay and it just is hospitality.

0:15:28.3 Junior: So it can be something that have a little radar going and see if that is a problem for your team or organization.

0:15:36.4 Tim: Junior, I appreciate you seeing that. That's why I like to emphasize the word respect instead of niceness, because niceness becomes ambiguous, but respect is what allows us to have the tolerance for candor and to be able to debate issues on their merits without getting personal, without becoming offensive, without hurting each other in the process we're able to maintain, we patrol the borders and the boundaries of respect in all that we do, and that allows us... That's what enables us to sustain and tolerate the intellectual friction that we so desperately need. I appreciate you saying that.

0:16:26.0 Junior: Absolutely, and the last comment here is, we can always look at what happens as a consequence of this niceness, and another symptom is that we delay or we postpone inevitably difficult decision-making, we become lethargic, it takes forever, and we find ourselves in this avoidance pattern of never putting the real issue on the table and discussing it, we just kinda paint over it and leave it there, or we sweep it under the rug, and that makes us slow and it becomes very dangerous. Very, very consequential. So psychological safety is not niceness. What else, isn't it? It's not conflict. So let's talk about calling for a moment, some people think that psychological safety means that you roll people in bubble wrap and you offer them and you insulate them, and you make sure that everything is okay, that there are no threats, so there's no friction. And we indulge you, as you mentioned, with excessive care and detention, it's over protection, it's the archetypal mother, and that can become very, very dangerous because what happens... Maybe you can walk us through some of the consequences of doing that.

0:17:41.0 Tim: Well, Junior coddling is a cousin to niceness, but there are some distinctions, I guess, in the motivation and the consequences of coddling, as you said, coddling means that we are over-protecting and we're buffering someone from the full forces of reality and the consequences of decisions. And so what does that lead to? A leads to dependency. It lean leads to learn helplessness, it leads to victim on, these are adverse consequences and are very, very serious at the individual level, because we are trying to have successful organizations, we're trying to fulfill our missions, whatever the missions might be, we're trying to achieve our vision. We're trying to execute our strategies, but at an individual level, we're trying to build people, we're trying to build capacity and capability in people, or trying to create human flourishing, or trying to create an environment where people are happy and learning and progressing. You can't do that. If you're coddle people, we're not trying to contribute to your fragility, we're trying to contribute to your resilience as a human being, that means that you need to be challenged, it means that you need some stretch. It means that you need to move out of your comfort zone, move to your outer limits and build new capacity...

0:19:25.5 Tim: That's what it means. So coddling is actually a pernicious concept, and it doesn't help people, it sets them back, it weakens them, it innervates them as human beings. This is not psychological safety, this is not what it is, but again, you'll see teams and organizations misinterpret psychological safety and put the kid gloves on and try to create a buffer around people, and they develop a pattern of... Over-protection, this is not what it is. And I think about the model, respect and permission, those two axes, and coupling is low in both, you're not respecting the person's autonomy, you're not reflecting their humanity, and you're also not allowing them to do anything. You're completely neutralizing them.

0:20:25.6 Junior: Coddling is very, very dangerous. And so that is an important point, that psychological safety is not coddling...

0:20:35.2 Tim: No, Junior. Let's go back... Just let's take that a step further and let's go back to stages to and tree of psychological safety, so stage one, as you said, is inclusion safety, but let's go to stages two and three, stage two is learn or safety in learner safety. Human beings are trying to satisfy their basic needs to learn and grow and develop mastery, you can't do that if you're could... Now, let's go to stage three contributor safety, in stage three, contributor safety, human beings are trying to satisfy their basic human needs for autonomy, control and contribution, and these are very deeply seated human needs. I want some control, I want autonomy. I want to make a meaningful contribution, if you're being could, then you can't give full expression to doing those things in order to satisfy those needs. So think about how restricting coddling really is. Think about the unintended consequences of coddling. It gets pretty serious at an individual level.

0:21:56.1 Junior: It gets really serious, and I wanna point out that across these first three topics, it's an important opportunity for us reflect on our own behavior as individuals and the way that we interact with others, because some will say, Well, I'm not holding this person accountable because... And maybe this is just a story we tell ourselves, we're not saying it out loud, but I'm not holding this person accountable because I don't wanna hurt their feelings. Or because I care about them, I wanna make sure that they're okay, or I'm really nice all the time. To everyone, because I don't wanna hurt anyone's feelings. I care about people, and maybe they wouldn't say that they are cuddling, but maybe they're doing the behaviors that roll into cuddling and saying, Well, I just care, I care so much. Well, do you really...

0:22:49.8 Tim: That reminds me of... Let's just... You're asking such a central question, let's think about the linear and positive relationship between accountability and autonomy, autonomy is something that we don't just hand out for free, we don't distribute autonomy. It's not a human right. Autonomy is something that you earn on the basis of the accountability that you demonstrate... This is what parenting is all about. Parenting is the gradual transfer of responsibility, so as a child demonstrates accountability, the parent is able to give that child more autonomy because they are showing that they can handle it, and not only can they handle it, it becomes empowering for them to grow and develop and become... A well-adjusted contributing member of the Human Family, so that again, that relationship between autonomy, accountability and autonomy is central here. What does codling do? Codling intercepts that process. It dune that process. It holds people back. It gets in the way. It's a barrier. Your holy people back. You want them to progress, you want them to be able to earn more autonomy, but they can't do it unless they're given the opportunity to be accountable, so this is central to the nature of growth and accountability and success with human beings.

0:24:45.9 Tim: Coddling it's not a small problem, it's a big problem.

0:24:48.7 Junior: And so that's my invitation to myself and to anyone who wants... Anyone who wants to take me up on it is to analyze our own behavior and look at those things, because if we truly care about others, we will hold them accountable, if we truly care, we won't be superficially nice, and if we truly care, we won't call because we're helping this person, we're helping ourselves use the autonomy that we do have to gain more, to be more responsible, and one of the telltale signs that something is going well in that area is that there's a little bit of unpleasantness in the short term, but you can't avoid that in the hopes that everything will just be okay, and that you'll never have to go through the process of... The accountability itself, you mentioned parenting, what happens if people are never held accountable, it's not a good thing, that's not what you want for that person when they finally graduate, and when you finally... You no longer have influenced that you did at one time, we prepare people for more autonomy, more responsibility, that's what people want, and we've borne that out empirically in the model, that's what contributor safety is all about.

0:26:03.5 Junior: If we don't allow people to do that, it's a real problem, and much of the ethical conversations surrounding psychological safety as it has to do with the four stages centers around stage one, but there's a real moral and ethical tone to contribute safety stage three, even though it may seem that it's all about execution and skill set, and it's pretty cut and dried, you have to really think long and hard about contributor safety and what's behind it as it relates to respect and permission, and what's fascinating about that model to me and I'll meet to belabor the point, but going to contributor safety requires an increase in respect and permission. So what does that mean? It's something to think about. Is food for thought. So let's go to the next one. Psychological safety is not consensus, decision-making, bumped into this one a few times, so some people think that psychological safety democratize decision-making, and that everyone now has voting rights on any decision that we ever make, and in order to move forward, we need consensus because everyone has a vote.

0:27:22.6 Tim: Is that interesting, Junior, how people can misconstrued psychological safety and easily take it to that, Oh, we all now have decision-making rights, we all have a vote, we all get to weigh in on the way that we should go... The course of action that we should take now, we do need to distinguish though, between participation rights and decision rights, we're talking about decision rights here, and we're talking about the misconception that psychological safety in daws everyone on the team or everyone in the organization with decision-making, authority, it doesn't do that. Let's just think about decision-making and organizations on a spectrum, basically there are three models of decision-making, you have unilateral decision-making at one end, which means one person or a group of people make the decision, even without consultation, they just go do what they want on the other end of the spectrum is consensus decision making, where everyone has a vote and we all have to come to agreement, and then we can move forward, in the middle is a consultative decision-making model, where the decision-making authority is vested in... And most of the time, one person could be a subset of people, they confer and consult and counsel with everyone, solicit feedback and input, and then they make the call, 99% of business decisions are made based on what model consultative, why? Because the unilateral model is dangerous, and the consensus model is also dangerous, but not for the same reason, it's dangerous because it takes too much time, it's way too inefficient, it's not possible to run an organization based on a consensus decision-making model, so we almost always default to a consultative decision-making model.

0:29:30.0 Tim: So that's just a little bit of background. That's a little context, this idea that psychological safety now gives everyone a vote, it's strange, but yet you can see the leap and the logic that people take to say, Okay, well, now I get to weigh in, I have a vote. Isn't that interesting?

0:29:51.5 Junior: Yeah, it has a lot to do with expectation setting, and that's the practical tip that I'll throw in here is don't leave it to people to try and figure out what model we're using tether, this is a consultative decision, I want your two cents, but at the end of the day, the decision-making power lies here with me or with this person or with this committee or whatever else, and so the bottom line is, psychological safety gives you voice, it does not change the decision-making authority, and people need to understand that it needs to be clear and just level set at the beginning to diffuse any weirdness that might exist when people think that they can come and vote on something that they can...

0:30:36.1 Tim: So Junior, just to go back over that distinction, so then psychological safety does, to some extent, it does democratize participation and influence, it is a leveling device, it is an equalizer on that side of things, but not on the decision-making itself, but in the process leading to the decision, yes. But that distinction is very important to understand, and as you said, the expectations need to be cleared, everyone on the team.

0:31:10.7 Junior: Exactly, is to tie it back into why some leaders may not want that, you can... Why, If you think that psychological safety is consensus decision-making and you're running an organization and you need to make decisions, you're not gonna want that, so you can see how they would move away from that and say, Not for me. So psychological safety is not consensus decision-making, it is also not unearned autonomy, that's the next point, and sometimes psychological safety is presented as a shift to universal and self-directed empowerment, so you talked about that one end of the spectrum where people are just doing whatever they choose, that is not what we're talking about, just because we have psychological safety, or we're saying that we're gonna be working on... It does not mean that all of a sudden you have more autonomy than you did yesterday, you don't have the right to, as you put it, be managed loosely, or not at all, you don't have a right to do things your own way without discussion or approval, you don't have pre-authorization, you may attain these things eventually through competence, not entitlement, so that's the key distinction in my mind, that autonomy is not an entitlement, it is something that you earn through performance and skill.

0:32:25.2 Tim: You can see how this bleeds into the discussion that we just had a minute ago about coding, it's very interesting, you have to earn autonomy on the basis of performance, on the basis of delivering results, autonomy is not free, it's not a human right, it's not an entitlement. Many people misunderstand this, and they think that they should be endowed with that from the beginning, and yet they have not performed, so we've gotta clarify this, you and I were talking just not long ago about this dog that you're training, this brand new dog, maybe you can... Just cite that as an example and help us understand what you're learning from that process, it's pretty labor-intensive, I know, but what have you learned about autonomy there? That's a good question. You're gonna give the dog unearned autonomy. No.

0:33:26.5 Junior: That's a problem. So yeah, everyone, I got a dog, my family got a little lab puppy last Monday, and I have been learning about autonomy as it comes to dog training, and one of the fundamental principles that I'm learning is that the dog should not have any unearned autonomy. The dog earns its autonomy through its performance, and it's so funny when you talk about in the context of dog training, but it just hit me like a ton of bricks, and it goes back to some of the previous points that it's in the dog's best interest to do that, the dog will have a more enjoyable life, the dog will have more fulfillment when the dog can work and earn the autonomy, if you just let that puppy out no leash ever and give it free reign pretty soon. Well, a few things happen, the puppy is ultimately not going to be very happy and you're going to be the one getting trained, not the puppy, so dogs and humans are different, of course they're different, but there are some parallels that had been stark to me as I've gone down this road of training, and I think that it's important to consider...

0:34:42.8 Junior: Autonomy is a very interesting thing. It is not an entitlement. And the more you focus on enabling the autonomy of other people through performance and accountability and responsibility, you have better outcomes, and I think it's just as true with humans as it is with pets, and it's something that I've been really doing on as of late, as if you really do care, you have the person's best interest at heart, and you will help them move along this spectrum as you would help others would help you move along this spectrum, and I would encourage each of us to think about this point for a moment and think about the achievements that have been most worthwhile to you, the achievements in your own life that you look back on and consider most valuable... Were they given to you? Was it fake? Was it a charade? Was it just a participation medal, or is it something that you went out and worked for and became better for, it's going to be the ladder every single time, and the satisfaction that you derive from the achievement is almost exactly proportional to its difficulty, in my opinion. And so, I know I'm straying a little bit here, but I think that this is a universal principle that we need to consider, and that unearned autonomy is a very, very dangerous thing when it comes to any domain, beat dog training or organizations with humans.

0:36:16.8 Tim: It's really interesting, Junior, you even said as we were talking, you said, I've learned something, I've learned that you either train the dog or the dog's gonna train you, there's a lot of truth to that in human relationships as well. One of the most regrettable patterns that I've seen in recent days... Well, it's not just a recent days, it's something that we've witnessed, I guess forever, is that you'll see some parents who indulge their children and then their children become conditioned, they learn very quickly, and then their children will act out or flatter their parents to get what they want... And then eventually, and ultimately, the children will despise the parents after all of that, and the parents will scratch their heads and drop their hands and say, Why does my child love me? Look at everything that I've done. Yeah, look at everything that you've done, so you didn't respect the principle that accountability leads to autonomy, you try to negotiate the Principal, Principal doesn't negotiate, and so you broke yourself against it, and now come the stinging consequences, that's something that I've seen lately that's been hard to see, in whatever setting you're in, I think we have to respect this principle, the relationship between autonomy and accountability.

0:37:51.9 Junior: We do... And it's a journey that we're all on. Each of us needs to get better at this, so psychological safety is not un-earned autonomy, next point it is also not political correctness, now let's dive into this and give us some color because it needs it... Some people think that psychological safety means that we have to comply with every unwritten and maybe even unknown norm of political correctness, and that is not what this is, however, it's important to qualify that and say that psychological safety does imply sensitivity for the views that people have the feelings that people have, the attributes that define people, however, it is not the vehicle for a political agenda does not describe a scribe to one, it doesn't attach itself to any policy, any person, any organization, it's a political... It's non-partisan and it's universal. That is a very important thing to understand. When we talk about psychological safety, some people will try to harness it to advance a political agenda, and that could happen across any piece of the political spectrum, but that is not what it is, it is an independent universal principle that could be changed or could be interpreted or positioned a certain way to advance politics, but that is not what we're talking about.

0:39:28.5 Junior: No.

0:39:29.7 Tim: It's not easy to Junior, because you think about the norms of political correctness are unstable and constantly shifting, and you cannot even begin to meet the expectations of every segment of society. It was why I said unknown, these unknown norms is the idea that someone understands what everyone else or some other person might think is correct or politically correct, we can't even define terms as it comes to political correctness, and there in lies the problem, there's no standard rule set, there's nothing objective. It's murky, it's amorphous. And it's ever-changing. Well, that's why I think psychological safety is so important because it represents a global platform for human interaction based on respect and permission, it's kind of supranational, it lives above all of the cultural contexts and the traditions, the customs, the more it lives above that and it gives us, this universal platform by which we can engage in a healthy and productive way that is so needed, so let's not... Let's not use it. Let's not weaponized it, to use it to advance our political lens, because that's not what it's about.

0:41:06.2 Junior: Where you get into trouble is down on the ground floor in the weeds, and so I liked that you said super national. I think it was the way... Way you put it, it's so macro, it's so high up that we're talking at the level of humanity, and the distinction that we often make is humanity versus human characteristics, and so we're above the characteristics when we're talking about this, we're at the level of humanity, and that is what we share. And so, because by virtue of your humanity comes the respect and the stage one inclusion safety that I owe you, that contrary to autonomy is an IT an entitlement. And I give that to you because you are human, and I have respect for you as an autonomous person, and your views, your feelings and your attributes, but by virtue of your humanity, not by virtue of what those views are, or those feelings are, or those attributes are.

0:42:11.4 Tim: That's pretty true. It's inherent.

0:42:13.5 Junior: It's inherent political correctness is not psychological safety. Next we have rhetorical reassurance, and this is the... This is the last one we're gonna cover today...

0:42:24.7 Tim: Is this the last one? Okay.

0:42:26.6 Junior: This is one of my favorites. You can see how people stretch logic to arrive, certain places that we're talking about today, and this is one of those places where some people think, Oh, psychological safety, that sounds like a wonderful thing, we would like to have that in our organization, everyone... We now have psychological safety, we are now a psychologically safe organization, you can come to us with any question, any concern, and it's safe now, and this happens, mind you, we've seen this many times, maybe you will have a big communication that goes out that tells everyone, Hey, this is important to us now, and it's safe, but you cannot just declare psychological safety into existence, can you...

0:43:12.9 Tim: No, this one goes beyond being amusing because it's actually destructive, think about it in an organizational setting where you have a, perhaps a senior leader or a CEO who goes on point and cause everybody together and has an all hands meeting and says, We're gonna have a Speak up culture, it starts now, and so we want all of your honest feedback and candid input. Oh, okay. What are you thinking if you're on the receiving end of that message... Okay, so we have a Speak up culture, man, I don't feel that. I don't feel any different. That's because nothing's changed. Nothing is different. So if nothing has changed in the conditions in the environment and the culture of the organization, and you're saying We have a Speak up culture, but I still feel fear and trepidation, then what are you asking me to do, you're asking me to muscle through the fear... Who's gonna do that? And by the way, it's a pretty disingenuous of you to ask, so either as a leader, you don't care... You're culturally tone deaf. Why would you do that? That's why we call it rhetorical reassurance, not real, it's rhetoric, that's not how humans behave in human collectives, they don't respond just to rhetoric when the evidence around them is to the contrary, they don't feel safe, there's not evidence that their acts of vulnerability will be rewarded and there's a lot of evidence that their acts of vulnerability will be punished, so what are they going to do, they're gonna go where the Pandas...

0:45:02.9 Tim: This is just dangerous. And it's irresponsible when we see leaders doing it, and yet we've seen many, many leaders in the past while do this very thing because they know how important it is to have a Speak-up culture, they know the consequences if they don't have a Speak-up culture, not least attrition, bleeding out their top talent, so there are ample reasons to have a Speak-up culture, and they want one... Well, let's go get one of those. Speak up culture. Yeah, let's go get one of those. As if you could kinda take it off the shelf, that's how some leaders treat this... It doesn't work that way.

0:45:46.8 Junior: It doesn't... Culture is a big ship, it requires a big rudder, and sometimes a lot of time, you can't just turn it on a dime, especially when it comes to psychological safety, because people need evidence, that's what they're looking for, they're looking at patterns, because we recognize the patterns and we'll look at the last 50 times that there has been an active vulnerability around us in the same environment, and we'll know the ratio, and we'll say, you know what, nine times out of 10, that's a bad idea. And so just because of the declaration, that doesn't erase all of the evidence that we have, you need to create a new body of evidence that reinforces what you're saying, and that takes time, so yes, we should acknowledge... We wanna move in this direction. We should acknowledge just how important this is to each other and to the organization, and then behave accordingly, we need those two things, so we'll set the expectations than he will behave accordingly and over long enough time period people will start to see... Okay, they mean it, or they don't mean it, and they'll come to the conclusion themselves, but they'll look at the evidence, not just the words.

0:46:56.5 Junior: We often say the single most important factor in culture formation is the modeling behavior of the leaders, and that's exactly where this fits... It's a modeling behavior. Not the rhetoric. So when we talk about psychological safety, we are not talking about rhetorical reassurance, so in... That was the last one. I wanna go through these just quickly again to recap, Psychological safety isn't a shield from accountability, niceness, calling, consensus decision-making under and autonomy. Political correctness or rhetorical reassurance. So keep that in mind. When you're talking about psychological safety, keep that in mind when you're talking about it with other people who may have a mistaken idea of what psychological safety is, each of us comes to the term psychological safety with different experiences, with different information. We're all coming at it from a slightly different angle. Each of us is learning and unpacking the concept and really understanding what it is, so take people where they are and help them understand some of the nuance that exists here, psychological safety, as Tim said in the beginning, is not soft. It's not something that we can easily achieve in just a few days or weeks or potentially even months, it's the quest of a lifetime to be able to do these things well, to create psychological safety around us, to have respect for the people around us, to give them the appropriate level of permission to help them along to hopefully reach great heights of achievement and performance, for satisfaction for them.

0:48:41.1 Junior: It's better for everyone. When we do it this way, the organization is better off the team, the leader and the individual... Everyone wins, if we can do these things well.

0:48:52.0 Tim: I agree Junior, well said.

0:48:54.5 Tim: I would just summarize and say, I think we can see that psychological safety is a demanding discipline, it may well be the supreme test of a leader to be able to nurture conditions of psychological safety and maintain those, so reflect on your roles as cultural architects and ask yourselves, if you're getting off or you're maybe going down the road of one of these misconceptions, because we've gone through seven, and you can see that there's plenty of opportunity for people to derail and misinterpret and mis-apply what psychological safety is all about. So hope this discussion provides some clarification for those who are on that journey of cultural transformation.

0:49:44.7 Junior: I hope so too. If this is your first podcast or your first exposure to some of our content, you may be asking, Well, why don't you talk more about psychological safety, what is... We've done that in a few other episodes and have an entire series for you to check out, so if you'd like to hear a little bit more about our opinion on what it is, go ahead and check the show notes, we will link them there, and you'll have ample resource will probably toss a couple other assets in there that will be helpful for you, so if you have any comments about today's episode, any questions, any suggestions for upcoming episodes? Don't hesitate to reach out. We're always looking for your feedback. And as always, thank you for your time, your attention. We know that you could spend both of those things different places, so the fact that you would spend them with us means a lot... It's a journey that we're all on. We can all get better and the world desperately needs this, so thank you for each of you, everything that you do and the attention that you give, and as always, we appreciate your likes, your reviews, and your shares.

0:50:49.8 Junior: Take care, everybody. And we'll see you next episode.

0:50:53.6 Producer: Hey culture by design listeners, you made it to the end of today's episode. Thank you again for listening and for making culture something that you do by design and not by default. If you've enjoyed today's episode please be so kind to leave us a review it helps us reach a wider audience and accomplish our mission of influencing the world for good at scale today's episode show notes and other relevant resources related to today's topic can be found at and with that we'll see you next episode.

Show Notes

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Episode Transcript

What’s a Rich Text element?

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