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InfoQ Homepage Articles Author Q&A: The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

Author Q&A: The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety


Key Takeaways

  • It is the leader's role to create a culture of intellectual bravery in which it is not emotionally expensive for members of the team to say what they think and feel.
  • Many inter-personal interactions are broken because of a lack of psychological safety
  • Psychological safety is a concept that has been identified since 1991, but has existed from the beginning of human interaction
  • Psychological safety has been shown through research to be linked to many aspects of performance and innovation in teams
  • There are four distinct stages to psychological safety: inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, challenger safety
  • It is nearly impossible to achieve a higher level of safety without first achieving the lower levels

Dr. Timothy Clark has written a book titled The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. In it he goes deeply into the aspects that make up psychological safety in the workplace and in society in general. He gives advice for individuals, teams, groups and leaders, asks provoking questions and provides practical guidelines on how to create better workplaces.      

The book can be purchased here and InfoQ readers can access a sample chapter here.

Dr Clark spoke to InfoQ about his ideas.

InfoQ:  Why did you write this book - what is the problem you aim to solve?

Clark: The use case for this book is broken human interaction. That’s the problem I’m trying to solve for. If you want to become more effective with each other, this book is for you. As I have worked with teams across the world, I’ve discovered a universal pattern in the way effective teams interact. That’s the pattern I share in this book.

InfoQ: Who is the book for, who should read it?

Clark: Officially, I’m writing to business leaders. Unofficially, I’m writing to the entire human family. This book is for anyone who interacts with other humans during the day. That includes about all of us.

InfoQ: Has psychological safety become a buzzword today - it seems that almost every technical  conference or publication has another article or presentation with a different viewpoint on what it means to be "safe".  Why is this happening - haven’t these concepts been around for a long time, and isn’t it just common sense?

Clark: Psychological safety has been around since 1990 since William Kahn from Boston University coined the term. But the concept has been around since the first human interaction. The importance of psychological safety is growing because the research shows that it’s directly linked to performance in so many ways. What we now know is that the level of psychological safety that exists in a social unit or team has a direct and profound impact on the behavior of each individual, and therefore, the ultimate results that team is able to generate.

InfoQ: So what is psychological safety really about, why does it matter?

Clark: In the most basic sense, psychological safety means you can interact with the members of a social unit without being embarrassed, ridiculed, or punished in some way.

InfoQ: You present four aspects of psychological safety - what are they and why is it necessary to look at them independently?

Clark: What I found in my research is that psychological safety follows a natural progression based on the sequence of human needs. There are four separate stages and they build on one another.

InfoQ: Are the four stages sequential - is it possible to have (say) Contributor Safety if you don’t first have Learner Safety?

Clark: It’s very difficult to leap ahead to a more advanced stage of psychological safety if you don’t have the earlier stages in place. Let me briefly outline the four stages.

First, is inclusion safety. We all want to feel included. That’s number one. We long to belong. Humans need to be accepted before they need to be heard.

The second stage is learner safety, which connects to the need that we all have to learn and grow. This means being able to ask questions, give and receive feedback, experiment, and make mistakes.

The third stage is contributor safety. This means being able to participate as a member of the team, using our talents and abilities to make a difference.

The fourth stages is challenger safety. This means being able to challenge the way we do things, to look around and say, you know what, it’s time to change and I have an idea about how to make things better.

These are the four stages of psychological safety - 1. To feel included. 2. To feel safe to learn. 3. To feel safe to contribute, and 4. To feel safe to challenge the status quo.

InfoQ: Our readers are technologists - is there anything special or different about working in a high-tech environments that they should be aware of?

Clark: Yes, think about what it takes to innovate. By definition, innovation requires that we move our teams to the highest level of psychological safety. Why? Because innovation means challenging the status quo. When people do that, they take more personal risk and expose themselves to more vulnerability. If the team environment invites and protects that personal risk, if you can challenge the status quo without risking your standing and reputation, you’ll do it. That’s why creating challenger safety is like giving people a license to innovate. But if the members of the team don’t feel that safety, they will retreat and manage personal risk. If the leader pushes the fear button, that will trigger your self-censoring instinct and you’ll back off.

InfoQ: Is there one piece of advice our readers can follow that will make a difference to their workplaces?  

Clark: Yes, two things. First, if you are a leader, the most important signal you send out as it relates to psychological safety is your emotional response to dissent. If you accommodate dissent, and even encourage it, your team will pick that up very quickly and you will be able to create an ecosystem of bravery and accelerate performance and innovation. Second, assign members of your team to challenge whatever you are doing, whatever your priorities are. When you assign dissent, it goes a long way in removing the burden of personal risk. It also transforms your culture if you do it consistently.

About the Author

Dr. Timothy R. Clark is founder and CEO of LeaderFactor. Clark has written five books and more than 150 articles on leadership, change, strategy, human capital, culture, and employee engagement. He is a highly sought-after advisor, coach, and facilitator to CEOs and senior leadership teams. He has worked with leading organizations around the world. Clark’s leadership experience is extensive. He was previously President and CEO of Decker, a consulting firm based in San Francisco, and CEO of Novations SDC, a consulting and training firm based in Boston. Prior to these assignments, Dr. Clark spent several years in manufacturing, serving as a vice president of operations and plant manager of Geneva Steel Company. Dr. Clark earned a doctorate degree in Social Science from Oxford University and was both a Fulbright and British Research Scholar.


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  • Psychological safety

    by David Lowe,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Thanks for the Q&A on Dr Clark's new book. I've read quite a bit on psychological safety and this is a really interesting lens ... which means it's another book to add to the reading list!

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