Contributor Safety: Four Models to Shape Your Thinking
There’s a reason why we’ve automated so many monotonous workplace tasks as technology has advanced: Humans crave fulfillment, and work is meaningful when we can create value, not just complete tasks. Contributor safety, the third stage in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™, protects our innate desire to do just that.
Sometimes we get in our own way. Sometimes we get in each others' way.
If you’re a leader who’s not sure if you’re providing your teams with the contributor safety they crave, or if you’re an individual looking for more autonomy and accountability in your role, keep reading. These models are meant to encourage you to find the gap between where you are, and where you can be with psychological safety.
What is Contributor Safety?
This may be a completely new term for some of you, so let’s define it first: Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need to make a difference and offer meaningful contributions. When we create contributor safety for others we empower them with autonomy, guidance, and encouragement in exchange for effort and results.
When you have contributor safety in your organization your team thrives under outcome accountability. Roles are clearly defined, but people are also encouraged to think outside of their roles. Small wins are celebrated, and everyone gets a chance to think critically.
When you don’t have contributor safety, chaos ensues. Autonomy might be given with little to no guidance, or team members may feel like micromanaged benchwarmers. Your teams could be stuck in the mundane routine of task execution, unengaged, and unhappy with their contributions to your organization. On the flip side, they may have all the autonomy in the world, but not enough direction to make anything worthwhile happen.
Am I the Problem?
Your suspicions that your team has low levels of contributor safety are most likely accurate. What’s hard is identifying who’s causing the problem. Leaders, err on the side of introspection before blame. Ask yourself these questions, and don’t be afraid to be brutally honest:
If you find that you struggle to let everyone participate, focus your efforts on including everyone in meaningful contribution. Do you tend to keep your talents to yourself? Make an effort to share them. Are you willing to keep quiet in a meeting that’s going well, even if that means that no one hears your voice? If not, take steps to become a better listener.
How Involved Am I?
One of the hardest components of contributor safety is knowing when to stop talking and when to intervene. For leaders especially, managing the contributions of others is a delicate dance on the tightrope of autonomy. Too much autonomy with little guidance will leave your team with more questions than they know what to do with. Too much guidance with zero autonomy will turn your teams into robots with no space to innovate. We’ll call the former the Absentee Landlord, and the latter the Micromanager.
Not all micromanagers have evil intentions. Many are kind, benevolent, involved leaders who don’t want their teams to feel abandoned, who worry about wasting time, and who know they have a lot to offer in terms of expertise. They may hold back from giving full responsibility without realizing that limiting autonomy takes a lot of the fun and fulfillment out of work. They may feel heavy responsibility for the outcomes of certain tasks and processes. They may not want to introduce the variance and volatility of someone else having more influence over those outcomes.
While they may have their team’s best interest at heart, micromanagers suffocate the potential of their motivated, talented team members when they withhold autonomy.
The Absentee Landlord
What happens when the pendulum swings too far the other way? Some leaders put full trust in their teams and give them complete autonomy. They assume that handing over all of the responsibility will yield perfect outcomes every time. In theory, perfect autonomy sounds amazing. But imperfect processes, less-than-sufficient communication, and human error make guidance a need, not just a nice-to-have.
Even highly motivated, talented people need clear expectations and guidance. While it might sound revolutionary to be completely hands-off, and while you might trust your team, it never hurts to check in and give support and feedback along the way.
Do I Tell More Than I Ask?
Being an advocate for contributor safety isn’t just about managing other’s contributions on your team, you have to keep a close eye on your contributions too. Yes, there’s a high possibility that (as a leader) you’re contributing too much to things that you really need to let go.
We know, it’s hard to let go.
But when you’re willing to ask more than you tell, you transfer those core critical thinking skills to your team instead of keeping them all for yourself. Letting go of the reins means that you transfer not only the execution aspects of the job, but also the fulfilling parts of the work at hand: outcomes, success, discovery, and deliverables can be transferred too.
Lead Through Advocacy
When we lead through advocacy, we choose to tell more than we ask. We’re more concerned with being the center of attention than we are on centering our attention on questions, concerns, and solutions. We’re inclined to solve problems for others and believe that it’ll be faster than letting them solve it themselves.
Lead Through Discovery
While the initial execution may be faster, think about how much time you’ll save in the long run when you teach your team members to be aggressive self-starters, critical thinkers, and autonomous value-creators. That’s what happens when you lead through questions instead of answers.
Is My Team Ready For More Accountability?
In any team, individuals work under three different levels of accountability–task, process, and outcome. Of course, the levels aren’t usually that discrete and usually happen in a spectrum. But one thing is for sure: If your teams want autonomy, they have to learn to love accountability. Unearned autonomy with no accountability can lead to disorder, discomfort, and dissatisfying results. On the other hand, too much accountability with no autonomy can lead to micromanaging, hand-holding, and paternalism.
Tasks are the basic, fundamental units of work. They are singular and simple in nature and have a predictable pattern and outcome. All outcomes and processes are made up of individual tasks that need to get done by someone, so they can’t be avoided. But someone who operates under task-level accountability needs to be checked on often, closely monitored, and heavily mentored.
Once a team member shows that they can complete tasks sufficiently, they graduate to process-level accountability. This happens when tasks can be strung together in a predictable, consistent process where the person has some structural leeway, but still knows what needs to get done, and when. Sure, this grants a level of freedom that task-level accountability doesn’t, but process-level accountability doesn’t create much space for innovation, creativity, or challenging the way things are done.
The third level of accountability is where good employees can become influential innovators: outcome-level accountability. Here, how we get our work done, how we accomplish our tasks, and how we manage projects and processes don’t matter so much. It’s all about the outcome.
This kind of autonomy and trust, when coupled with psychological safety, gives team members permission to push boundaries. They’ll feel a strong sense of responsibility for the projects and deliverables that are assigned to them. They’ll be motivated to make things better, not because they were asked to, but because they want to.
Where do your teams execute currently? Are there things that you can do to provide more autonomy (with guidance) to move your people up the ladder of accountability? What can you do to provide more opportunities for fulfilling work for your teams?
Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need to make a difference and offer meaningful contributions. The more we contribute, the more confidence and competence we develop. When we create contributor safety for others, we empower them with autonomy, guidance, and encouragement in exchange for effort and results. This isn’t hand-holding or micromanaging. This autonomy is earned through progressing levels of accountability until mastery is achieved when expected outcomes are articulated.