Stage 3: Contributor Safety

May 16, 2023

Contributor Safety is the 3rd stage in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety.

Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need to contribute and make a difference. When contributor safety is present, we feel safe to contribute as a full member of the team, using our skills and abilities to participate in the value-creation process. We lean in to what we’re doing with energy and enthusiasm. We have a natural desire to apply what we’ve learned to make a meaningful contribution. Why do we dislike micromanagers? Because they don’t give us the freedom and discretion to reach our potential. Why do we like empowering bosses? Because they encourage us and draw out our best efforts. 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.

In June, we dived deep in addressing the first two stages of psychological safety: Inclusion Safety and Learner Safety. This webinar held on July 13, 2020 covers the third part in the psychological safety series: Contributor Safety. Dr. Timothy R. Clark, a trained social scientist and the author of the book “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety” hosted the webinar and covered the following modules:

  1. Stage 3: Contributor Safety
  2. The Human Need to Matter
  3. The Coaching and Accountability Matrix
  4. The 3 Patterns of Deflection

1.Stage 3: Contributor Safety

In any group, psychological safety is the ultimate goal that allows teams and individuals to function well together. Being able to contribute within an organization is essential in establishing psychological safety. It is the third of four stages within the psychological safety diagram:

Contributor safety means individuals feel safe to contribute, to make a difference, and to participate in the value contribution process without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.  

Before delving deeper into contributor safety, it is important to address the social exchanges associated with each stage:

  1. Inclusion Safety: Inclusion in exchange for human status and the absence of harm
  2. Learner Safety: Encouragement to learn in exchange for engagement to learn
  3. Contributor Safety: Autonomy with guidance in exchange for results
  4. Challenger Safety: Air cover in exchange for candor


How do you give autonomy with guidance in exchange for results in this pandemic environment?

Because people are no longer co-located in the same environment, companies and industries have shifted from synchronous to a-synchronous work and from standardization to personalization; therefore, it is very difficult to micromanage people at the task level. Based on these constraints, a shift is necessary. We have no choice but to shift.

During the discussion, attendees suggested frequent check-ins as a solution to the current pandemic. This is key and also addressed in “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety”. Truly frequent short patterns of interaction are far superior to infrequent long patterns of communication.

Rule of Thumb:

Have at least 2 check-ins with a person per day.

(One in the morning, one in the afternoon)

As industries adjust to this new approach, it is essential to avoid boredom and burnout:

Staying in the zone of high engagement between boredom and burnout is no easy task.

2. The Human Need to Matter

CASE STUDY (15:45)

While in college, Dr. Clark played division one American football. As many know, football is a team sport, and as a part of the team, Dr. Clark felt contributor safety: He felt he was a member of the team. He felt safe to contribute, to make a difference, and to participate in the value-creation process.

He never expected what happened to him next: He got hurt. Dr. Clark sustained a pretty serious injury, and as a result, he had one of the most interesting social experiences that he’s ever had in his life:

As soon as Dr. Clark got hurt, he went to the hospital and received treatment. When he went back to football practice, he experienced a sudden and dramatic loss of both inclusion and contributor safety because he could no longer participate. At that time, his coach treated him like he was invisible, as if he was no longer a member of the team.

In the end, this experience led to Dr. Clark feeling both a loss of not only contributor safety but also inclusion safety. He learned first hand what neuroscientists are now telling us:

The brain processes social rejection in a similar way to physical pain.


How do you know that you matter in a social setting? (19:20)

One of the findings that came out of the MIT human dynamic’s lab is that when leaders talk to someone with both their body and their face towards others, there is a 30% of engagement level that occurs within the interaction.

How can I create contributor safety? (22:31)

  1. Explain the WHY.
  2. Assign the WHAT.
  3. Delegate the HOW.

3. The Coaching and Accounting Matrix


Coaching can be illustrated on a continuum that ranges from “tell” on one end to “ask” at the other:


If you are an effective leader, where do you spend most of your time on the coaching continuum and why? (24:25)

Spending more time on the “ask” end of the continuum allows individuals to see their own genius. Leaders cannot provide the maximum amount of guided autonomy unless they are using an inquiry-based coaching.

What is the danger of staying in the “tell” end of the coaching continuum? What happens if we are spending too much time at the “tell” end of the coaching continuum? (26:00)

The consequences are very far-reaching. As psychologists have discovered over and over again, if leaders spend too much time at the “tell” end, they breed dependency and learned helplessness. Leaders at this end actually decelerate and become a barrier to the learning and development of their people.


Accountability may be viewed as its own continuum:

Level 1: Task

Level 2: Process/Project

Level 3: Outcome


When you ask people what level of accountability they’d like to be coached, they say “outcome” level. Why does most of the human species want to be coached at the outcome level? (31:00)

Outcome accountability is naturally attractive to most human beings because it transfers ownership to the individual, and when ownership is transferred, that’s when we witness the best outcomes, experiences, and results. Therefore, there is a natural desire and aspiration for individuals to get to that place.


When you coach others:

  1. Transfer critical thinking by moving from the “tell” to the “ask” end of the coaching continuum.
  2. Transfer ownership through accountability.

When we put coaching and accountability together on a matrix, “The Coaching & Accountability Matrix” is formed:

On the horizontal axis, we have the coaching continuum that runs from “tell”, to “tell/ask” in the middle, and “ask” on the right side. On the vertical axis, we have the accountability continuum that ranges from “task” (level 1), “process” (level 2), and “outcome” (level 3). This diagram serves as a powerful diagnostic tool for leaders, coaches, and managers. Whatever the position, stewards can look at the people for whom they have responsibility and assess their mode of performance based on the two dimensions: coaching and accountability.

Leaders may assess individuals by asking the following questions:

  1. At what level of accountability does the individual currently perform (from “task”, to “process”, to “outcome”?
  2. Where on the coaching continuum can I coach this person based on their performance today? How far to the “ask” end of the continuum can I get?

After using these two questions to rank individuals, leaders can then plot members of their team/organization on the nine-box matrix. The ultimate goal is for leaders to get individuals up and to the right.


In coaching, we often get in the way as coaches. We derail the process. So what are the most common patterns of derailing the coaching process? (36:33)

Coaching Derailers

  • Adding too much value – always giving your two cents.
  • Giving your opinion too early.
  • Talking over people.
  • Finishing people’s sentences.
  • Answering your own questions.
  • Giving off poor body language.
  • Bringing up old mistakes.
  • Cutting people off.
  • Showing impatience.
  • Showing indifference.
  • Trying to coach at the wrong time.
  • Multi-tasking while you’re trying to coach.

4. The 3 Patterns of Deflection

There are three main patterns of deflection that humans use:

  1. Denial
  2. Blame
  3. Excuse


Why do we use patterns of deflection? (42:00)

Humans take patterns of deflection and make it an art form: We are very good at it, we are very practiced at it, and we’ve all used all three patterns. As coaches, we are responsible for detecting signs of deflection and then addressing them:

Good coaches are always watching for signs of deflection. What do you do when the individual you’re coaching engages in deflection? (44:20)

When coaches start to see patterns of deflection, responding with curiosity and compassion is not the easy thing to do, but it is the right thing to do. This is where leaders really win or lose in their coaching engagement.

Summary of Contributor Safety

  1. Human beings have an innate need to use their knowledge, skills, and experience to contribute and make a difference.
  2. When individuals contribute in a meaningful way, they develop self-efficacy, self-worth, and the capacity of independent high performance.


  1. Does recognition as a form of reward play a part in Contributor Safety? What kind of recognition is the most valuable kind? (52:44)
  2. Can a toxic work environment ever become psychologically safe?  (54:20)
  3. If I’m an individual contributor on a team, what can I do to improve the psychological safety of the team? (56:14)
  4. Any interesting books that you’ve been reading lately? (57:22)
  5. Are there national cultures where any psychological safety across the team is more difficult than another? Does the macro-level environment affect psychological safety? (58:11)

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