In 2022, the practice of Industrial-era organizational approaches, particularly in knowledge work, can be counter-productive. But some of the practices, like focusing on worker-safety, is still applicable. The difference these days, though, is the imperative to ensure psychological safety for our teams since physical safety in the workplace is now the law in most industries and countries.
In this post, I define and describe psychological safety drawing heavily on the work of Dr. Timothy Clark, whose book, “The Four Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation,” is the best primer I have found on the subject to date. Next, I’ll touch on the importance of team psychological safety especially for organizations striving to be innovative. Finally, I’ll conclude with tips we can all use to foster psychological safety in our teams, and resources to check out if you want to go deeper.
According to Dr. Clark (2020), “psychological safety is a condition in which human beings feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished….” This is a universal pattern that reveals our basic human need to belong before we can feel comfortable enough to learn, contribute new ideas, and challenge old ones. Each stage builds on the previous one much like Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy rises from the base of the pyramid to the apex.
In Maslow’s pyramid, needs at the lower levels must be met before higher level needs can be satisfied. Rarely are there cheat codes to let you skip levels. This explains why a person struggling to meet basic needs for food, water, or shelter may not be able to focus on higher-level work problems. The drive for safety and security is too distracting and ultimately too strong to ignore.
The same is true of psychological safety. If people don’t feel that they belong on our team, they may find it difficult to risk learning new skills. Learning (and unlearning) requires failure and failing is fraught with risk–especially in psychologically unsafe teams. Ridicule, derision, and mockery may sound extreme as examples of unsafe responses but in zero-defect, competitive environments this behavior is all too common.
People who feel safe asking questions, offering suggestions, or challenging the status quo tend to be more innovative and adaptable according to the Center for Creative Leadership (2020). And over 80% of CEOs surveyed believe that innovation is critical to business growth, according to a recent McKinsey & Company survey (2022). If we want people to feel safe to create and innovate but also be nimble and adaptable, then fostering an inclusive and supportive culture in our teams seems the obvious choice. Building psychological safety into our practices is also the right thing to do for each other as people.
The easiest way to improve psychological safety is with language. Words, and tone, especially, can inspire or destroy confidence in a person. In fact, how we speak and ask questions–how loudly, how softly, how quickly or slowly, how aggressively or patiently–may very well be the simplest way to foster psychological safety. And it takes self-awareness and bravery to recognize if we ourselves are perpetuating competitive, judgemental, and even aggressive language. If we are leaders with title or position in the organization, then when we choose to speak also becomes important. And non-verbals may be the most important concern. If the listener can see us, they may discern from our facial and body expressions whether we appear to be contradicting our own words (even if unconsciously). So to build psychologically safe spaces we must be mindful of speech practices and patterns that might discourage a colleague from raising a question, offering a suggestion, or proposing a solution.
None of this means that we have to agree with one another all the time. Nor does it mean we have to be “always on” or perpetually cheerful. Rather, it means we have to be respectful, empathetic, and tolerant of the diversity of our teams, the differences we bring, and the novel ways we can work together to foster creativity and innovation. We have to be brave and vulnerable enough to be our genuine selves with each other, and accepting of our team mates’ authenticity, too, warts and all. By promoting and providing safe and inclusive teams, our colleagues can learn, contribute, and challenge one another’s ideas to improve our chances of discovering the next market changing innovation.
To summarize, we all need to belong and feel included–it’s human. So it’s incumbent on us to foster an environment where people feel part of the team, included and heard, and safe to challenge the prevailing opinion and practices. We support inclusion and safety by being kind and empathetic and seeking to understand rather than judge. If we don’t, we run the risk of fostering group think, echo chambers, and indifference–an extremely effective blocker of creative solutions.
Check out the resources below if you want to learn more. Hit me up on LinkedIn if you want to chat about it.