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The need to be accepted precedes the need to be heard.”   Timothy Clark

Psychological safety is a fairly new term in the workplace, first coined by Amy Edmondson as she conducted groundbreaking research on teams and interactions among teammates. She defines it as the “perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in the workplace” (Edmondson, 1999).

In a previous article, I wrote about the importance of psychological safety and encourage you to read that article first before continuing with this one:
Psychological Safety: Does It Matter in the Workplace?

IMAGINE THIS:

It is the start of a new school year, you’re beginning 7th grade, and your family has just moved to a new town. You aren’t sure how you’re going to fit in at your new school, which is around 800 students – twice as big as your old school. While there are many scary parts to your first day, the biggest thing you dread is lunch. Where are you going to sit? 

Lunch finally arrives, and it would be so much easier if you could just stay in one of the classrooms and eat. That’s not allowed, of course.

Scenario 1:

You get your food and go to a table with a couple of open seats. You recognize that you had class that morning with a few of the students at the table, so you ask to sit with them.

All five students at the table look up at you and stare. Four of them look to the student at the end of the table, waiting for a response. There is no response. They stare at you for a moment longer, and then go back to chatting amongst themselves, expecting you to move on.

Scenario 2:

You get your food and go to a table with a couple of open seats. You recognize that you had class that morning with a few of the students at the table, so you ask to sit with them.

All five students at the table look up at you and stare. Four of them look to the student at the end of the table, waiting for a response. The response is a curt “no.” They’re just staring at you now, chewing their food, and waiting for you to move on. 

Notice the similarities in the two responses. The scenario was exactly the same except for the person in control of the group in Scenario 1 acted like you didn’t exist. In Scenario 2, the person gave you an answer, but it was harsh and made you wonder if you were going to make it at this school. Being ignored is often as painful as being rejected. How could you ever learn in this environment?

 

WORK LIFE

What does this look like in a work environment for adults? We feel this all the time—someone suggested an idea in a meeting, and the boss didn’t even respond. Or maybe the boss said, “No,” before the person could even get done explaining. It can feel nearly impossible to contribute in these environments. Without the opportunity for collaboration or collective wisdom, your organization is stifled from innovating, growing, and being creative in any way.

Suppose you are starting a new job, and the seven people in your office go to lunch without inviting you. By the end of your first week, you have yet to be included in their daily lunch plans. “Why is that?” you ask yourself. In a Friday meeting with the same seven people, they are cutting up, joking, and seem to really like each other. You stay relatively quiet, only responding when specifically addressed. Post meeting, your direct supervisor advises, “You are going to have to talk more. Put yourself out there and get ingrained in the team. How can we know if you have good ideas if you don’t share?” You nod as if you understand, but you’re baffled by the disconnect between his words and his actions.

Now you ask yourself, “How can I offer ideas or challenge anything when it seems obvious that these people don’t want me to be a part of the team?” 

Reflection Question: Is there really any difference between the adult employee in a new job and the 7th grader at a new school? Acceptance to the team is critical. A 7th grader isn’t going to learn anything academically in the scenario above. An adult employee isn’t going to bring their best self to work in that scenario, either.

HIERARCHY OF NEEDS

We’ve all likely heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Timothy Clark, in his book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, proposed a new-age hierarchy of needs for adults:

  1. Physical needs: Food, clothing, shelter
  2. Security: Stable job, good health
  3. Belonging: Affiliation, connectedness, trust, acceptance
  4. Fulfillment: Purpose in life, inspiration, social encouragement

Clark (2020) argued that psychological safety encompasses steps 2-4. It’s tough to imagine having a purpose in life or encouraging others to be their best selves if you can’t land a secure job. The more difficult thought to ponder, though, is what if someone has a secure job, but they are not accepted, trusted, or connected with the group? Said another way, the “security” need is met, but the “belonging” need is not. They may not be able to focus on the big picture or serve others while they are still trying to be accepted themselves.

Here’s a tough question: Go back to the scenario where the new person at the office wasn’t invited to lunch. Let’s flip it. Let’s say the person is invited repeatedly to lunch, and they are given space to share thoughts in every meeting. Yet, the person refuses to partake in either. Is the person limiting their own psychological safety?

Now that I have you thinking deeply about team dynamics, realize that although much of the above information is scenario-based, none of it is theory. These are all things leaders encounter daily. As long as we are leaders with people on our team, we will continue to need to learn about and balance team dynamics.

In the 21st century, high psychological safety will increasingly become a term of employment, and organizations that don’t supply it will bleed out their top talent.”   Timothy Clark

LEVELS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY

When psychological safety is high, people will try harder, think more, and challenge the status quo without fear of retribution. You won’t reach the highest level of psychological safety without progressing through the other steps, and they all take time! Let’s go through each of them:

  • Stage 1 — Inclusion Safety: Inclusion safety is the beginning of psychological safety, and it simply means you are informally accepted onto the team. Notice the word informally. Informal acceptance matters more than formal acceptance.  A scenario to consider: You’re starting your new job along with four others. The five of you wander into the large conference room where 18 others are mingling. The meeting is called to order by the head of the department. She promptly introduces the new faces before sliding seamlessly into an information dump. A mere formality. Does this make you part of the team? Formal introductions are important and should happen, but it’s only the first step; the informal acceptance, like being invited to lunch, is far more important to ongoing teamwork.
  • Stage 2 — Learner Safety: In this step, one finds it is acceptable, possibly even preferable, to try things and fail. Failure is not attributed to lack of competence as long as you were trying something that was challenging or uncomfortable. As I have listened, read, and thought more about this level, I think of this as an apprenticeship step. Learner Safety is like an apprentice learning from a master, doing some things along the way, but also asking questions and trying to push themselves beyond what they currently can do. Clark (2020) stated, “Those in Learner Safety are exerting themselves and developing self-efficacy. They are no longer spectators.”
  • Stage 3 — Contributor Safety: Contributors are a full member of the team, but they also understand their boundaries. They know what they can work on or make decisions about, and they also are very clear about what they should take to the team or take to the boss. Note that the boundaries can change as someone demonstrates more and more competence. Clark (2020) noted, “As the individual demonstrates competence, the organization normally grants more autonomy to contribute.” In other words, if you do great at small tasks, the bigger tasks are likely to come your way. Clark described Contributor Safety as the difference between a backup versus a starter on the team. While both have important roles and are vital to success, the starter is actively contributing while the backup is maybe still catching on to pieces of the game and is in Learner Safety.
  • Stage 4 — Challenger Safety:  Individuals in Challenger Safety feel safe to challenge the status quo and do not feel the need to conform to the way things have always been done. While there are still rails in which they operate, they are able to ask “why” without reprimand. Clark (2020) described an interview in which a middle-manager said, “I’m very careful to stick my neck out and challenge the status quo. If I do and don’t get my head chopped off, I’ll do it again. If I get my head chopped off, you can rest assured I’ll keep my ideas to myself.”Challenger safety tends to ebb and flow, and it may even depend on the project that you’re working on at the time. Make no mistake, a number of individuals come together and form a team where Challenger Safety is the norm, innovation and true work gets done.

PATERNALISM AND EXPLOITATION

Paternalism is the term used by Clark (2020) to describe micromanager-style leadership, but it’s not exactly how you might typically think of a micromanager. Paternalism doesn’t mean that the leader is controlling minutia; it’s an environment where the leader shows respect for employees but does not grant permission to make decisions. Employees may think they have Challenger Safety only to find out later that the “green light” on projects was never granted, but they only find out after significant work was completed. 

In paternalistic cultures, the environment says, “I respect you,” but the permission level says, “I don’t trust you.”

Opposite of paternalism is exploitation. This is an environment where employees are granted large amounts of permission, but respect for the employee as a person is low. Clark described it as, “The leader attempts to extract value while not valuing those who create the value.” In exploitative cultures, the leader might give permission for the best employees to work on a project; then the leader “takes over” the project from them in order to look good to superiors. These leaders may attempt to explain projects that they know little about, frustrating their team and possibly putting the project in jeopardy in the eyes of superiors.

The culture in an organization can switch from paternalistic to exploitative depending on the employee or the psychological safety leaders have with their superiors. No matter if a leader operates with paternalistic traits or exploitative traits, the employee will not feel psychologically safe with that leader.

CONCLUSION

You may be thinking, “I get that these things are important, and I have a lot to think about. But how do I actually start to build psychological safety with my team?” Asking yourself this question is a perfect place to start. 

Creating a psychologically safe environment requires a permanent shift in the way you lead. It’s not something that can succeed just by opting in every now and then. It takes planning, intentionality, and follow through. If building psychological safety isn’t the first priority of your team, then the rest of the goals you are trying to accomplish will always be one step, or a few steps, below what they could be.

Check out our free downloadable of Psychological Safety best practices below to get started!

“Where there is no tolerance for candor, there is no constructive dissent. Where there is no constructive dissent, there is no innovation.”  —Timothy Clark

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