Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for expressing their thoughts, ideas, concerns, or mistakes. It is a critical aspect of creating a supportive and inclusive work or social environment for individuals.
Psychological safety – definition and explanation
Psychological safety is fundamental to fostering healthy relationships and collaboration within teams, organizations, and communities.
It creates an environment that encourages people to speak up, contribute, and bring their whole selves to the table.
When psychological safety is present, people are more likely to share diverse viewpoints, challenge the status quo, and engage in constructive dialogue.
The four stages of psychological safety
In the book “The Four Stages of Psychological Safety”, the author Timothy R. Clarke presents a conceptual model that outlines four progressive stages of psychological safety within teams.
The model illustrates how psychological safety evolves and progresses within teams, allowing for greater participation, learning, and innovation.
Here are the four stages:
Stage 1: Inclusion safety
In this stage, team members feel a sense of belonging and inclusion. They are comfortable being themselves, do not experience exclusion, and feel valued and appreciated within the team.
Stage 2: Learner safety
During this stage, team members feel safe to ask questions and seek knowledge. They are free to experiment, make and acknowledge small mistakes, and seek assistance or guidance when needed.
Stage 3: Contributor safety
This is a more challenging stage where team members feel secure in contributing their own ideas without fear of judgment, embarrassment, or ridicule. It involves a level of vulnerability as individuals expose their thoughts and perspectives to the team.
Stage 4: Challenger safety
In this stage, team members are empowered to question ideas put forth by others, including those in positions of authority. They can suggest significant changes to ideas, plans, or methods of working, fostering a culture of constructive challenge and continuous improvement.
Critique of the four stages
While the book “The Four Stages of Psychological Safety” proves valuable insights and practical applications, it has limitations worth considering:
- The framework lacks empirical evidence – additional research would strengthen its claims.
- The implementation steps may be ambiguous. Including concrete examples and case studies would enhance clarity.
- It has been criticized for overemphasizing leader responsibility and neglecting the shared responsibility of all team members in maintaining a safe and supportive environment.
- Its focus on a US workplace context (particularly a Western, English-speaking, neurotypical one) limits its applicability to other contexts, such as education or families. It would be more universally relevant if it included such different contexts.
Example of psychological safety in the workplace
A software development team is working on a complex project, but Sarah, one of the junior developers, has concerns about it. During a project meeting, Sarah feels comfortable sharing her concerns and proposes an alternative approach.
Her contribution was met with a positive response from the team; they actively listened to Sarah’s insights and showed genuine interest in her perspective. Instead of dismissing her input, they engaged in a constructive dialogue and asked clarifying questions to fully understand the proposed solution.
As a result, the team considers alternative approaches and ultimately adopts a modified strategy that addresses potential issues – which improves the outcome of the project.
This example illustrates how psychological safety enables team members to openly express their thoughts, share concerns, and contribute valuable ideas. It fosters a collaborative and inclusive work environment where individuals feel empowered to voice their opinions without fear of judgment or negative consequences.
The impact of psychological safety
Psychological safety has numerous positive effects on individuals and groups. According to research, it promotes a sense of belonging, trust, and psychological well-being among team members, reducing stress and anxiety levels.
When people feel safe, they are more willing to take risks, be creative, and share innovative ideas. This leads to enhanced problem-solving, increased productivity, and improved overall performance – just like in the example with Sarah mentioned above.
The benefits of psychological safety and the downsides of lacking it
Psychological safety has numerous benefits, whereas the absence of it can negatively impact employee-well-being and organizational performance.
Here are some benefits of psychological safety:
- Increased engagement and motivation: Team members feel valued and empowered to contribute, leading to higher levels of engagement and motivation.
- Improved decision-making: Psychological safety encourages individuals to voice their opinions and concerns, leading to a more diverse range of perspectives being considered, which can enhance the quality of decision-making.
- Cultivates a culture of learning: It allows team members to openly share their mistakes and learn from them, fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement.
- Enhanced team performance: Psychological safety has been linked to improved team performance, innovation, creativity, and resilience.
Here are the downsides of lacking psychological safety:
- Negative impact on employee well-being: A study shows that without psychological safety, employees may experience increased stress, burnout, and dissatisfaction, leading to negative impacts on their overall well-being.
- Impaired organizational performance: The absence of psychological safety can hinder collaboration, creativity, and information sharing, ultimately affecting the overall performance and productivity of the organization.
- Higher turnover rates: Lack of psychological safety can contribute to higher turnover rates as employees may seek more supportive and inclusive work environments.
Building psychological safety in the workplace
Creating psychological safety requires deliberate efforts from leaders, managers, and team members.
Here are some strategies to cultivate psychological safety at work:
- Encourage open communication: Leaders should foster a culture of open and honest communication, emphasizing that all ideas and perspectives are valued. Encourage active listening, empathy, and respect for different opinions.
- Lead by example: Leaders should demonstrate vulnerability by admitting their own mistakes, seeking feedback and acknowledging the contributions of others. This sets a positive tone and encourages others to do the same.
- Establish clear expectations: Clearly communicate behavioral norms and expectations regarding respectful communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution. This is a great way to create a shared understanding of how to interact constructively.
- Foster inclusivity: Ensure that all individuals, regardless of their background, feel included and valued. Celebrate diversity and actively promote a culture of equity and fairness.
- Address conflicts effectively: Create a safe space to address conflicts and disagreements. Encourage open dialogue, active listening, and mediation to resolve conflicts constructively and learn from them.
- Provide feedback and recognition: Regularly provide constructive feedback to help individuals grow and improve. Recognize and appreciate diverse contributions to foster a sense of belonging and value.
- Sustaining psychological safety: Psychological safety is not a one-time achievement. Rather, it is an ongoing process that requires continuous attending and nurturing. Regularly reassess the culture of the teams or organization, solicit feedback, and adapt strategies accordingly. Try to make psychological safety a core value and embed it into every aspect of the practice and policies in the company.