Psychological safety in action: A practical starting point for leaders

Navigating the four stages of psychological safety with effective leadership.

September 7, 2023

In our last blog, we dove into the concept of psychological safety and how it can be leveraged to promote open dialogue without fear. It’s a big topic and I have more to say about it. In this article, we lay out some of the actionable steps leaders can take to create a safe environment where team members feel empowered to voice their opinions.

Start here: Figure out what you’re working with

If I was the fairy godmother of psychological safety, I would wave my magic wand and POOF! All feelings of intimidation, fear, and discomfort would disappear. But I am no fairy godmother (despite all my grey hair and lame jokes) and we aren’t living in a fairytale. This takes some work. 

Before we can start working to improve the group dynamic, we have to figure out what we’re working with. We have to  get a clear picture of each group’s psychological safety baseline. I’ve seen it all: Boards of directors who barely speak to each other. Organizations where employees barely even know each other’s names. Groups are so polite that they never disagree. It’s very awkward. 

Before we dive in with a bunch of different techniques that could backfire, I like to start by building a really good understanding of where each person in the group is at right now. This can be as simple as conducting individual discussions to build familiarity and nurture trust, and then discussing findings with the group. It could be as simple as putting together a basic survey that assesses the initial climate and then having a conversation about the findings. (Leader Factor has a great survey tool that we are starting to use - I admit to having a preference for individual discussions).

The stages of psychological safety 

To make sense of the feedback we receive from our participants, we might help leaders categorize them into Leader Factor’s four stages of psychological safety: Inclusion, Learner, Contributor, and Challenger. This model is a way of understanding where people are coming from, and determining how we can start to build elements of psychological safety based on their personalities. 

1. Inclusion

At this foundational stage, people are typically worried about fitting in and being accepted by their team. They want to feel welcome in the group and be their authentic selves. Inclusion safety is a basic human right and should never be contingent upon personality, ability, gender, race, education, or any other demographic variable. When basic inclusion isn’t present, not only will people hold back their perspectives, but their commitment to sticking with the group will remain weak.

So how do we build inclusion safety? Start by introducing yourself to someone in the group:

  • Learn their name and how to pronounce it.
  • Look them in the eyes and say, “Welcome”.
  • Ask questions and then listen to what they say before you respond.
  • Invite them for a coffee or lunch.
  • Express gratitude and appreciation.
  • Avoid comparisons and competitions.

I have a morning workout routine at a small gym that is always recruiting new members. One of the things that I’ve noticed is how well the owner works at inclusion safety with new members. She has a sign that says, “Welcome Taylor to your first class”. I then see her personally greet the new member and check in often during their first work out. She then checks in with them several times during their first week. These intentional acts of inclusion safety help her retain and grow her gym members. 

2. Learner

Learning and growing is essential for a vibrant and dynamic organization. 

As individuals become more comfortable within their team, they move into the Learner stage. Here, they start to ask questions and seek feedback. They are able to detach fear from making mistakes and they embrace a learning mindset, recognizing that it's okay not to have all the answers. This stage is characterized by a growing curiosity and a willingness to explore new ideas and perspectives.

It is important that the organization offers encouragement and resources to support learning. This is critical to ensuring the organization’s ability to learn and grow keeps pace with the rate of change in the marketplace.

As a leader, you can build learner safety by:

  • Sharing past mistakes - I  deeply respect the leaders in my groups who are courageous enough to say, “I’ve made that mistake”.  
  • Avoiding “too busy” as the default position when it comes to new learning. 
  • Supporting time requests and dedicating resources to learning opportunities. 
  • Being a student - be curious, ask questions, ask for help, mentorship or input.
  • Working with employees and peers one-on-one. 
  • Saying “I don’t know” 
  • Normalizing learning and discovery. 

Learner safety is built by sharing what we’re learning ourselves. I often see people in the courses I teach with a mandate to bring their learnings back into the organization. To do this, they ask questions like, “How would I explain this to someone on my team?”  I love to hear this

3. Contributor

In the Contributor stage, we see people start to actively participate and share their insights, ideas, and expertise. They feel empowered to contribute to discussions, projects, and decision-making. This stage is marked by a sense of ownership over their role and responsibilities, as well as a genuine desire to make a meaningful impact.

When you have contributor safety, groups thrive on being accountable for outcomes (versus tasks).  We saw this with a group that we spent more than a year with. The group developed a very strong commitment to an outcome. We reached a point in the process where we could have said, “Good enough”, however the commitment of the group was so strong that they insisted on another two meetings to get to the best outcome. 

How do we build contributor safety? 

  • Ask people what they think - bring their wisdom and perspective into the room.
  • Adopt a style of asking your team for inputs and next steps rather than telling them. Facilitators believe that the group is the agent of change, and so we ask them to tell us what’s next.
  • Help others see their strengths and give them feedback on what they do well and how it makes a difference. 
  • Accept bad news. 
  • Don’t correct with anger, blame, or shame. 
  • Celebrate small wins (not just the big ones)
  • Recognize accomplishment. 

4. Challenger

This is the highest level of psychological safety.  Individuals at this stage not only contribute actively, but also challenge existing norms, assumptions, and practices. They feel comfortable questioning the status quo, offering constructive criticism, and suggesting different approaches. This stage fosters an environment of continuous improvement, innovation, and adaptability.  It is the confidence to say, “Why do we do it this way?” and, “What if we did it another way?”

Disagreement is normalized, constructive and productive at the challenger safety level. It’s recognized as an important part of improvement. Often, when people tell us about great teams they’ve been a part of, they will say things like, “We could argue and disagree and hear each other’s perspectives and be completely comfortable in those disagreements”.  Some call it ‘creative abrasion’.  

Teams fall silent when you don’t have challenger safety. They avoid confronting differences and they skate from any kind of conflict. In fact, they often rush to shut it down. 

What can we do to build challenger safety? 

  • As a leader, weigh in last. I shared this insight with a group leader recently and loved watching him lean into this. He gave his team members permission to speak first, which built confidence that their leader wanted to hear from them.
  • Take your finger off the fear button. Think back to contributor safety - groups need to make mistakes and try new things. Being afraid of making a mistake inhibits.  
  • Respond constructively to bad news and disruptive ideas. Sure, it’s uncomfortable, but what insights can we take away from these scenarios?  
  • Model and practice the art of disagreement.  

I’ve recently spent a week with Sam Kaner of Community at Work.  Sam promotes an “oom pah pah” approach: Ask a clarifying question (oom - “What should we know about this?”), support the speaker (pah - “That’s interesting, say more”), support the speaker again (pah - “So if I hear you correctly…”).  

It’s a set of practical behaviours!

Helping people work through the four stages is not a sprint - sometimes it’s more like a marathon. It’s not linear and it may vary among team members. We work closely with our clients to guide leaders and their team members along the way, and ultimately get them across the finish line. 

It’s about building the group’s safety, encouraging open communication, fostering a non-judgemental environment, addressing conflicts constructively, promoting a growth mindset, and embracing feedback. If you can do that, you will create a culture where psychological safety thrives.

Check out some free resources published by Leader Factor to learn more about psychological safety.

Photo by Sarah Ardin on Unsplash.

Written by
Robin Parsons

Robin has more than twenty-five years of experience as an effective leader and strategic thinker. She helps organizations have better conversations that help them work together more effectively.

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