In his book "The Four Stages Of Psychological Safety", Timothy R Clarke describes a conceptual model of four stages of psychological safety teams move through. These stages emphasise the idea that psychological safety is not a binary phenomenon. Instead, it's a sliding scale that changes throughout the team's journey. People and groups will move through in a non-linear fashion. It can feel highly unharmonious if the team does not move through these stages simultaneously. It's essential to think about increasing the team's psychological safety and bringing everyone along together at a similar pace.
The four stages of psychological safety are:
- Inclusion safety
- Learner safety
- Contributor safety
- Challenger safety
Inclusion safety refers to satisfying the basic human need of connecting and belonging. In the workplace, employees need to feel accepted before being heard. In this first stage, employees feel valued, treated fairly, and believe their experiences and thoughts matter regardless of their title or position.
The second stage is learner safety. In this stage, employees want to feel safe to learn and grow. This means they feel comfortable asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting and even making mistakes.
Contributor safety refers to the stage when team members feel safe contributing their ideas. This means employees feel they can participate as team members using their talents and abilities to make a difference. At this stage, employees finally feel safe to make a valuable contribution using their skills and gifts.
The final stage is challenger safety. In this stage, employees want to challenge how the team and company do things. They see positive change or improvement opportunities and feel safe to challenge the status quo.
Benefits of Psychological Safety
Building psychological safety can provide considerable benefits whether you work for a private corporation, an NFP organisation, a government agency, or a sports team.
Research undertaken at Google revealed that psychological safety was the number one factor differentiating high-performing teams from average teams. The NHS states that psychological safety is one of five interconnected pillars for creating a healthy workplace. Furthermore, PwC found that good psychological safety encourages flexible thinking and intrapreneurship among workforces.
These studies demonstrate a significant increase in creativity, innovation, and profitability in organisations with a strong climate of high psychological safety.
The top benefits of psychological safety include:
- Enhances employee engagement
- Fosters an inclusive workplace culture
- Greater collaboration and knowledge sharing
- Inspires new ideas and creativity
- Improves employee well being
- Reduces employee turnover
- Boosts team performance
- Creates resilient employees
How to Create Psychological Safety in the Workplace
We live in a knowledge-rich environment, so it stands to reason we need to hear from people. Yet, research shows that people feel they cannot speak up at work. That means we are losing tremendous value and missing out on game-changing ideas or threats from the environment. Creating a culture of psychological safety in the workplace can help overcome these challenges. Some of the top psychological safety strategies include:
It can be compelling when a leader apologises for not having made it safe in the past. Leaders must accept responsibility and admit that there were moments in the past when they did things that made it difficult for their staff to speak up. Leaders naturally tend to say, "Why didn't you come to me?" rather than self-reflect and question what they might have done to prevent it. Apologising is a critical first step in creating a psychologically safe workplace.
- Show your team you're engaged.
Employees will shut down if they believe you are not paying attention when they talk or do not appreciate their ideas and opinions. Being present throughout meetings demonstrates engagement. Making eye contact and closing your laptop are examples of this. During a meeting, it's tempting to become distracted by emails, text messages, or Slack. However, even little acts of disengagement may negatively influence your team's psychological safety.
Listening to what others have to say is also part of engagement. Practice active listening to ensure that you comprehend the other person's views or beliefs. By actively engaging, you create an environment in which your employees feel it is acceptable and encouraged to speak up.
- Show your team you understand
Your employees are more likely to feel psychologically safe when they know you care enough to understand and consider their point of view. Demonstrate understanding by recapping what they've said using phrases like, "What I overheard you saying was _________. Is that right?" This demonstrates your desire to comprehend their point of view. It also allows your team members to explain if you misinterpreted what they said.
You can also use body language to demonstrate your understanding. During conversations, nod your head to acknowledge what an employee is saying. Lean forwards to indicate interest. In addition, be aware of your facial expressions. If you seem weary, bored, or unhappy, your staff will notice. Employees may internalise the signal you're sending with your facial expressions even if you don't intend to.
- Include your team in decision making
Consult with your team before making any decisions. Inquire about their ideas, views, and feedback. This will make individuals feel more involved in the decision-making process and increase psychological safety. Explain your decision to your staff once you've made it. How did their input influence the decision? What other factors did you consider? Even if your employees disagree, they will appreciate the honesty and transparency behind your decision making.
Lack of trust in senior leadership is one of the most significant drivers of disengagement. Demonstrating openness in the workplace will also show you are being inclusive and transparent with your employees.
- Own up to mistakes.
Failure may be scary. As a leader, you can soften the blow by owning up to your mistakes and recognising setbacks as learning opportunities. Ask staff what they've done that didn't go as planned and what they learnt from those situations. This will assist team members in understanding that they will not be punished for making errors and make them feel more comfortable taking chances and speaking out.
How to Create Psychological Safety in a Virtual Workplace
Building psychological safety on remote teams takes considerable effort and attention as it's inherently more challenging to open up and feel connected through video than in person.
When the majority of meetings are held on Zoom and communication is mostly via email or messaging apps, it might be difficult to detect subtle cues such as body language. You also miss out on ad hoc, chats or check-ins that you may have had in the break room.
Although building psychological safety is more challenging in a virtual workplace, it's not impossible! Here are some tips to create psychological safety in a virtual workplace:
- Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with your teammates. You don't have to be a manager to set up one-on-one meetings. These crucial check-ins demonstrate that you care and desire to invest time in the relationship. One-on-one meetings help you create professional ties and are mutually beneficial for discussing concerns or challenges.
- Morning status updates: Encourage your staff to share a colour, emoji, or another status that briefly explains how they're feeling that day. When you understand what someone is going through, it makes it easier to empathise with them throughout the day.
- Go out of your way to ask for feedback. Make it simple for employees to provide feedback. Allow them frequent opportunities to provide, receive, and respond to feedback. One-on-one meetings are a great way to provide informal feedback. Other tools such as 360 reviews can benefit comprehensive and anonymous feedback.
- Allow time in team meetings for non-work related conversation. When hosting meetings, it's easy to get right to work. Be deliberate in bringing up issues that aren't necessarily work-related. Begin the meeting with a 'good news' portion in which team members can discuss something positive that happened outside of work. Alternatively, solicit non-work-related topic suggestions from team members.
- Create asynchronous communication channels. Regardless of the time zones in which your workers operate, they should all be able to converse with one another. To connect in hybrid and remote environments, many businesses use Teams or Slack.
How DISC Can help Create Psychological Safety
DISC profiles give insight into a person's natural tendencies and behavioural style. It delivers an easy-to-understand explanation of how a person interacts with their coworkers. The report outlines a person's decision-making style, their prefered mode of communication, and general workplace behaviour. The reports also include information on what motivates the respondent, what stresses them out, and how to enhance their performance.
Creating an open, honest discussion between teams is critical to maintaining psychological safety. Mapping your team's disc communication styles may enhance communication and psychological safety and minimise tension and make conflict more productive. Each of us has a unique communication style. Many of us are unaware of our own communication style, let alone the style of those with whom we regularly communicate. We have a better self-understanding when we learn how we communicate and how we want to be communicated with.
Conflict is expected in a psychologically safe environment. DISC Assessments help to ensure the conflict is not toxic or counterproductive. The fundamental core of workplace conflicts is typically a difference between people and how they prefer to operate. For example, a communication breakdown or personality conflicts. There are several ways for resolving workplace conflict, one of the most successful of which is the implementation of a conflict resolution assessment. Understanding your team's many DISC personality types may assist in identifying indications of problems early on, assisting in conflict resolution, and contributing to a psychologically safe atmosphere.
Incorporating DISC into your psychological safety strategies is an excellent way to understand your employee's communication preferences, facilitate productive conflict and build high performing teams.