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Why Psychological Safety is a Function of Respect and Permission

May 16, 2023

Psychological safety has the same ground rules for participation as a fifth-grade kickball game. You wouldn’t walk onto the field and start pitching without being invited onto the team, would you? Would you want to play if you were picked last, ignored, or left on the bench? These factors, permission to play the game and consistent respect throughout it, don’t determine whether you’ll win the game or even whether you’ll play well. 

They determine whether you play at all. 

With psychological safety, it’s no different. If you want to transform your culture across its four stages, you’ll start with building respect and permission on your teams. Without these two foundational pieces, any and all initiatives will crumble. They may never even start. So if it’s respect and permission that make participation in these initiatives possible, let’s start by defining the two:

Respect: The general level of regard and esteem we give each other. To respect someone is to value and appreciate them. 

Permission: How we allow others to both influence us and participate in what we’re doing. Permission requires both autonomy and accountability.

An excess of one can’t compensate for lack of the other. We know what happens if you have neither (hint: change can’t happen), but what happens if you lean too far to one side?

Finding the Balance

Psychological safety is a function of both respect and permission. One without the other creates a dangerous imbalance that hurts people in different ways. A serious deficiency in permission pushes a team into the gutter of paternalism, while a deficiency in respect can lead to exploitation. 

Give Permission to Avoid Paternalism

Back to the kickball analogy: How would you feel if your team constantly told you how much they valued you, let you practice with them, and then never let you on the field during a game? Or maybe they do let you compete, but you have to follow your coach's directions exactly or risk sitting on the bench. 

Paternalism combines high respect with low permission. People who are never given permission to create freely and work with autonomy get used to being told what to do. While this may come from a place of genuine concern, respect, and care, misguided paternalism keeps team members from actually playing the game. If a team member wants to learn, contribute, and innovate, it’s time to listen to, encourage, and empower that individual with permission to participate. 

Increase Respect to Avoid Exploitation

Exploitation combines high permission with low respect. People who exploit others take value from them without acknowledging their inherent value as a human. While extreme examples are monitored by legislation in many countries, micro-exploitation happens all the time. 

People who feel exploited find little joy in the value they create. They aren’t encouraged to feel proud of their work and they aren’t empowered to be accountable for their contributions. Without a foundation of respect, passion isn’t possible, innovation is stifled, and teams are stuck in execution mode. When a team knows that they are respected as a human first, and valued as an employee second, they will want to learn, improve, contribute, and make things better.

Building the Foundation

In the process of making respect and permission core parts of your company culture, you’re actually fostering inclusion safety on your teams. Once someone feels respected and knows they have permission to participate, they can start their value-creation journey across The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety:

1. Inclusion Safety: Can I be my authentic self?

2. Learner Safety: Can I grow?

3. Contributor Safety: Can I create value?

4. Challenger Safety: Can I be candid about change?

Ask yourself these questions. If you don’t feel like your team can be their authentic selves, if you can’t grow, or create value, or be candid about change, then that’s a good indicator that your organization has low levels of psychological safety. Building a foundation of respect and permission can change that.

Two ways to build respect on your team:

  1. Lead with gratitude. Before adding more to a team member’s plate, giving constructive feedback, or talking about next steps, take a moment to express gratitude for the contributions they have already made. It takes 20-seconds, but has huge dividends.
  2. Acknowledge contributions to culture, not just outcomes. Your teams are made up of diverse personalities and qualities, most of which add unique value to your organization. While it can be easy to compliment the deliverables, executions, and outcomes of your team members, can you also help them see the value they add as the human beings they are? For example, you may say something like: “I can tell that you care about the feelings of others on our team. The questions you asked in today’s meeting really helped everyone speak candidly, and that made a huge difference.”

Two ways to build permission on your team:

  1. Get people involved early. Whether this is early in their career in your organization or early in the process of a specific project, invite others to join you, and quickly. You may need to be more direct than you’d expect, but there’s power in simply saying “I’d like you to be involved, and here’s how you can help.” 
  2. Build outcome-based accountability. This gives your team members room to develop their own ideas and processes outside of the norms of your organization. Be clear about the outcomes you expect, explain parameters and limitations, and let them run with it. You may be surprised at the creativity of their solutions once they can color outside the lines.

As you give permission and offer respect intentionally, your team members will finally feel safe to start learning, contributing, and offering candid input and solutions. Why? Because it will be clear that they have made the team, and they will want to compete, improve, and succeed with you.

Cultural Transformation Through Psychological Safety

Cultural transformation, or any culture initiative for that matter, can’t happen without psychological safety. And psychological safety starts with extending respect for people’s inherent value and giving permission to participate in meaningful ways. Businesses that understand this function of respect and permission know that culture happens either by design, or by default, and they choose to be intentional about the culture they create. 

Because of the high levels of psychological safety in their organization, these kinds of cultures take DEI initiatives and run with them. It’s a place where high levels of accountability drive success. They have applications pouring in and top talent that never wants to leave. 

It’s innovative. It’s inclusive. And it’s high-performing. All because they understand the basic rules of kickball.

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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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