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Stage 4: Challenger Safety

May 16, 2023

Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better. It’s the support and confidence we need to ask questions such as, “Why do we do it this way?” “What if we tried this?” or “May I suggest a better way?” It allows us to feel safe to challenge the status quo without retaliation or the risk of damaging our personal standing or reputation. Challenger safety provides respect and permission to dissent and disagree when we think something needs to change and it's time to say so. It allows us to overcome the pressure to conform and gives us a license to innovate and be creative. As the highest level of psychological safety, it matches the increased vulnerability and personal risk associated with challenging the status quo. When we create challenger safety, we give air cover in exchange for candor. We thrive in environments that respect us and allow us to (1) feel included, (2) feel safe to learn, (3) feel safe to contribute, and (4) feel safe to challenge the status quo. If we can’t do these things, if it’s emotionally expensive, fear shuts us down. We’re not happy and we’re not reaching our potential. But when the environment nurtures psychological safety, there’s an explosion of confidence, engagement, and performance. Ask yourself if you feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo. Finally, ask yourself if you’re creating an environment where others can do these four things. In the process, look around and see others with respect and fresh amazement, find deeper communion in your relationships, and more happiness and satisfaction in your own life.

On July 27, 2020, Dr. Timothy R. Clark the author of “The 4 Stages of Psychology Safety” hosted this virtual webinar and covered five main points:

  1. The 4 Stages Framework
  2. Stage 4: Challenger Safety
  3. The Social Exchange
  4. Intellectual & Social Friction
  5. Three Global Best Practices

1. The 4 Stages Framework

The basic definition of Psychological Safety is that it’s not expensive to be yourself in any social setting. This means individuals feel safe to be socially, emotionally, economically, and politically themselves.


If it is expensive to be yourself in a social setting, what do human beings do? (6:17)

When humans enter a social setting and feel it is expensive to be themselves, they change: They change their behavior to manage personal risk and go into a mode of loss-prevention and self-preservation.

Feeling Psychological Safety means feeling four things:

  1. Included
  2. Safe to learn
  3. Safe to contribute
  4. Safe to challenge the status quo

Without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

In other words, Psychological Safety is a function of two dimensions:

Psychological Safety is a fusion of two dimensions: “Respect” and “Permission”. No matter the culture or demographics or industry, the sequence of Psychological Safety is universal beginning with Inclusion Safety and ending with Challenger Safety. The resulting pattern follows the sequence of natural human needs:

When Psychological Safety is looked at in more detail, we begin with “Exclusion” where respect and permission are very low. As we progress, individuals cross over what we call the “Inclusion Threshold” into stage 1: Inclusion Safety, the first stage of human need. Inclusion Safety is our foundation where we feel included, accepted, and a sense of belonging.  

Only after establishing this basis can we then progress into Learner Safety. Learner Safety means we are safe to engage in the learning process: We can ask questions, we can give and receive feedback, and we can even make mistakes without the fear of being punished.

After we learn, the natural human instinct need and desire is to use and to apply what we have learned. Making a difference and participating are all parts of the third stage of Psychological Safety: Contributor Safety. As illustrated in the image above, progression through the stages of Psychological Safety also elevate levels of respect and permission.

Following Contributor Safety, individuals cross over what we call the “Innovation Threshold” and move into the culminating stage of Challenger Safety. Challenger Safety is the final stage of Psychological Safety because our level of exposure and vulnerability are also at the highest level; therefore, we need the highest level of Psychological Safety to protect us if we are going to engage in challenging the status quo. Challenging the status quo is a scary thing to do, and often, we feel that doing so jeopardizes our standing and sometimes even our occupation in the world.

2. Stage 4: Challenger Safety


How do you know it’s safe to challenge the status quo? What indicators are you looking? (12:18)

Today, humans have naturally developed the capacity to sense if they have permission to challenge the status quo and whether or not they will be rewarded or punished for doing so. One form of challenging the status quo comes in the form of innovation. Innovation is a team sport and based on social interaction. Occasionally, innovation is a lightbulb moment of lone genius, but most often, it is not.

During the innovation process, things that are not normally connected through divergent, lateral, associative, and nonlinear thinking. The connection of new or existing knowledge with additional new or existing knowledge is called “Recombination”:

Most of the time, this recombination process fails, but occasionally, it does work, and that’s how we innovate. Thus we see that innovation at its very root is a social process.


What percent of employees across the board believe that innovation is part of their job? (15:48)

From several surveys based off of this question, the highest percent of employees who believe innovation is part of their job is 20 percent. This means that the vast majority of employees across the board don’t think that innovation is part of their jobs!

At Leader Factor, we believe that innovation is embedded in every job because really only two things occur in organizations:

  1. Execution
  2. Innovation

Execution is delivering value today. Innovation is figuring out how to deliver value tomorrow. In fact, there are two types of innovation:

  1. Incremental & Derivative
  2. Radical & Disruptive

The first type of innovation is incremental and derivative innovation. Incremental represents the small steps based on what organizations have already accomplished or are accomplishing, and derivative means that the innovation is built and based on what industries are already doing. The second type of innovation is radical and disruptive, and it covers the risky and cutting-edge substance.

In fact, 99 percent of the innovation that occurs in any organization falls under type one. All other innovation, the remaining one percent, is categorized under type two. This is the result of individuals taking themselves out of the innovation process because they are only thinking about type two innovation. As leaders, it is important for us to teach our members that innovation is an inclusive process that occurs as part of their job. Leaders have the responsibility of creating a culture that nurtures and encourages innovation within a group.

3. The Social Exchange

The social exchange means that within an organization, leaders provide air cover in exchange for candor.

“Air cover in exchange for candor” means that individuals or organizations are protected in their vulnerability when they challenge the status quo. This unwritten social exchange governs stage four: Challenger Safety, and it is entirely up to leaders to provide air cover for those around them.

4. Intellectual & Social Friction

The role of the leader in creating Challenger Safety can be demonstrated in the following illustration:

The leader’s job is to do two things simultaneously:

  1. Increase intellectual friction.
  2. Decrease social friction.

Increasing intellectual friction means having hard-hitting dialogue which includes debate, ideas colliding, and constructive dissent. Why is this necessary? It is only through intellectual friction that we solve problems, that we come up with solutions, and that we innovate. Innovation is based on intellectual friction, but here’s the problem: When intellectual friction goes up, social friction also has the tendency to go up as well.


When intellectual friction goes up, why does social friction also go up as well? (22:50)

If leaders allow social friction to keep rising as intellectual friction rises, the social friction will eventually block the intellectual friction and shut it down at some point. An effective leader, therefore, manages the balance of intellectual and social friction carefully. So how do leaders increase intellectual friction while decreasing social friction?

Leaders play a pivotal role in keeping the social friction down. It is up to them to patrol the boundaries of respect and to maintain respectful terms of engagement amongst their members. Doing so is challenging because humans are sensitive, emotional, and often give in to their ego. Thus it is the leader’s job to nourish and maintain Challenger Safety.

If done successfully and consistently, leaders promote a pattern of intellectual bravery. Intellectual bravery is a willingness to disagree, dissent, or challenge the status quo in a setting in which there is social, emotional, political, and economic risk. Although there will always remain a little risk, effective leaders manage and promote a safe environment for individuals to comfortably contribute and challenge the status quo.

5. Three Global Practices

The three global practices are what we have identified as methods of creating the ideal level of Psychological Safety within any environment:

  1. Formally Assign Dissent

Formally assigning dissent is not an entirely new concept in organizations. The following is a list of other names by which this concept is known:

  • White Hat Hacking (IT)
  • Tiger Teams (NASA)
  • Red Teams (Silicon Valley)
  • Pre-mortem & Mid-mortem
  • Loyal Opposition
  • Devil’s Advocate

Formally assigning dissent allows groups to identify and see their own flaws. By doing so, they are able to then innovate and improve their entire structure. Ultimately, the best practice is to assign team members to take a dissenting position from the beginning. Formally assigning dissent from the beginning allow individuals to trade personal risk for institutional permission.

  1. Apply the Disruption Question Sequence

There are two kinds of inquiry used in organizations: The first kind is explanatory inquiry. Explanatory inquiry explains cause and effect relationships. It identifies what is happening and what has happened in the past. The second kind of inquiry is exploratory inquiry. Exploratory inquiry is about the future and identifies what could be done, what is possible, and what should be explored.

Applying the disruption question sequence allows for inquiry in organizations and consists of three parts:

a. WHY?

[The “why” question activates the process.]

 Ie. “Why do we do it this way?”


 Ie. “What if we tried something else?”

c. HOW?

 Ie. “How might we do that?”

By asking these three questions, leaders signal to their group that there are no limitations or constraints in challenging the status quo. The disruption question sequence is the heart of innovation, and it fuels an organization’s ability to engage in divergent thinking and developing Challenger Safety. All in all, leaders are responsible for practicing and modeling this sequence.

  1. Emotionally Separate from the Status Quo

In order to emotionally separate from the status quo, the following is required of leaders:

  • Superb Emotional Intelligence
  • Controlled Ego
  • Humility
  • Capacity to Accommodate Dissent

Without these prerequisites, leaders are unable to conduct effective group discussions and activities that promote Challenger Safety.


What else can we do to provide the air cover and emotionally separate from the status quo? What else have you seen that works for you and your people? What are some other behaviors? (36:29)

Creating a culturally flat organization where people are not hiding behind title, position, or authority is the ultimate goal. Neutralizing positional power must be done by those in high positions: the leaders themselves! This is critical.


The stewardship of a leader in any organization is to be the cultural architect of their workplace(s). In order to form or re-form the culture in any institution, leaders must incorporate the following process:

  1. A pattern of thought or behavior in a person becomes a habit.
  2. A pattern of thought or behavior in a team then becomes a norm.
  3. A collection of norms in an organization becomes a culture.

When leaders follow this process and increase intellectual friction while decreasing social friction, Challenger Safety is attained, and organizations achieve Psychological Safety.


  1. How do we challenge emotionally immature leaders? (42:30)
  2. Who is the owner of promoting Psychological Safety in an organization? Is it HR? Is it the leaders? Is it the managers? (45:13)
  3. Creating a culturally flat organization is a great idea. What are your suggestions for building while working remote? How do you be a cultural architect while working remotely? The nuances are a little different from face-to-face. (47:25)
  4. How do you see this process in education? I believe teacher development is too limited. Since the leader is the lynch pin, I think it must begin training with administration and district leaders. (49:23)
  5. As a leader, how long do we wait for team members to come out of their comfort zones and be okay with making mistakes? People come to teams with their thought patterns and may not want to make mistakes even when the organization said they could try, experiment, and learn via mistakes. (54:58)

multiple covers of the behavior guide next to each other

Download 120+ Behaviors to Practice Psychological Safety

If psychological safety is the #1 variable in team performance, how do you improve it? This is a good place to start. With 120+ practical, specific behaviors, the Behavioral Guide will help you know what to start, what to stop, and how to infuse healthy interaction into your work life. It's the companion to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Book. Download it today.

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