The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety by Timothy Clark

Timothy R. Clark wrote an interesting book on Psychological Safety, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. Surely, it is a nice complement to the fundamental book of Amy Admondson, the Fearless organization. I cover basis of Psychological Safety in my other posts.

Indeed, it proposes to structure how deep the psychological safety is over 4 levels and based on 2 dimensions. Firstly, the 2 dimensions are Respect and Permission. Secondly, the 4 levels of Psychological Safety are Inclusion Safety, Learner Safety, Contributor Safety and Challenger Safety. Definitively, an interesting way to see how a team can progress with Psychological Safety.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Model

The 2 dimensions and the 4 levels of the Psychological Safety Model

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety by Timothy Clark: Psychological Safety progresses in 2 dimensions, Respect and Permission and over 4 levels of Psychological Safety that are Inclusion Safety, Learner Safety, Contributor Safety and Challenger Safety. Respect without Permission is Paternalism. And Permission without Respect is Exploitation.

Human needs structure the way Psychological Safety progresses in a Team for a person. Firstly, people want to be included. Secondly, they want to learn. Thirdly, they want to contribute. Fourthly, at last, they want to be able to challenge the status quo when they believe there is a need for change. Therefore, people progress through these 4 stages with an increase of respect and permission.

Respect is the level of regard and esteem the teams gives to a given person. In other words, it is how the team values and appreciates this individual.

Permission is the degree to which the team allows a given person to participate in and influence the group he or she is part of.

Psychological Safety gutters

When there is no balance between respect and permission, people may fall in what the author calls gutters.

On one hand, when the manager or the team grant to a person some respect but no permission. Then this person falls into the gutter of paternalism. Clearly, this is the area of micro management.

On the other hand, when the manager or the team allow to a person some permission, but no respect. Then this person drops into the gutter of exploitation. Here, the team or its manager try to extract value while not valuing the person who create the value. Surely, this is the field of despotism.

Note that there may be a time and context for paternalism. But when a person has demonstrated the ability to learn, contribute, or innovate in autonomy, then it is time to drop the leash. In fact, the switch should go further than just let do, to reinforce empowerment by listening and encouraging.

Inclusion Safety: the first step of the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

The first stage of Psychological Safety is the informal acceptance in the team. In other words, the team accepts the new person and considers him or her as part of the team identity. Inclusion safety is not a one shot event, as the team repeats signals and evidences of acceptance. Furthermore, whatever the team, inclusion safety can be granted, withheld, revoked, or partially or conditionally granted.

Including another human being in a team should be an act of prejudgment based on the person’s worth. Not an act of judgment based on the person’s worthiness. There’s a time and a context to judge worthiness. But first the team should allow the person to cross the threshold of inclusion. Truly, there should be no disqualification criteria except the threat to harm other team members.

In reality, instead of granting inclusion safety based on human status, we tend to judge the person’s worthiness based on criteria like appearance, social status, or material possessions. The truth is that those criteria have nothing to do with worthiness. Further more, excluding a person is usually the consequence of personal unmet needs and insecurity feeling than a real resent of the person.

To sum up, respect in this stage is simply the respect for the new person’s humanity. In addition, permission in this stage is the permission for the person to get into the team and to interact with other team member as a new joiner.

Learner Safety: the second step of the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

Learner Safety means that people feel safe to engage in the discovery process, ask questions, experiment, and even make mistakes.

Clearly, mistakes are not the exception. Indeed, they should be expected as they are in the path to move forward and learn. To put it differently, mistakes are not failure but progress. Furthermore, the review of mistakes typically brings more learning that the examination of successes.

This second stage of Psychological Safety, shifts focus from human status to human needs. Indeed, the first human need is to learn and grow. Clearly, the person fully engages in the learning process without fear of being rejected or neglected.

At start, Learner Safety is the enabler to learning

Learner Safety is the prerequisite to enable the curiosity and the willingness overpass interpersonal risk to learn. Moreover, learners who feel safe commonly practice more at the edge of their expertise to experiment and solve difficult problems. Surely, this has an impact on the speed and deep of the learning.

On the contrary, when the team punishes rather than teaches, people become defensive and less able to self-diagnose and self-correct. Furthermore, without Learner Safety, people usually remain passive because of the risk of playing beyond a tacit line of permission. Certainly, grit to learn alone is not enough. Therefore, the new joiner needs Learner Safety.

So to start with, the team should grant Learner Safety by encouraging the learner to learn. Another key point, the team should have in mind, is that the first signal in granting or withholding learner safety is team and its leader response to dissent and bad news. At last, the team should consider the emotional climate. Indeed, when people lose emotional engagement, intellectual engagement vanishes too.

Learner Safety: the give and take

But when the team grants to the new joiner the Learner Safety, it expects the person to make efforts to learn. In other words, it is support and encouragement to learn in exchange for engagement to learn.

In addition, the leader and the team should consider the level of expectation. Indeed, still within Learner Safety, the expectations should be high, still achievable, so the learner targets high.

Contributor Safety: the third step of the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

As the new joiner grows in respect and permission, the person reaches in the stage of Contributor Safety. Therefore, he or she starts to participate as an active and full-fledged member of the team. In other words, Contributor Safety is an invitation for a person to fully play his or her assigned role, as defined and trained to, during the learning phase.

The team grants the learner Contributor Safety when he or she has demonstrated skills related to the assigned role. Still the person should have complied with the team social norms. Surely, after the due training period, all normal people want to become accountable and to fully play their role.

Contributor Safety: the give and take

Contributor Safety, is not as in the previous stages a natural right. In fact, the new joiner earns this right based on demonstrated performance. To put it differently, Contributor Safety provides autonomy in exchange for performance.

Furthermore, Contributor Safety increases expectations both on team and new joiner side. Surely, this is a mutual investment. Indeed, the new joiner invests effort and skill, and the team invests support and guidance.

So, Contributor safety is the full activation of the role. Once the person has validated his or her skills and has demonstrated autonomy on tasks, he or she expects to be treated like a full-fledged member of the team. And the team expects a full and significant contribution.

Actually, accountability is progressive and comes over 3 levels:

  1. Task
  2. Process
  3. Outcome

Often, the leader and the team deny Contributor Safety for illegitimate reasons. For instance, the arrogance or insecurity of the leader, personal or team bias, prejudice or discrimination.

Stretch role

One of the best way to generate Contributor Safety is by helping the members of the team to think beyond their individual roles. Surely, the boundaries of a person’s role tend to confine his or her thinking to the role. In addition, the invitation to think beyond one’s role demonstrates greater respect and grants greater permission to contribute.

But the manager still needs people to stay focused on their primary roles. Definitively, it is a question of balance.

Challenger Safety: the fourth step of the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

The fourth and final stage of Psychological Safety is the Challenger Safety. The level of Psychological Safety is so high that it allows the team members to challenge the status quo. They know they do not have to fear punishment, reprisal, or the risk of damaging their position or reputation. Surely, it gives them the confidence to speak up the truth to the manager when they think something needs to change. But the new joiner earns this privilege based on his or her track record of performance.

Challenging the status quo normally generates a degree of confrontation, conflict and sometimes a dose of instability. Without Psychological Safety, intellectual conflict turns into interpersonal conflict.

Challenger for innovation

There is a need for challengers to innovate. We can even say that they are a license to innovate.

Teams don’t innovate unless they are lubricated with the oil of Challenger Safety.
The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety by Timothy Clark

Without the Challenger Safety, people will not innovate because of threats, judgement, and other limiting beliefs that block curiosity. In reality, it is only with the protection of the Challenger Safety, that they can overcome the pressure to conform, leave their comfort zone, and become creative. Note that in teams where individual competition prevails, there is not enough social cohesion for the co-creative process of innovation.

Challengers are dissident who jeopardize status quo

Leaders are often reluctant to grant Challenger Safety. Indeed, it threatens the power structure, the way the team works and even introduces instability in operations. So the leader should accept challenge in opinion, credit and status to enable dissents, then challengers.

Indeed, challenge will involve disruptive topics impacting deeply the team. Truly, it is only by accepting dissents that the manager enables innovation in the team. But it is a delicate balance. Indeed, the leader should carefully monitor to separate dissenting and derailing behaviors and should react accordingly.

Candor to protect honest challenge

All team members have the right to speak up candidly whatever the topic, as far as it is purely to support improvement. Indeed in this step, the deal is challenge and innovation in exchange of candor. Of course, personal attacks or malicious intents are not to tolerate.

In addition, ridicule shuts down curiosity and exploration like nothing else. And Challenger Safety takes time to build and no time destroy.

Enable Challenger Safety by flattening operational organization

  • Stretch your team members having them turn to conduct your recurrent meetings. In addition, it will also build confidence in the team.
  • Propose weekly training with all team members sharing, even the less experienced and lower-status people. Surely, this sends the message that all people are valuable and can contribute to the effort of innovation.
  • Remove signs of superiority coming with being the manager. Make yourself available.

Nurture dissident

  • Formally and officially assign a dissent. Furthermore, set your expectations with this assignment. Definitively, assigning dissent from the start removes the natural fear to challenge the status quo.
  • Always protect the team’s right to speak up, including from team members who want to silence the others.
  • Decrease the emotional cost to challenge the status quo. To illustrate, this can come with implementing a routine on requesting the team to challenge specific things and discuss ideas.
  • If for some reason you have to turn down a team member’s suggestion, show sensitivity by explaining why. Truly, this is critical not to shut their voice.

What’s next? Learn more about Psychological Safety, Agile Leadership and Coaching

Do you want to learn more about Psychological Safety? Here are some valuable references

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