What is Psychological Safety?

The short answer? It's a culture of rewarded vulnerability. The long answer? 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 four stages as they intentionally create cultures of rewarded vulnerability.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™ by Timothy R. Clark

This book is the first practical, hands-on guide that shows leaders how to build a culture of psychological safety.

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120+ Ways to Immediately Improve Psychological Safety

Use the practical and actionable behaviors in this guide to create psychological safety across its four stages.

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The Ladder of Vulnerability Self-Assessment

Increase empathy, self-awareness, and team effectiveness when you change the conversation around vulnerability at work.

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What are psychological safety’s four stages?

A psychologically safe culture isn’t built all at once. You can’t expect someone who doesn’t feel included on their team to challenge that team’s groupthink. And how could you expect someone who’s afraid to make mistakes to take risks and innovate? You can’t, which is why psychological safety is built in four progressive stages: 1) Inclusion safety, 2) Learner Safety. 3) Contributor Safety and 4) Challenger Safety

inclusion safety icon can I be my authentic self.learner safety icon - can I grow?
Contributor safety icon - can I add value
challenger safety icon - can I be candid about change


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.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Model and Graph

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™.

Cover of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Book

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™

Written by organizational psychologist Dr. Timothy R. Clark, 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.

Stage 1: Inclusion Safety

Inclusion safety satisfies our basic human need to connect and belong.

How Do I Help Others Feel Included

Inclusion safety is the foundation of any culture of belonging. As the first stage of psychological safety, it activates the power of diversity and encourages team members to embrace what makes them, them.

Although your title might officially put you on a team, you won’t feel part of the team without a foundation of inclusion safety. And if you don’t feel like you belong, why would you risk making a mistake or challenging the status quo? Why would you step outside of your comfort zone, volunteer to take on more responsibility, or be vulnerable with your team? You wouldn’t. That’s why inclusion safety is Stage One, the foundational stage of psychological safety.

Stage 2: Learner Safety

Learner safety satisfies our basic human need to learn and grow.

How Do I Help Others Grow?

Learner safety is crucial to helping your people become their best selves. As the second stage of psychological safety, it encourages team members to engage in all aspects of the learning process without fear of being rejected or neglected.

When we have learner safety we feel safe as we ask questions, give and receive feedback, experiment, and make mistakes. Why? Because learning involves risk. When you create a culture where you detach fear from mistakes, you give team members permission to overcome setbacks and find solutions without fear of failure. In fact, in an ideal learner safety culture, mistakes will be rewarded, not just tolerated.

Stage 3: Contributor Safety

Contributor safety satisfies our basic human need to contribute and make a difference.

How Do I Help Others Contribute Meaningfully?

Contributor safety marks the beginning of solid, self-directed performance. With contributor safety, we provide autonomy in exchange for performance. We will empower you to deliver results.

The more we contribute, the more confidence and competence we develop. When we create contributor safety for others, we empower them with autonomy, guidance, and encouragement in exchange for effort and results. Without this autonomy, how can you expect to foster the passion and responsibility that engaged employees crave and organizations need in order to innovate?

Stage 4: Challenger Safety

Challenger safety satisfies our basic human need to make things better.

How Do I Encourage Others to Challenge the Status Quo?

Challenger safety is the culminating stage of The 4 Stages. It empowers teams with a voice and allows them to challenge the status quo and innovate.

When we give people challenger safety, we offer them air cover in exchange for candor.Your people aren’t going to speak up until they know it’s safe to do so. Before you ask your teams to be brave, make sure that you’ve created an environment that’s ready for their bravery.

Put Psychological Safety Into Practice

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.

Download it Today
Cover of The 4 Stages Behavioral Guide

Why does psychological safety matter?

Psychological safety is where great culture starts. 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.

Chances are, you’re here for one of two reasons: you don’t know if you have psychological safety on your team, or you’re pretty positive you don’t. Turns out, it’s not a concept that stays locked in your office supply closet and pulled out during damage control. And it’s definitely not just a theoretical concept meant for academic debate. It’s an integral part of your everyday life.

While psychological safety research is a fairly new field of study, social scientists have been studying its effects under a variety of terms for decades. We’ve learned from Google’s Project Aristotle and Amy Edmondson's notable contributions to the world of teams and organizational learning, to Soren Kierkegaard, Abraham Maslow, Douglas McGregor, and William Khan, among others. We're finding that the importance of psychological safety in the workplace can't be ignored. In fact, psychological safety.

Improves Cultural Clarity

A psychologically safe organization has no hidden problems or pockets of toxicity.

Increases Retention

When psychological safety is consistent, applications pour in while top talent never wants to leave.

Improves Inclusion

A psychologically safe organization is a place where everyone has a voice and is listened to.

Increases Accountability

There’s no micromanaging on psychologically safe teams. High levels of accountability drive success.

Improves Performance

When they have psychological safety, teams that are effective, high-performing and engaged.

Increases Innovation

When psychological safety is consistent, applications pour in while top talent never wants to leave.

As the foundation of culture, psychological safety will transform your organization and empower your team members to be inclusive and innovative in their everyday interactions. But psychological safety, just like culture, is delicate and dynamic. It’s perishable, not permanent. It requires intention too.

Because unfortunately, psychological safety doesn’t just happen, so it can’t be a one-and-done initiative or a back-burner idea. It should be at the forefront of your strategy. It has to be monitored and measured. It has to be planned out, revisited, and consistently improved.

How do I build psychological safety at work?

Creating psychological safety in the workplace is no easy task. In fact, learning how to create psychological safety as a leader, or how to promote psychological safety if you aren’t a leader, requires dedication, effort, and determination. Everyone has a role to play in this process.

Whether you’re a C-suite executive or making a difference on the ground floor, you contribute to the levels of psychological safety in your workplace environment. This means you can make your culture better, and you can make it worse. Understanding that you’re an intrinsic part of interaction, processes, and outcomes at work is key to promoting psychological safety.

Psychological safety in teams starts with a culture of rewarded vulnerability. Your team members, colleagues, and even your superiors need to feel safe to be their full selves at work. They need to know that they can do human things, like make mistakes, try something new, and utterly fail while innovating without being punished, shamed, or mocked. This kind of environment and culture can only be created through intentional and consistent behavior and action. Here are 4 ways to build psychological safety on your teams:

Teach inclusion as human need and right.

Inclusion isn’t something we earn; it’s something we’re owed. Teach your team members to approach each other with the understanding that we are entitled to the human need to be included.

Dedicate time and resources to learning.

If you talk about the importance of learning but don’t dedicate any time or resources to it, it’s really not a priority. Formally allocate consistent budget and dedicate time to learning.

Let them do it their way.

Human beings want to make a difference in their own unique way. Allow your team members the independence to approach things as they see fit. Micromanaging them, you will extinguish their motivation to contribute.

Weigh in last.

Speaking first when you hold positional power softly censors your team. Listen carefully, acknowledge the contributions of others, and then register your point of view.

Psychological Safety Frequently Asked Questions

How do I make someone feel psychological safe?

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.

What comes first, trust or psychological safety?

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.

What does a lack of psychological safety look like?

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?

What destroys psychological safety?

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.

What are the elements of psychological safety?

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.

Put Psychological Safety Into Practice

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.

Download it Today
Cover of The 4 Stages Behavioral Guide