Smoke alarms, emergency exits, well-lit parking lots—these are generally the things that come to mind when workplace safety is discussed.
And while the physical well-being of employees is essential, psychological safety is often neglected, despite having a significant impact on everything from day-to-day productivity to the overall employee experience.
Meet the needs of your team and improve your work environment by understanding and implementing the four stages of psychological safety within your organization.
What is psychological safety at work?
Psychological safety reduces the anxiety associated with an individual’s desire to be accepted and valued. Earning psychological safety at work involves fostering an environment where people feel safe asking questions, suggesting ideas, discussing concerns, requesting help, admitting mistakes, or offering constructive dissent without fear of social friction or retribution.
The concept of team psychological safety relates to a group dynamic and was originally introduced by Amy C. Edmondson, an organizational behavioral scientist at Harvard and author of The Fearless Organization. Edmondson defines team psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
Speaking up in a group can be intimidating, especially if it’s to disagree. For optimal team performance, each member of the team should feel comfortable challenging the status quo and safe about speaking with candor.
The 4 stages of psychological safety
Dr. Timothy R. Clark, CEO of LeaderFactor and author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, describes psychological safety as a culture of rewarded vulnerability.
According to Dr. Clark, there are four stages of psychological safety that reflect the natural progression of human needs in social settings:
Stage 1 — Inclusion safety
The first stage of psychological safety meets a basic need of human beings: to connect and belong. Feeling included creates a sense of shared identity and gives people confidence that they matter.
Within a team dynamic, inclusion safety allows people to feel comfortable interacting with team members without fear of rejection, repercussions, or embarrassment.
A sense of inclusion safety encourages authentic communication and collaboration.
Stage 2 — Learner safety
The second stage of psychological safety is learner safety, which relates to growth. Learner safety results in an environment that makes team members feel comfortable throughout the learning process.
The ability to ask questions, try new things, exchange feedback, and make mistakes all support personal and professional growth.
Learner safety minimizes the self-censoring instinct that limits creativity and encourages risk taking—which is a key component of innovation. Individuals should feel confident asking questions or offering opinions, without fear of embarrassment or punishment for making a mistake.
Stage 3 — Contributor safety
The third stage is contributor safety, which satisfies the human desire to make a difference in their social group, team, or chosen community. To achieve a sense of contributor safety, team members must feel empowered to work autonomously and supported by each other and leadership teams.
Employees who feel trusted to make meaningful contributions are more likely to deliver positive results or creative ideas. Recognizing and celebrating individual accomplishments of any size can help establish a sense of contributor safety.
Stage 4 — Challenger safety
The final level of psychological safety addresses the human desire to make positive improvements. Although this stage is usually the most difficult to achieve, doing so results in a truly fearless organization.
With challenger safety, employees feel comfortable speaking candidly if they disagree or offer a dissenting opinion. Constructive conflict can be productive and often improves projects and strengthens teams. Employee engagement improves when team members feel like their opinion valued, and confident their voice is worth hearing.
How to build psychological safety at work
Psychological safety isn’t something you can install as easily as a smoke detector. It’s a process that requires trust, communication, authenticity, reinforcement, and most of all, a strong company culture.
Start by clearly defining your company’s core values, and then enforce them. If those values include communication and authenticity, but you regularly dismiss or ignore employee feedback, your organization is unlikely to make it past the first stage of psychological safety. Culture requires intentional, ongoing effort and should evolve as your team does.
Achieving psychological safety requires creating comfort and confidence around communicating freely and authentically. Encourage and reward vulnerability at every opportunity. Ask questions, solicit feedback, encourage constructive criticism, practice generous listening, and openly appreciate participation.
The role of leadership in establishing psychological safety at work
There are many different components that factor into creating psychological safety in the workplace. And almost all of them originate with leadership.
A lot of psychological safety relates to good management practices, such as clearly defining roles and expectations, offering guidance, showing appreciation, providing support, actively listening, and trusting employees to work independently.
Expressing genuine curiosity about employee opinions and taking accountability when you’ve made a mistake or were wrong can help build a culture based on communication, collaboration, and vulnerability.
Thoughtful team design is another tactic to create psychological safety within small groups. Considering skills, personality, and communication styles to strategically strike the right balance of members can result in a high-performing team who is comfortable expressing themselves as individuals and innovating as a group.
And when in doubt, ask. Pulse surveys provide valuable insight into the employee experience, increase employee engagement. They also help demonstrate that your organization encourages and appreciates feedback.
Dr. Edmonson provides seven questions to help you assess the sense of psychological safety among your employees. Ask your employees how strongly they agree or disagree with the following statements to get a current benchmark of psychological safety:
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
- It is safe to take a risk on this team.
- It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
Once you’ve collected your answers, review them and reassess your current management style and culture. This can help you identify potential areas of improvement.
Again, psychological safety isn’t something you can implement with the flip of a switch. It’s at the foundation of company culture, strong leadership, communication, and accountability. Encourage and empower your team members to speak up to create an environment that will help your organization, and your team, thrive, grow, improve, and innovate together.