Harvard organisational behavioural scientist Amy Edmondson first introduced the construct of ‘team psychological safety’, which she defined as a ‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking’. It’s a shared assumption that others on the team will not embarrass, reject or punish you for speaking up or sharing honest mistakes, which requires an environment in which vulnerability is rewarded rather than punished.
Over the course of two years, Google performed a large-scale study to determine what makes teams effective. They found that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: team psychological safety.
Team psychological safety is not to be confused with a lack of accountability. In fact, accountability for behaviour that damages psychological safety needs to be very strong, while performance accountability also needs to be strong.
In his book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, Timothy Clark identifies the four stages as follows:
- Inclusion safety: Team members feel safe to be themselves and are accepted for who they are. In our The Mindful Leader: Vertical Growth Program we work hard at helping each individual to safely reveal their authentic selves more fully to one another, from their deepest values to their inner struggles around those values. This propels a group rapidly towards inclusion safety.
- Learner safety: Team members learn through asking questions. Team members may be able to experiment, make (and admit to) small mistakes, and ask for help. In our online course The Mindful Leader: Vertical Growth Program, we take this to a more advanced level where we invite team members to experiment with their behaviour and admit to mistakes around their values and behaviours.
- Contributor safety: Members feel safe to contribute their own ideas without fear of being shamed or ridiculed.
- Challenger safety: Members feel safe to challenge the status quo. In the context of vertical growth and values, they can also challenge one another’s behaviour and actions in the context of the team values and commitments. This includes the team leader. Challenger safety is the level of safety that is needed for an environment of vertical growth to be fully supported.
Four key elements of psychological safety
Timothy Clark asserts that psychological safety is the product of two key elements: respect and permission.
The four stages of psychological safety
Permission here means permission to participate in and influence the group (share new ideas, challenge ideas, even influence values alignment). Respect means inclusion, kindness and care, which aligns with Kouzes and Posner’s research that maintains that respect is a fundamental value for leadership success.
As we climb this maturity model, the challenge is to strike the right balance between setting high standards on expected performance levels and creating the right conditions to ensure psychological safety is maintained throughout the journey. The following figure shows how Amy Edmondson illustrates this idea in her book The Fearless Organization.
Psychological safety and performance standards
The goal is to reach the sweet spot of a high-learning and high-performance team and organisation.
While we appreciate and fully agree with this general structure, more than 20 years of research on emotional systems and extensive work in this area has taught us that there are four key elements to building and sustaining a challenger level of psychological safety, and therefore a values-aligned, vertical growth environment within your team and organisation:
- A self-aware, self-examined, values-based team leader is non-negotiable.
- Triangulation must be eliminated, because it kills trust and disables vertical growth.
- All team members must be fully accountable for their behaviour and agreements, and be enabled to hold others accountable. Defensiveness, blame and denial kill challenger safety.
- Feedback needs to be totally honest, but handled with respect, empathy and care. Respect and honesty are non-negotiable values for challenger safety.
Without these four elements, psychological safety cannot be ensured within your organisation, and as a result, engagement and results will decline. When psychological safety is created by these four elements, organisations are much more likely to innovate quickly and adapt well to change.