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Let's talk about psychological safety

For those wanting a bit of a reminder of the 4 stages of psychological safety model, developed by Timothy Clarke, this is my overview of how each of the four layers build upon each other in a work context.

You will see some or all of this in high performing team environments and organisations where innovation thrives.

Inclusion safety

Being accepted by their team, without conditions – team members can be themselves at work and feel a genuine part of a team. Their being in the team holds worth on its own merit – each person is part of the whole and accepted as such, without condition.

Learner safety

This is where individuals and the team collective know that it’s safe to discover, be curious, experiment and ask questions – all of the key elements to learning. Importantly, it’s understood that mistakes are part of learning and it’s safe to make them; they’re often examined as successful steps to learn and grow. Individuals don’t fear rejection, blame or ridicule in a learning environment. In a strong learning culture, individuals will self-diagnose and self-correct mistakes then share these with team members as learning opportunities. Team members will offer support and encouragement and share their own learning examples to build trust and confidence in the learner.

Without a safe learning culture, team members don’t put themselves forward for potential ridicule or punishment by contributing to problem solving and experimenting. Instead, they tend to withdraw and be silent, agreeable or passive in team meetings and conversations.

Contributor safety

Team members are provided with suitable levels of autonomy to deliver their contribution to the teams goals, work quality and expected output. The safe learning environment remains in place and team members know what they can expect from each other and supportively hold each other accountable to agreed standards.

There’s less reliance on escalating concerns up the chain to have a leader step in, and more peer reviewing, appreciative enquiry and critical friend activity. This is because all team members see themselves as accountable for delivery of the whole goal; they help each other to get there and hold each other accountable.

Self-organizing teams do this really effectively.

Challenger safety

This is where the magic happens. At this level it’s safe to challenge the status quo; employees don’t feel the need to ‘group-think’ for fear of consequences and pressure to confirm. Team members engage with curiosity and creativity when they see opportunities to innovate or improve, without fear of reprisal or career limiting outcomes.

Leadership roles are dynamic in this environment; hierarchy plays far less of a role in decision making and power constructs dissolve.

Each person contributes to the extent of their expertise as a part of the whole and each contribution has merit, agency and voice. The team are well skilled in how to engage in dissent productively and safely, so as to retain and foster the culture.

At this level, team members genuinely see their own part in the overall output of the organisation and behave in ways demonstrative of their investment in the organisation’s success.

A psychologically safe work culture is constantly curated. It requires commitment at all levels, to cede traditional power constructs, foster healthy behaviours, continually work on the culture and ensure new starters are well inducted into the ways of working.

Leaders enable a psychologically safe work culture through teaching and role modelling suitable psychologically safe behaviours. Whilst this culture is incubated by leaders, it’s curated and lives through teams, in some ways like an evolving organism.

At Humanistic HR we’re fans of this approach to organisational culture, but don’t just take our word for it.

If you’re looking to embark or continue to evolve psychological safety in your workplace there’s some great literature available.

Listen, watch and read from the following:

  • Amy Edmondson

  • Timothy Clarke

  • Frederic Laloux

  • NeuroLeadership Institute


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