How to Promote Psychological Safety as an Early Adopter
Psychological safety is core business, but not everyone knows that yet. Even in organizations that are unfamiliar with the term, there are psychological safety practitioners that want to make it a key part of their culture. But why are organizations slow to adopt psychological safety as a training and assessment category?
How to Promote Psychological Safety as an Early Adopter
Psychological safety is core business, but not everyone knows that yet. Even in organizations that are unfamiliar with the term, there are psychological safety practitioners that want to make it a key part of their culture. But why are organizations slow to adopt psychological safety as a training and assessment category? In this post, we’ll talk about how psychological safety can be promoted in an organization as an early adopter. First, we’ll highlight some common barriers that early adopters face, and then give you some practical recommendations to help you get through to your stakeholders in the process.
Lack of Awareness
Awareness precedes adoption. Psychological safety is a relatively new concept that has only gained meaningful traction in the last five years or so. One reason organizations may be slow to adopt psychological safety is a lack of awareness. While they experience the consequences of psychological safety every day, many organizations still don’t know that those experiences of rewarded and punished vulnerability are actually psychological safety in action. While you, as an early practitioner, know psychological safety’s ins and outs like the back of your hand, if you step just one, two, or three people away from you, they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. For many organizations, putting psychological safety on the map is the first barrier, and when that’s the case, simplicity is our friend.
Recommendation: Be Deliberate When Defining
When introducing the concept to an individual or group for the first time, be deliberate with your definition. If it appears too academic or complicated, it may be a non-starter. The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety framework, outlined by Dr. Timothy R. Clark in his most recent book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, gives early adopters a simple and meaningful way to explain what psychological safety is. Instead of launching into an academic definition, explain that psychological safety gives team members the space to be human (make mistakes, bring up concerns, try new things, feel authentically included, and ask questions) without fear of harm. When team members feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn and grow, (3) safe to create value and work autonomously, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo, they work harder, happier, and better together.
Lack of Understanding
For organizations that have heard of the term psychological safety, but are still struggling to adopt it, the issue may be in their understanding. They may be aware of the concept but don’t yet have a complete understanding of what it is and what it isn't. Understanding what it isn’t, however, could be the crucial distinction that helps leaders in your organization see psychological safety as more than a gimmick or buzzword.
Psychological safety at work isn’t artificial niceness, coddling, rhetorical reassurance, or a shield from accountability. It’s about creating a safe space where employees can speak up, learn, make mistakes, and share ideas and opinions without fear of negative consequences. Stakeholders who believe that psychological safety is those things may dismiss psychological safety from the start because of the baggage that comes along with the implied definitions of the term. It's your responsibility to clarify, simplify, and distinguish where you can to help your people understand psychological safety at its core.
Recommendation: Know Your Stakeholders
When bringing the definition of psychological safety into the boardroom, you have to know who’s at the table. Maybe even more important, you have to know what they care about. Once you understand your stakeholders’ motivations in their spheres of influence, you can merge those with key outcomes of psychological safety. Some leaders are concerned about the performance of the organization, the rate of innovation, and the bottom line, while others are concerned about the people themselves and their experiences with inclusion and engagement at work.
If a bottom-line-driven person thinks psychological safety isn’t research-backed or performance-oriented, they’ll stop listening. But the inverse is also true. One of the ways to turn off the human-oriented person is to start talking about the way that this affects the bottom line when they want to talk about people. Acknowledge where your stakeholders are coming from and position psychological safety accordingly. Give them relevant information to help them solve their problems.
Lack of Trust in Staying-Power
Psychological safety isn’t a passing fad, but many people who don’t understand the concept, or how it applies to your organization, may see it that way. When you can connect creating psychological safety to the core business outcomes of your organization, it’s easier to start the adoption process. But sometimes, you need more than promises of future outcomes. You need to convince your stakeholders of the urgency of your current culture state.
Recommendation: Bring Data and Build the Case
In the 2020s, it’s hard to justify a large-scale intervention for cultural transformation without a data-driven and evidence-based approach. For stakeholders who are skeptical about the long-term effects of psychological safety in your organization, bring them undeniable evidence of real intervention. How? Quantitative and qualitative data.
Sure, a single psychological safety line item on an engagement survey can hint at the need for psychological safety intervention, and that’s better than nothing. But a psychological safety assessment, like The 4 Stages Culture Diagnostic, one that focuses entirely on measuring the levels of psychological safety in your organization with quantitative and qualitative data, is much more likely to turn heads. Not only that, but it gives your organization a baseline to measure against in the future. Now you understand where you are and why you’re there. As you define the future state, you can then put an action plan in place. You’ll be able to show exactly what you need to work on.
Resistance to Change
Some leaders aren’t excited about psychological safety, either because of the perceived effort, allocation of resources, and stress that a change initiative could take, or because they perceive it as a threat. For those that perceive it as a threat to their title, status, and power, be aware that they may try to fight you along the way.
For leaders that worry about the cost of change, have empathy. New psychological safety training, psychological safety assessments and cultural infrastructure require time, money, and attention, if psychological safety appears to be resource-heavy, they may shy away. These leaders need to feel your pain, understand the stakes at hand, and hear your confidence in psychological safety’s ability to produce the dream outcomes you’re promising.
Recommendation: Don't Muscle or Smuggle the Change
There are two classic change management failure patterns, muscling and smuggling. When we try to muscle change, we're trying to force it through. But the result is an organization on a compliance track, not a commitment track, that hasn’t adopted psychological safety individually. The other classic failure pattern is smuggling. When you smuggle your change initiative, you try to hide it and minimize it. So why do people smuggle change? What are they worried about?
They're worried about an explosion of resistance, and so they try to frame the initiative as something that it isn't. But what does that do? It simply prolongs the inevitable. Psychological safety early adopters have to square up to the reality of what adopting psychological safety really requires, what commitment requires, and what implementation requires. There's no shortcut.
But if you do it right, if you create and build and enlist a coalition from the beginning, if you increase awareness and understanding of psychological safety, how it works, what it does, and the outcomes that it leads to, then you can have a successful experience with psychological safety.
An early adopter promoting psychological safety in an organization may face barriers such as a lack of awareness, a lack of understanding, a lack of trust in psychological safety’s staying power, and general resistance to change. To overcome these barriers, we recommend being deliberate when defining psychological safety, knowing your stakeholders, bringing data to build the case, and acknowledging stakeholders’ concerns.
Psychological safety is about creating a safe space for employees to speak up, learn, make mistakes, and share ideas and opinions without fear of negative consequences. By taking a data-driven and evidence-based approach, early practitioners can make psychological safety a key part of their organizational culture, leading to increased productivity, innovation, engagement, and overall well-being of employees.