Psychological Safety

{Clark, 2020. The Four Stages of Psychological Safety.}

For collaboration to emerge, the leader must manage the two friction categories: intellectual and social.

We should distinguish between confrontation and conflict in the intellectual versus social sphere. Respect the person, even if you dissent from the idea.

The social and cultural context profoundly influences how people behave, and the leader is responsible for that context.

Fear freezes initiatives, ties up creativity, yields compliance instead of commitment, and represses innovation.

Creating a nurturing environment and installing performance-based accountability allows people to be vulnerable as they learn and grow. Such an environment is built on psychological safety, which follows a progression from feeling included to feeling safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

Leadership creates the context, and banishing fear is a primary task of effective leadership.

The test is simple.

Do you truly believe all people to be equal, and do you accept them into your society without prejudice, even if their values differ?

Do you encourage others to learn and grow without bias or discrimination, and do you support them even when they lack confidence or make mistakes?

Do you grant others maximum autonomy to contribute as they demonstrate their ability to deliver results?

Do you consistently invite others to challenge the status quo to make things better, and are you personally prepared to be wrong based on the humility and learning mindset you have developed?

Affirmatively embodying these questions establishes a safe container for the coaching relationship to deepen and strengthen, creates confidence in the working alliance, and encourages the client to fully engage in their growth endeavor.

The constant search for power, wealth, fame, and aggrandizement must be held in check for such a safe space to emerge. Comparison creates division. Looking to become better than and above, we invent ideologies to justify our superiorities.

The distinction of the coach within the coaching relationship is his maturity in treating the client without any pretense of superiority, accepting her ways of being, encouraging her actualizing potentials to flourish, respecting her place in the web of life, and allowing her to be the author of her life.

Think of a time when you were embarrassed, marginalized, or otherwise rejected in a social setting. These are times when you are deprived of psychological safety. These are wounding experiences, demoralizing, alienating, and painful. They crush confidence and leave us resentful.

Wounds affect how we feel, and how we feel influences our thoughts and actions. Expectations of pain are a debilitating force we yield to and silence us to resign.

Look out for silencing, shaming, bullying, harassing, ignoring, snubbing, neglecting, scorning, rebuffing, or passing over; be present and catch them in the eye wrinkle.

Not being given a voice and being mistreated profoundly impact our ability to perform, create value, and thrive. We instinctively sense the atmosphere of social interaction, make our idiosyncratic evaluations, and respond accordingly. The degree of psychological safety we attribute to the social space is dynamic and on a continuum rather than a binary on-off proposition.

In organizations, high psychological safety drives performance and innovation, while low psychological safety incurs low productivity and high attrition. Smarts and resources can’t compensate for a team’s lack of psychological safety. Therefore, psychological safety is the most important factor in explaining high performance.

When psychological safety is high, people take more ownership and release more discretionary effort, resulting in higher-velocity learning and problem-solving. When it’s low, people shut down, self-censor, and redirect their energy toward risk management, pain avoidance, and self-preservation.

Psychological safety is built along two dimensions: respect and permission.

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

Permission is given to others to participate as members of a social unit. It involves the degree to which we allow them to influence us and participate in our actions.

As organizations grant increasing levels of respect and permission, individuals generally behave in a way that reflects the level of psychological safety offered to them. Each stage encourages individuals to engage more and accelerate their personal development and value-creation.

An imbalance in the levels of respect and permission has consequences.

When a team offers a measure of respect, but very little permission, it falls into paternalism, where the leaders act like helicopter parents and benevolent dictators who micromanage their children, patting them on the head and telling them not to touch things.

When a team grants a measure of permission to contribute but little respect, the team falls into exploitation, where the leader attempts to extract value while not valuing those who create the value.

Organizations may grant equality and inclusion as a policy without instilling it in the culture and everyday behavior. Converting diversity in composition into active, confident, and vibrant diversity in action requires psychological safety in the social sphere beyond intellectual diversity. Granting respect and permission to participate is to be enacted, seen as being enacted, and experienced as genuine.

A leader’s most important job is to act as a social architect and nourish a context where people are given the respect and permission to feel included, learn, contribute, and innovate.

People yearn to live happily, connected, creative, contributing, and more beautiful lives. Creating a culture conducive to realizing these yearnings is the heart of great leadership.

Feeling included

With informal admittance, the members of a social collective accept you and grant you a shared identity. The outsider becomes an insider. Beyond mere tolerance, inclusion safety is provided by genuinely inviting others into your society based on the sole common ground of being human.

Social boundaries are a social reality and a neurological reality embodied in gestures of invitation or rejection across those boundaries. We perceive the levels of respect and permission offered to us instinctively (naturally) and by acquired socialization.

Being ignored is a form of rejection. Feeling isolated and lonely is a result of not feeling included. When acceptance is denied, it hurts, indicating a deeply unmet need.

Granting and receiving inclusion safety is gratifying, as the frustration of inclusion safety is perceived as threatening.

Giving inclusion safety is a moral act, created and sustained through renewed admittance to the group and repeated indications of acceptance.

Feeling safe to learn

Learning is an active discovery process that easily triggers inhibition and anxiety under conditions of non-safety. Fear of mistakes, of being exposed and vulnerable, breeds passive retreat.

One can remain passive while feeling included; one must exert oneself and develop self-efficacy to be a learner. The support of the leader and the team can supply some confidence the individual lacks, confirming respect and permission to ask questions and initiate actions, releasing discretionary effort to learn, do, and become. As the learning process unfolds, one may eventually be granted the next level of contributor safety.

Feeling safe to contribute

Contributor safety invites the individual to participate as an active and full-fledged team member, expecting to perform work in an assigned role with appropriate boundaries, assuming that you can perform competently.

Competency in the required skills and assigned tasks may be followed by credentials, title, position, and the formal conferral of authority. Social norms may apply.

Where formal authority or credentials are prerequisites to a role, they act as a partial proxy for psychological safety based on the official or legal right to contribute.

Contributor safety emerges when the individual performs well. Still, the leader and team must do their part to provide encouragement and appropriate autonomy.

Despite an ability to do the job, illegitimate reasons can deny contributor safety, including arrogance or insecurity of the leader, personal or institutional bias, prejudice or discrimination, prevailing team norms that reinforce insensitivity, a lack of empathy, or aloofness.

Feeling safe to innovate

Feeling safe to challenge the status quo without retribution, reprisal, or the risk of damaging your standing or reputation gives you the confidence to speak truth to power when you think something needs to change and it’s time to say so. Overcoming conformity in favor of applying creativity may follow.

Threats, judgment, and other limiting beliefs block curiosity in ourselves and others.

The open climate of challenger safety empowers people to be curious and creative, allowing the organization to circulate local knowledge from the bottom to the top to increase adaptive capacity.

Failure to challenge the status quo and innovate can result in commercial failure and loss.

It is essential to contain intellectual conflict and confrontation in the intellectual domain and not let it turn into interpersonal conflict. It is the leader’s job to manage the tension.