It's a culture of rewarded vulnerability.
People can be their best selves at work when they feel safe to be their full selves. But being our full selves at work is stressful! That’s because it’s vulnerable. Too often employees are punished for things like making a mistake, challenging the status quo, or offering feedback. These are the catalysts for innovation. They should be rewarded, not punished.
The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™ is a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. These needs exist across demographics, psychographics, nations, and cultures.
Teams progress through these stages as they intentionally create cultures of rewarded vulnerability:
Can I be my authentic self?
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.
Can I grow?
Learner safety satisfies the basic human need to learn and grow. In this stage, fear is detached from mistakes, and mistakes are rewarded as part of the learning process. To qualify for learner safety you must engage in the learning process.
Can I create value?
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.
Can I 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.
This book is the first practical, hands-on guide that shows leaders how to build a culture of psychological safety in their organizations and create an environment where employees can be vulnerable. With reflection questions and key concept reviews, you’ll learn how to help your teams feel included, fully engaged, and encouraged to contribute their best efforts and ideas.
When we say that great culture starts with psychological safety, we’re not talking about perks and parties. We’re talking about:
An organization with no hidden problems or pockets of toxicity.
Teams that are high-performing, inclusive, and innovative.
Applications pouring in while top talent never wants to leave.
Employees exceed expectations and improve without coaxing.
A place where high levels of accountability drive success.
A place where everyone has a voice, and everyone is listened to.
As the foundation of culture, psychological safety is what makes this happen. No other cultural initiative or employee development program can succeed without first creating psychological safety. Research has shown it’s the #1 variable in team performance, the key ingredient for creating inclusive environments, and the heart of high-performing, innovative teams.
If psychological safety is the #1 variable in team performance then how do you improve it? Where do you start? What are the key actions you can take to increase the level of psychological safety in your environment? This guide has 120+ behaviors you can use to have a higher level of psychological safety. It is the companion to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™ book.
We’ve done a lot of talking, but we’re committed to providing actionable solutions, not just definitions.
Catch the vision & adopt shared terminology
Discover areas of high and low psychological safety.
Launch data-driven cultural change.
We define psychological safety as a culture of rewarded vulnerability. It has four stages, inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety. These stages in the psychological safety framework reflect the innate social needs that humans have, the need to belong, to grow, to work autonomously, and to have a voice.
Psychological safety at work is a culture where those needs are not only met, but prioritized. Leaders who operate under conditions of psychological safety understand that their employees are humans, not robots, with dynamic needs, diverse talent, and varying perspectives.
The psychological safety framework that Timothy R. Clark highlights in his book is the key to creating cultures of rewarded vulnerability (psychological safety) at work. Why? Because it is a needs-based, human-focused approach to the concept. As teams learn about the four stages of psychological safety, they learn to recognize these needs in their colleagues, and how to fill them. This psychological safety theory works in any industry, whether that’s in healthcare, in government, in academia, in manufacturing, or in tech.
The first stage of the four stages of psychological safety model is inclusion safety. Inclusion safety satisfies our innate need to connect with others, belong, and feel seen and known. Without inclusion safety, we lack the sense of community we need to be ourselves at work. With it, you can be confident in your place on your team to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo. Thus psychological safety and inclusion are entirely inseparable.
The second stage is learner safety. Learner safety satisfies our need to learn and grow without fear of punishment during the learning process. Learning involves risk. One of the most important things that you can do to build learner safety in your organization is to detach fear from mistakes. We should reward failure because it’s not failure; it’s progress.
The third stage of psychological safety is contributor safety. Contributor safety satisfies our need to create value autonomously, with associated levels of accountability. When we create contributor safety for others, we empower them with autonomy, guidance, and encouragement in exchange for effort and results.
The final and culminating stage of the four stages of psychological safety is challenger safety. Challenger safety satisfies our need to be candid about change. 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.
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?
If you want to transform your culture across its four stages, start with building a foundation of respect and permission on your teams. Without it, 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. People who are never given permission to create freely and work with autonomy get used to being told what to do. 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. 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.
Why is psychological safety important? Psychological safety is where great culture starts. What makes a culture “great?” When we say that great culture starts with psychological safety, we’re not talking about perks and parties. We’re talking about teams that are high-performing, inclusive, and innovative. An organization with no hidden problems or pockets of toxicity. Team members that are committed to, not compliant with, your culture. A place where everyone has a voice, and everyone is listened to. Employees that exceed expectations and improve without coaxing. Applications pour in while top talent never wants to leave. A place where high levels of accountability drive success. That’s psychological safety.
These are only a few of the benefits of psychological safety. As you embrace a psychological safety initiative on your teams, you’ll see exponential increases in meaningful interaction, employee engagement and wellbeing, bounceback time from mistakes, and constructive feedback. It will require intention and patience, since any and all cultural change takes time and commitment. But over time your teams will trust that psychological safety isn’t just an organizational fad or facade and that it’s instead here to stay.
A lack of psychological safety in the workplace is more common than you’d think. Disengaged employees flee well-paying positions all the time because the environment isn’t psychologically safe. The ones who stay are often result in fearful, silent employees. These employees work hard to fly under the radar, they show up at work and do their job, hoping to make few (if any) mistakes so they don’t get punished. They rarely innovate but are amazing at executing exactly what’s asked of them. They may be consistently micromanaged, and thus can’t work autonomously or be passionate about their role.
In any case, these are all symptoms of a toxic culture, examples of lack of psychological safety that could be preventing your teams from reaching their full potential. Are you unsure how your employees are feeling? Teach them about the four stages of psychological safety and ask them how they think your organization is doing. Be warned, though, that ignoring their suggestions would make the whole situation worse. Once they speak up and voice their concerns, you have to listen.
While some forms of punishing vulnerability are macroscopic and clearly against organizational policy, others are microscopic and almost indetectable. This is why it’s so easy for complacent cultures with fearful employees to allow their team members to suffer. In these organizations punished vulnerability becomes so routine and consistent that you assume it’s how it’s always been, and how it’ll always be.
Common instances of punished vulnerability include dismissing requests for help, reacting poorly to mistakes and failures, not taking “no” for an answer, asking someone to try something new without clear expectations, ignoring effort and expecting perfection, refusing to provide more resources for larger/new tasks, taking feedback poorly, and shutting down candor/challenges to the status quo.
Because your experiences with vulnerability are unique, you might not realize that your actions are punishing the vulnerabilities of your team members. You might not even know what their vulnerabilities are. But it’s not too late to change the way you interact, and it’s not too late to learn what makes the people around you feel vulnerable.
Crack yourself open and ask these questions: How do people react when I walk into a room? What kinds of barriers exist between me and my team members? Why? Do I naturally include, or exclude others? Do people feel safe to be their authentic selves around me? Are there patterns of unsuccessful interactions in my day-to-day life? What’s hard for my team members? Do I contribute to the difficulty?
Culture is built by humans interacting with other humans. In any organization, hierarchy dictates some of that culture. Leaders who focus on their status and leaders who try to hide their incompetence are two enemies of psychological safety. For leaders who feed on title and status, it threatens their power. For those lacking competence, it threatens their exposure.
Leaders who thrive on power aren’t going to want to share it with others. They will do everything in their power to lower the levels of inclusion safety and contributor safety on their teams, and want everyone to know who is boss. The less competent a leader is, the more likely they will be to exercise control through fear, intimidation, shame, or manipulation. But the more effective the leader, the more that leader will genuinely listen, collaborate effortlessly, and give credit to others instead of hoarding it for themself.
You’ll feel the difference in energy when you start rewarding, instead of punishing or ignoring, people’s vulnerabilities. It’s palpable. But rewarding the vulnerabilities of others is an active choice. Especially at the beginning of your cultural transformation journey (before psychological safety becomes a habit) deep introspection and careful interaction will be two of your best friends. Self-reflect often. Notice the unspoken norms of the space. Start open dialogues about your team’s vulnerabilities and talk about how those vulnerabilities are currently being punished. Then you can talk about what you’ll do to reward them instead.
Common instances of rewarded vulnerability include verbally acknowledging and actively respecting boundaries, expressing gratitude for candid emotions, giving people the space to process, making yourself available and interruptible, valuing honesty over correct answers, clarifying outcomes and expectations, and offering a way forward after a mistake.
Creating a culture of rewarded vulnerability requires both modeling and rewarding acts of vulnerability. It's not enough for you to reward acts of vulnerability that your colleagues are willing to commit, you actually have to be vulnerable yourself. Yes, you. Especially if you’re a leader with a lot of eyes on you. But even if you’re not, engaging in acts of vulnerability will help others see that they’re safe to follow suit.
In the context of the workplace, psychological safety and trust are synonymous. Once members of your team are confident that they belong and feel safe to make mistakes, create value, and be candid about change, that trust will spread to all other aspects of work life. Trust builds across an organization when psychological safety is met with consistency. Don’t expect perfect, shatterproof trust to immediately come from day one of your culture initiative. Your teams will need confidence in the safeties that psychological safety provides, and the culture of rewarded vulnerability that it creates, before they’ll really start trusting each other. But once they do? You’ll be ready to leave innovation-stifling norms behind and start creating value exponentially.
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