The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

May 19, 2023

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety framework acknowledges that we’re humans first and employees second. The framework follows a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. These needs exist across demographics, psychographics, nations, and cultures. 

Just like humans need water, food, and shelter to survive, teams that want to innovate need four things in order to thrive: they need to feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo. Teams progress through these stages as they intentionally create cultures of rewarded vulnerability across The 4 Stages™: 

Inclusion Safety: Can I Be My Authentic Self?

Learner Safety: Can I Grow?

Contributor Safety: Can I Create Value?

Challenger Safety: Can I Be Candid About Change?

Stage 1: Inclusion Safety

Can you be your authentic self on your team? Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. In this stage worth precedes worthiness. All you have to do to qualify for inclusion safety is be human and harmless. 

When you have inclusion safety you can bring your whole self to work. When you don’t, superiority and hierarchy dominate your company culture. Barriers are maintained and reinforced. You might be officially on a team, but you won’t feel part of the team without inclusion safety. 

Interaction is Not Connection

Just because you interact with your colleagues doesn’t mean that you will automatically have meaningful connections with them. If your interactions are primarily negative (or neutral or inconsistent) then you haven’t created an environment where real connection can happen. Once your colleagues feel that they can be their full selves around you, you’ll stop interacting and start connecting.

Bonding vs Bridging

It’s easy to bond with people that we naturally connect with. We have the common ground, shared experiences, and similar perspectives that make interaction easy and enjoyable. But what happens when you interact with people that you don’t share a natural affinity with? How do you connect meaningfully with them? How do you bond?

You have to engage in what we call bridging behavior. Bridging behavior attempts to close the gap between who we are, and who they are. As you engage in more and more bridging behaviors and choose inclusivity, you’ll see evidence that those behaviors work. You’ll feel more connected to your colleagues. As you immerse yourself in inclusivity, you’ll see that gap closing and it will be easier to bond.

Bridging Behaviors

  • “Ask for my opinion”
  • “Bring me into a group that I don’t think I belong to”
  • “Give me more responsibility”
  • “Express gratitude for my contributions”
  • “Talk about me before we talk about work”
  • “Start with questions, not statements”
  • “Talk to me, not at me”

Crack yourself open and ask these questions:

  • Do you feel superior to other people? If so, why?
  • What conscious bias do you have?
  • Is the principle of inclusion convenient or inconvenient for you?
  • What individual or group are you having a hard time including even if they’re doing you no harm? Why? 

Stage 2: Learner Safety

Do you have the space to grow? Learning and growing is a fundamental need that needs to be satisfied in order for innovation to flourish in an organization. In this stage, fear is detached from mistakes, and mistakes are rewarded as part of the learning process. But to qualify for learner safety you have to engage in the learning process, it won’t happen organically. 

When you have learner safety in your organization learning is encouraged and celebrated. Learners are protected. When you don’t, mistakes are hidden and punished. Your team executes more than they innovate.

Thinking Brain and Feeling Brain

Learning is both intellectual and emotional. We all bring some level of inhibition and anxiety to the learning process. We all have insecurities. Who hasn’t hesitated to raise their hand to ask a question in a group setting for fear of embarrassment? Learning is both intellectual and emotional. It’s an interplay of the head and the heart.

Learning Agility

When it comes to learning, the goal for all organizations is the same: to achieve learning agility. Learning agility is the ability to learn at or above the speed of change. If learning agility is less than the speed of change, businesses, organizations, and individuals fall behind, become stagnant, and become irrelevant. Our job is to help our colleagues learn when they’re not in a formal structured learning environment. 

Detach Fear From Mistakes

Learning involves risk. One of the most important things that you can do to build learner safety is to create an environment in which you detach fear from mistakes. You break them apart so that fear is no longer naturally associated with mistakes. If you are really trying, there should be no stigma, no shame, and no embarrassment associated with mistakes or failure. They are simply stepping-stones. We should reward failure because it’s not failure; it’s progress.

Crack yourself open and ask these questions:

  • When you start working with new people, do you judge their aptitude immediately or do you suppress that impulse?
  • Do you learn as much or more from your failures as your successes?
  • Does your team punish failure? Do you punish failure?
  • Do you encourage curiosity or choke it?

Stage 3: Contributor Safety

Can you create value for your team? 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 encouraged to think outside of their roles. Small wins are celebrated. When you don’t, autonomy is given with little to no guidance, and team members may feel like benchwarmers. 

Autonomy and Accountability

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. 

The Three Levels of Accountability

In any team, individuals may work under three different levels of accountability–task, process, and outcome. Those who work at task-level accountability need to be walked through every aspect of the job. They have minimal amounts of responsibility and will likely feel minimal amounts of accountability as a result. But if we consistently perform well at one level, the organization is inclined to let us move upward. 

Once a team member shows that they can complete tasks sufficiently, they graduate to process-level accountability: tasks can be strung together in a predictable, consistent process and they will still know what to do. 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.

Crack yourself open and ask these questions:

  • What’s your tell-to-ask ratio?
  • Have you ever withheld contributor safety from someone who had earned it?
  • Can you be genuinely happy for the success of others?
  • Have you ever given somebody contributor safety too fast? What happened?

Stage 4: Challenger Safety

Do you feel like you can be candid about change? Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better. When we create challenger safety, we give air cover (protection) in exchange for candor. 

Challenger safety gives team members a voice to speak up when there is an opportunity to improve. People can disagree productively. When you don’t have challenger safety teams fall silent and people are punished for their bravery and candor. 

Managing and Harnessing Friction

Collaboration is human collision, and unsurprisingly, causes friction. 

In these moments of collision, a leader’s task is to simultaneously increase intellectual friction and decrease social friction. High intellectual friction lets your team harness creative abrasion and constructive dissent and arrive at real innovation. 

Oftentimes, social friction stands in your way and threatens to derail innovative conversations. ‍Social friction separates and stratifies. It encourages defensive, divisive, and disengaged behavior. In atmospheres with high social friction, the problem keeps growing while a solution is nowhere in sight. Intellectual friction, on the other hand, is the bones of innovation. 

Keep in mind that social friction is a natural symptom of vulnerability and shouldn’t be punished when it occurs. The leader’s job is to facilitate human collision on their teams and harness it into intellectual friction, collaboration, and eventually, innovation. You may have other industry or organization-specific nuances that will influence this process on your team. Regardless of where you work, decreasing social friction, and thus increasing psychological safety, will improve the quality of your interactions across every department.

3 Ways to Decrease Social Friction on Your Team

Call it when you see it.

Your team needs this shared terminology in order to face friction intentionally. Giving a name to the uncomfortable feeling in the room can do wonders for diffusing it. When your colleagues hear your verbal commitment to resolving moments of social friction they'll catch the vision and follow suit. 

Assign dissent.

Social friction increases when disagreement feels personal. In reality, most people disagree in good faith, not for the sake of attack. If your team can’t make the distinction between disagreement for the common good and malicious disagreement, assign the task of dissent. Take away the urge to make assumptions about the intent of the feedback-giver. Encourage your team to explore negative feedback through an impartial lens.

Break before breakdowns.

When your team gets tired and interpersonal dynamics break down, social friction can explode. You don't have to power through! Take a break when you see this happen. At the end of the day, we're not robots in a factory, we're humans at work. Before you break, make sure your team is aware that high social friction is causing the tension, and that you will return when levels have decreased. 

3 Ways to Increase Intellectual Friction on Your Team

Build on the ideas of others.

Your team members may keep quiet because they worry they'll step on toes with their suggestions. This doesn't mean they don't want to make the improvements, it means they lack the perceived permission to do so. Teach your team to disassemble and rebuild things that they didn’t create. Ask them to think outside of their role. 

Define the scope.

Meetings are easily derailed by minor details and major reframes, which, most of the time, weren't the purpose of the meeting in the first place. To avoid this, clearly communicate what can be dismantled, what is being discussed, what should be considered, and what parameters can't budge. 

Mandate a no-interruption rule.

Even if the interruptions aren't made in spite (after all, interruption can be an indicator of a highly-engaging discussion), this rule will empower your team members with the respect and permission they need to be effective collaborators. Your discussions will feel like intellectual friction when they are governed by healthy communication. If they start to feel like arguments, social friction is at play.

Crack yourself open and ask these questions:

  • When was the last time you challenged the status quo in your organization?
  • Are questions welcome on your team?
  • Do you feel the risk of ridicule on your team?
  • Do you invite others to disagree with you?
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.

Download the Guide