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. In our experience, this stage is far more easily navigated once team members have already begun the values-based, self-awareness work in The Mindful Leader: Vertical Growth Program. Ridiculing anyone for their ideas is a basic values violation. This is once again why values are so precious for the growth journey. They are themselves a container of safety.
- 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. Nothing short of this will do. Challenger safety is the most advanced form of psychological safety, because the very core of the ego and its image management defences in the team dissolve. This is the stage where innovation flourishes. We feel safe to challenge the status quo, or even the behaviours that are eroding challenger safety. We need constructive dissent, fearless dialogue. We cannot let rank get in the way of a merit-based discussion. As Timothy Clark explains, ‘The social exchange in challenger safety is that you as the leader need to give me air cover in exchange for me giving you candour.’ The intention of the challenge is informed by care and respect to support mutual growth and collective success. It’s not attacking, belittling or demeaning.
Challenger safety is the essential container for accelerating team growth in what Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey refer to as a ‘deliberately developmental organisation’. It a massive amount of energy in a team or organisation because fear dissolves. As Clark puts it, ‘A fear-stricken employee will give you their hands, some of their head, and none of their heart. And fear will eat your possibilities of innovation for breakfast, lunch and dinner.’
Consider these survey statistics from a 12-year Harvard study on the impact of low psychological safety:
- 48 per cent intentionally decreased their work effort.
- 47 per cent intentionally decreased the time spent at work.
- 38 per cent intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
- 78 per cent said that their commitment to the organisation declined.
- 25 per cent admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.19
Challenger safety delivers the promise of a truly values-aligned, growth culture. Of course, without self-aware, values-aligned individuals on the team, the mission would be impossible, which is why we invest so much effort in the individual growth journey of team members. But even with evolved, mature people on the team, there is still a need for clear team guidelines that sustain group safety and awareness.
Four key elements of psychological safety
Timothy Clark asserts that psychological safety is the product of two key elements: respect and permission. 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. Triangulation is defined by psychiatrist Murray Bowen as ‘a breakdown in communication between two or more people resulting in one or several of those people attempting to resolve/discuss the issues outside the confines of the parties to the communication’.
- 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.