September 7, 2022
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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, 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.