The Ladder of Vulnerability™

A different way to view vulnerability at work.

Increase empathy, self-awareness, and team effectiveness when you change the conversation around vulnerability at work. Create a shared language and  get actionable insight through your ladder of vulnerability.


Data-points collected


Participants to date

Ladder of vulnerability cover

What is The Ladder of Vulnerability?

The Ladder of Vulnerability is a self-assessment meant to change how we view and talk about vulnerability at work.  What’s vulnerable for you might be no big deal for someone else, and what’s easy for you may be debilitatingly difficult for them. Using The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™, we’ve identified increasing levels of personal exposure and risk associated with each stage. As team members climb that ladder, they need those acts of vulnerability to be rewarded to feel psychologically safe.

Who is it for?

Human interaction is inherently vulnerable experience. We step out of vulnerability to feel protected, and into it to feel connected. This self-assessment will help you feel more connected to your team, so if you’re human, The Ladder of Vulnerability is for you.

How do I use it?

We’d recommend reading the guide and taking the self-assessment. Once you get your results, invite your team to do the same. Compare your ladders and start the conversation around vulnerability in your workplace.

Download The Ladder of Vulnerability

Thank you! Your download is on it's way!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Ladder of vulnerability cover small

Measuring Vulnerability

Measuring Vulnerability at Work

Our team set out to measure vulnerability at work by developing a comprehensive list of acts of vulnerability. We identified over 150 specific behaviors, including things like asking a question, pointing out a mistake, setting a boundary, apologizing, communicating bad news, saying no, admitting an error, or speaking with an accent. We then narrowed the list to 20 of the most common forms to account for the majority of vulnerable behaviors in the workplace. Applying an 11-point scale, we surveyed 2,025 individuals from 834 organizations located throughout the world to measure the relative level of risk associated with each of the 20 behaviors, by asking this question: “Using a scale from 0-to-10 where 0 means no personal risk and 10 means extremely high personal risk, please rate the level of personal risk you feel at work when you engage in each of the following activities.” The results reveal a fascinating empirical pattern in the way people experience vulnerability at work.

Not All Acts of Vulnerability Are Created Equal

The way team members perceive different vulnerable behaviors depends largely on whether those behaviors have been consistently rewarded or punished. Ultimately, rewarded vulnerability becomes the central mechanism for creating psychological safety and the key to a healthy and high performing culture.Variation at the respondent level is significant as reflected in an overall average score of 4.1 and a standard deviation of 2.6. This high level of data dispersion shows that people both perceive and experience vulnerability differently. Yet the mean scores reveal an overall hierarchy of interpersonal risk in professional life, with average scores ranging from 5.6, at the high end, to 2.7 at the low end. Here are the mean scores, listed highest to lowest, for the 20 acts of vulnerability:

Vulnerability Across The 4 Stages

Select a Stage

Inclusion Safety Ladder Data

inclusion safety data
inclusion safety icon

Stage One: Inclusion Safety

Can you be your authentic self on your team? Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. As the first of the four stages of psychological safety, it serves as a foundation for the rest of the framework.

Without inclusion safety, teams can’t learn and grow, contribute and perform, or speak up and challenge the status quo. Team members who don’t feel that they belong won’t risk making a mistake or challenging the status quo. They won’t step outside of their comfort zones, volunteer to take on more responsibility, or be vulnerable with their team.

When it comes to inclusion safety, worth proceeds worthiness. You are worthy of inclusion just because you exist.

Learn More About Inclusion Safety

Learner Safety Ladder Data

learner safety data
learner safety icon blue

Stage Two: 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.

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.

Learn More About Learner Safety

Contributor Safety Ladder Data

contributor safety data
contributor safety icon blue

Stage Three: 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.

Learn More About Contributor Safety

Challenger Safety Ladder Data

challenger safety data
challenger safety icon blue

Stage Four: Challenger Safety

Do you feel like you can be candid about change? Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better.  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 different way?”

Challenger safety allows us to feel safe to challenge the status quo without retaliation or the risk of damaging our personal standing or reputation. As the highest level of psychological safety, it matches the increased vulnerability and personal risk associated with challenging the status quo.

When we create challenger safety, we give air cover (protection) in exchange for candor.

Learn More About Challenger Safety

Psychological Safety and Vulnerability

Psychological Safety is a Culture of Rewarded Vulnerability

What is Vulnerability?

Have you ever raised your hand to ask a question and then put it down abruptly? Why did you do that? You did that because your last-second risk/reward calculation put you on the punished side of vulnerability.

Human interaction is a vulnerable activity. If you’re interacting with other humans, you’re at risk of harm or loss. But the same exposure that brings the possibilities of rejection, ridicule, and embarrassment also brings the possibilities of connection and fulfillment, and the joys and satisfactions of the human experience.

Take human connection. You can’t experience deep belonging if you can’t be your authentic self. If you’re in a toxic culture or dehumanizing environment, you have to make a choice: muscle through the fear and be your authentic self, or modulate your behavior to reduce your risk. Whether you muscle or modulate depends largely on whether your vulnerable behavior was rewarded or punished in the past.

As a rule, humans step into vulnerability to feel connected and step out of it to feel protected.

In the workplace, vulnerability is not only necessary for inclusion; it’s central to learning, contribution, and innovation. Ultimately, an organization’s entire value-creating process is built on it. Vulnerability may be a universal condition, but how, when, and to what degree we feel vulnerable is deeply personal. The perception of risk varies based on factors such as personality, lived experience, acquired socialization, work environment, norms, job role, colleagues, and your direct supervisor.

employees working together

Where Our Vulnerabilities Collide

Our vulnerabilities are shaped by past experiences, beliefs, perceptions, fears, and even our goals. They affect how we behave and perform, how we think and feel, and how we interact with others. We can’t entirely avoid the parts of life that make us feel vulnerable, but we sure do want to avoid discomfort and fear.There are some acts of vulnerability that feel more vulnerable to us than others. We call this The Ladder of Vulnerability, and you have a ladder that’s unique to you. That means that what’s vulnerable for you might be no big deal for someone else. The opposite is also true: What you expect to be easy for a member of your team may be debilitatingly difficult for them.

Vulnerability Across The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

The 4 stages of psychological safety chart

As individuals engage in acts of vulnerability in each of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™, they are often climbing a ladder of vulnerability. In other words, they feel an increasing level of personal exposure and risk associated with each stage. There are exceptions, but an act of vulnerability associated with Stage 4: Challenger Safety usually involves more risk than one associated with Stage 1: Inclusion Safety.

The purpose of this classification is to provide both a diagnostic and development tool for individuals and teams. If you can identify acts of vulnerability when they happen, as well as the response patterns that either reward or punish those acts of vulnerability, you will have a clearer understanding of the current state of psychological safety that exists on your team, and you will be better able to improve it.

Ladder of vulnerability cover small

Download the ladder of vulnerability guide and share the data with your team.

Download The Guide

Rewarded vs Punshished Vulnerability

What is Vulnerability?

It’s natural to want to avoid vulnerable situations, especially if our most vulnerable moments are consistently mocked, penalized, or shamed. As a form of protection, we live our lives in a constant state of threat detection. Our heads are on a swivel, eyes peeled for moments when we could be hurt.

punished vs rewarded vulnerability example

The Fear Response

Those negative interactions, which we call acts of punished vulnerability, bring out a natural fear response. It makes sense that in environments where we think we could get hurt we hide and try to fly under the radar. Essentially, we’re in survival mode. We even edit and modify our authentic selves to become someone that can’t be punished for who we are.

The Performance Response

What happens when our acts of vulnerability are rewarded instead of punished? Those positive interactions draw out a performance response in us and we move towards innovation. Why? Because we’re finally allowed to thrive.

Rewarded Vulnerability = High Psych Safety

Some 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
  • Offering a way forward after a mistake

Punished Vulnerability = Low Psych Safety

Some 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
  • Shutting down candor/challenges to the status quo

Download The Ladder of Vulnerability

Thank you! Your download is on it's way!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Ladder of vulnerability cover small

Why The Ladder Matters

Why the Ladder of Vulnerability Matters

What are the benefits of understanding how you and others experience vulnerability at work?

Increase Self-Awareness

First, most people have never systematically measured their vulnerability. Doing so gives you a deeper level of self-awareness about your own performance and level of engagement. In some cases, your internal barriers get in the way more than the external environment causes you to retreat. Understanding the relative risk you assign to different vulnerable behaviors can prompt you to reflect on why, and what you can do to remove your fears and inhibitions. The better you understand your current approach to vulnerability, the better you will be able to engage in effective prosocial behaviors.

Increase Empathy

Second, understanding the ladder of vulnerability sensitizes you to the vulnerability of others. You become more skilled at monitoring group dynamics and identifying vulnerable acts real time and then rewarding those behaviors to create higher levels of psychological safety. For example, I’ve watched a leader who listens carefully for even the most subtle signs of disagreement. He makes it a point to reward those early signals of dissent to further encourage the behavior.

Increase Team Effectiveness

Third, if you have a cultural problem on your team, the ladder of vulnerability can be a diagnostic tool to help you understand why the team is struggling and what to do about it. A helpful exercise is to examine how well your team rewards each of the 20 acts of vulnerability in the ladder. You can rate each one, using the same 11-point scale, resulting in an overall profile of cultural health. If your team consistently punishes specific behaviors, discuss ways to reverse that pattern.

Almost every cultural pathology is traceable to patterns of punished vulnerability and a lack of psychological safety. For example, if your team is quiet and nice but lacks the tolerance for candor required to innovate, you know people fear speaking up because there’s been retaliation in the past. If, on the other hand, team members routinely challenge the way things are done, that’s evidence of a reward pattern that will continue to build on itself.

Take the Ladder of Vulnerability Self-Assessment

Our vulnerabilities are shaped by past experiences, beliefs, perceptions, fears, and even our goals. They affect how we behave and perform, how we think and feel, and how we interact with others. We can’t entirely avoid the parts of life that make us feel vulnerable, but we sure do want to avoid discomfort and fear. 

ladder of vulnerability app elements