Quite simply psychological safety is a superpower which will help your team and company win. Discover how to climb the four rungs of the Ladder of Psychology Safety as a team.
As coaches, we encourage the teams (or the individuals) we coach to understand their current state, so they understand the starting point of their developmental journey. Without an awareness about where the gaps of knowledge or skills might be, making changes is harder and much less likely to be done in an impactful way.
Having discovered the current state we then focus on the desired state, where do they want to go. The hard work is then shifting the team from the current to the desired state. We mention this to encourage you to complete the short quizzes in the first essay on psychological safety. We take the view that what you measure, you can change.
So, what were your scores? Scores of over 21 and 9 respectively on the two quizzes suggests your team has high levels of stress and that’s a dangerous place to be. You are not getting the most out of your team members or the team as a whole. You may find you are losing people you don’t want to. Innovation has stalled. You must act. Get help! Psychological Safety can be built and Team Coaching is a very effective intervention to help build it.
If you have scores of 10 and 5 or less in the two quizzes it sounds as if there are good levels of psychological safety. Well done. But without wanting to put a downer on this there is no room for complacency on psychological safety. You don’t get to tick the box and move on. Psychological safety is dynamic and delicate. Teams live within complex systems with multiple internal and external influences. You might be tired one day at work and shout down someone’s new idea. A new team member joins the team and they start to rub others up the wrong way. Or a customer terminates their contract blaming one of your team members. One event or a series of events can shift your safe team to feel unsafe.
In this second essay on psychological safety, which I have co-written with Anu Arora, my team coaching colleague, our objective is to empower you to build and develop psychological safety in your teams.
The good news is psychological safety is a skill you can learn. Like any skill it can be done well or poorly. It does not depend on who you are but on what you do.
We take you through four steps to develop psychological safety.
Step One: Understand the Role of Vulnerability in Psychological Safety and The Acts of Vulnerability
Step Two: Identify Your And Your Team’s Personal Impact On Psychological Safety
Step Three: Model Psychological Safety Behaviours Yourself
Steps Four: Climb The Four Rungs of The Ladder of Vulnerability (as developed by Dr Timothy Clark)
- Rung 1 – Build Belonging & Inclusion
- Rung 2 – Create Safety to Learn
- Rung 3 – Create Safety to Contribute
- Rung 4 – Create Safety to Challenge
Step One – Understand The Role of Vulnerability in Psychological Safety and The Acts of Vulnerability
To us she is essentially describing the everyday life of a leader or an entrepreneur i.e. they have put themselves in the arena exposing themselves to uncertainty, failure and criticism.
As you may remember from the first essay our favourite definition of psychological safety is “an environment of rewarded vulnerability” (Dr Timothy Clark). Human interaction by nature is an act of vulnerability. The workplace is full of humans interacting which means it’s a vulnerable place.
You may believe that understanding vulnerability is not your highest priority right now. You may have two months left of cash or you think your board is about to fire you. But before you write vulnerability off or drop it down the list of priorities just think about what an act of vulnerability is.
Which of these feel like vulnerable acts for you?
- Apologising to a team member about how you spoke to them in a meeting
- Showing emotion
- Asking for help
- Slowing down the team to ask for clarification
- Communicating bad news
- Giving and receiving feedback
- Launching a product you know isn’t perfect
- Playing devil’s advocate
Some of them? Maybe all of them?
Your answers to this will be different to your team members as we all have different perceptions of vulnerability and our own list of what feels vulnerable. For example, coming up with a half-baked idea and taking it to your leadership team may feel perfectly normal to you but for a colleague it may be a vulnerable step too far.
This short list is just a few examples of acts of vulnerability. The actual list is almost endless. Quite simply it’s impossible to avoid vulnerability if there is more than one of you i.e. if you want to build a successful company with others!
So you might as well embrace vulnerability!
It is the foundation to build trust and safety.
Our request to you is to start noticing what actions, you take or don’t take, that feel vulnerable to you. Open up to your team members and ask them what they find vulnerable.
Awareness is the starting point. You can’t change what you are not aware of.
Step Two – Identify Your Personal And Your Team’s Impact On Psychological Safety
To assess your personal impact on psychological safety as the leader, ask yourself the following questions.
- Presence: Does the room feel safer or less safe when I walk into the room?
- Collaboration: When I collaborate with my team members, do I enhance or get in the way of problem solving or innovation?
- Feedback: Do I frequently get feedback from my colleagues or am I in a feedback free zone? Are team members telling me the untarnished truth, telling me what I want to hear or remaining silent?
- Inquiry: Do I encourage others to open up, to reflect on their ideas and problems by asking questions or do I have a tendency to shut people down by solving their problems myself, criticising or interrupting?
- Perspectives: Do I encourage open debate and encourage my team members to have different perspectives to mine or do I close debates and alternative viewpoints down?
- Conflict: Am I able to let healthy conflict happen or do I avoid it?
- Mistakes: Do I celebrate mistakes and lessons learnt or do I overreact and marginalise those who make them?
We encourage you to look at your ingrained patterns of behaviour which grow or reduce psychological safety.
Also, ask your team members to answer the same questions you asked yourself. They can also see for themselves their own behaviour and its impact on psychological safety.
Step Three – Model Psychological Safety Behaviours Yourself
Psychological safety, and any new behaviour in the workplace for that matter, starts with modelling by the leaders. You have to accept your role as the cultural and psychological safety architect.
The most practical way to increase psychological safety is to model acts of vulnerability yourself and reward the vulnerable acts of others.
Psychological safety does not magically appear from a new set of beliefs or from a few words you say to the team. It will come from a consistent set of behaviours from yourself (and ultimately from all of your team members). You walk the talk day in and day out.
Nothing can compensate for lack of modelling at the top. If you don’t model the behaviours all bets are off.
Leaders set the norms for their teams. Colleagues will follow and commit to new behaviours if they see the leaders demonstrate them. And so if you want change, if you want commitment to psychological safety, you have to go first.
Behaviours which contribute to team psychological safety include:
- Always build relationships. Culture comes from the Latin cultus, which means care. Being human is core to building a great culture with psychological safety as the foundation. Every interaction is an opportunity to build safety or to reduce it. Recognise that every team member has their own needs, beliefs, perspectives, hopes, anxieties and vulnerabilities just like you. Discover the unique value people can bring as human beings beyond doing the task well.
- Demonstrate presence, engagement and understanding. Be present and focused on the conversation (e.g. phone off and laptop closed). Show you are actively listening, be aware of your body language including making eye contact. Encourage people to share more by asking open questions.
- Be inclusive in interpersonal settings. Share information about life outside work, your strengths, weaknesses, personality and work preferences – encourage others to do the same. Get to know each team member. Be authentic and bring your whole self to the workplace. Model vulnerability by admitting mistakes or when you don’t know the answer. Be approachable and open. Step in if team members talk negatively or blame a fellow colleague. Maintain open body posture.
- Seeking feedback and diverse opinions. Solicit input, opinions and feedback from your colleagues and other stakeholders. Thank people for asking questions and sharing ideas. Work to foster equal speaking time for everyone – don’t let extroverts or leaders dominate the discussion. Let the hierarchy disappear. Don’t interrupt or let others interrupt. Don’t get defensive or aggressive when team members challenge your opinion and offer different perspectives. Be prepared to change your mind.
- Encourage experimenting and make failure ok. Admitting you are not right all the time is a massive pressure release for the team. Demonstrate when you are taking a risk and encourage others to do the same. Put your hand up if it doesn’t work out. Make it clear mistakes will happen, and that’s ok. React with compassion to yourself and others if the outcome is not what you wanted. Make space for reflection and review and what to do better next time
- Engaging in constructive conflict. Bring up conflict directly, don’t let it fester. Encourage lively debate. Let there be discomfort but don’t let the debate get personal. Do not shame, humiliate, ignore or blame someone for having an opinion even if it is half-formed. Approach conflict as a collaborator, avoid getting triggered into a flight or fight reaction and search for win-win solution
Figure out the behaviours you are already good at, build on them first, and then address your weaknesses.
Ed Catmull, the CEO of Pixar, says, “If we as leaders want other people ‘to talk about their mistakes, we’ve got to talk about ours first.’ You have got to set the example.”
Creating psychological safety depends on you modelling the behaviours. You either show the way or get in the way. And you should start today, whilst you are gaining more knowledge, not tomorrow when you have gained all the knowledge.
Here is a great exercise for you to do. Over a 24 hour period, for each interaction, measure and rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 on if you rewarded or punished an act of vulnerability. 10 being a reward, and 1 being a punishment. You can’t give yourself a 5 because there is never a neutral interaction – reward or punish. For example, if your colleague points out a mistake you made, and you stay calm, ask a few questions to get clarity and thank them for helping you get better, give yourself a 9-10. If, however, you either ignore them or get defensive and argue your corner, then give yourself a 1-2. Reflect on your scores and interactions and what you could do better next time to improve your scores.
Steps Four – Climb The Ladder of Psychological Safety
This stage is about climbing the four rungs of The Ladder of Vulnerability as developed by Dr Timothy Clark.
Although the ladder or framework is linear in some respects, each of us will have our own unique set of skills related to building (or sabotaging!) psychological safety. For example, some of us are comfortable sharing something personal but are very reluctant to ask for help. Or we may be comfortable speaking up and asking questions, but do not like receiving constructive feedback. That being said, the evidence from Dr Clark is that creating the safety to challenge is often the biggest hurdle in the development of psychological safety, and it is not always possible to climb to the top of the ladder without mastering the other rungs.
The Ladder of Vulnerability
Rung One – Build Belonging & Inclusion
The search for safety is our basic survival instinct. With every interaction we have – and most of us will have hundreds each day – we are consciously or unconsciously asking ourselves “Am I safe or unsafe here?”
Belonging & inclusion is how we can feel safe, it creates a safe connection in teams and groups. Belonging & inclusion is the glue to the vulnerability muscle. People don’t want to be part of a team, they want to belong.
When we experience a sense of belonging & inclusion, happy hormones are activated like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. You feel safe to be yourself as you feel accepted for who you are, including your unique characteristics and attributes.
Belonging & inclusion does not occur from one single act but a series of social interactions – both non-verbal (eye contact, energy, tone of voice, body language) and verbal. You can’t give one or two belonging signals and assume all is fine, you need to keep giving them.
Building belonging and inclusion is about learning a multiple set of subtle skills or signals and learning to deliver the right signal at the right time. Here are our two tips to help you do that.
- Focus on your non-verbal communication
As humans we are consciously and unconsciously attuned to non-verbal cues. Your team members will read your body language as much as they will listen to what you say. Be careful not to send non-verbal signals that communicate exclusion e.g rolling your eyes or looking away. Inclusion cues include:
- Physically facing the person you are talking to
- Upright and forward posture
- Look people in the eyes when you are talking and listening
- Listen with intent to understand not to respond
- Create belonging & inclusion rituals
Rituals reinforce belonging and inclusiveness. They may seem trivial on the surface but rituals create routine in a fast-changing and unpredictable world. Humans like routine, it can give your team resilience when everything around feels out of control. You need to pick the rituals that fit your team. Examples of belonging & inclusion rituals include:
- Start meetings with a positive thought or feeling
- Invite others to share an inspirational story or quote in the weekly or monthly meetings
- Make your own pizza every Friday lunch (whether or not you have an office!)
- Model and promote acts of kindness, appreciation and gratitude on your team.
Rung Two – Create Safety To Learn
We all have an innate desire to learn and grow. But with learning comes more interpersonal risk. You have to put yourself out there to solicit feedback, ask questions, experiment, make mistakes and suggest ideas.
It is up to leaders to create an environment where their colleagues or learners feel safe to expose themselves to the next level of risk. Where they weigh up the risk/reward calculation in favour of admitting they don’t know or of requesting help.
But to climb this learner rung successfully it needs to be a two-way thing. The teacher or leader sets the right environment up, but then it is up to the learner to engage in the learning process i.e. an encouragement to learn in exchange for engagement to learn.
Believing in the potential of others is critical in the learner stage. If you don’t see the potential in someone, they will not see the potential in themselves.
C. Roland Christensen, the Harvard professor, describes it really well:
“If I have faith, deep faith, in students’ capacities for creativity and growth, how very much we can accomplish together. If, on the other hand, I fail to believe in that potential, my failure sows seeds of doubt. Students read our negative signals, however carefully cloaked, and retreat from creative risk to the ‘just possible’. When this happens everyone loses.”
Creating a company which learns at or above the speed of change is the one which is likely to succeed. Can you say hand on heart you are playing a pivotal role in your team members’ learning?
Here are some tips on how to be your team’s learning evangelist.
- Admit your ignorance and say “I don’t know”
Great leaders realise they don’t have to always be the expert in the room. When they step outside their area of competency they confidently say “I don’t know”. This shows you are human and relatable! And it will be a big relief to your team members as you are probably admitting something they already know. It shows that you are open to learning. It will give your colleagues the confidence to do the same.
- Assess the learning style of your team members
Each of your team members will learn and take in information in different ways. Some will have a visual learning style (i.e. from graphs, charts, diagrams to presentations with visual aids).
Others will have a hearing learning style where they much prefer to have a conversation or listen to a presentation than read something on their own.
Some members of your team will have a read/write learning style i.e they prefer to read on a page or a screen. Whitepapers, emails, proposals or manuals go a long way.
And also some members will be kinesthetic learners i.e. you want to personally experience something. These learners like to get their hands dirty to learn something.
Help you team members figure out their own learning preferences and then have them personalise their own learning journey.
Rung Three – Create Safety to Contribute
This rung of the ladder satisfies the need to make a difference, to add value. You feel safe to use your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution. You give your head and your heart to the cause.
But to earn this autonomy and go from apprenticeship to self-directed performance, you have to show you can add value, to be a contributor. With autonomy comes a responsibility for effort and results. If you don’t carry your weight, you will drop back down the ladder to learner mode.
When a team is infused with contributor safety:
- Accountability is embraced
- Roles are clearly defined
- Team members are pleased with the success of others
- Knowledge and information is freely shared
- Recognition that insights come from all members of the team
- Small wins are celebrated
Here are some tips to help your team members become the contributors you want and they want to be.
- Rotate the running of the meetings
Traditionally the leader will run the team meetings. One simple but powerful way to encourage your team members to contribute is to ask them to run the team meetings. You may need to coach them initially but your team members should soon feel safe to step up and take the lead.
- Don’t react to mistakes with anger, blame or shame
The way you react to a mistake is a big moment. Mistakes and failures are an opportunity. Your team members are likely to feel scared, frightened or defensive when they make a mistake. If you respond in a rational and compassionate way, stay focused on the issue at hand, without blame, help them reflect and learn, you will demonstrate how to deal with the hard stuff. It will nurture their safety to contribute.
If your team members see an emotional angry reaction and/or experience a public humiliation this will shut them down, and will be hard to undo.
Rung Four – Create Safety to Challenge
This rung satisfies the need to make things better. You feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there’s an opportunity to change or improve.
The future of many companies depends on their ability to innovate fast. Innovation in turn depends on the 4th rung of Psychological Safety. When we create safety to challenge the status quo, new ways to do things are discovered, new products are created and change happens.
According to Gallup, only 30% of employees strongly agree that their opinions count at work. Silence and holding back is the easy thing to do as it is unlikely to get you into trouble. However, it is a killer for collaboration and innovation.
You want people to speak up, to ask the challenging questions, to voice their opinions, share an idea, to experiment and to challenge the status quo. It is everyone’s responsibility in the team not to ignore, ridicule or judge each other. As Dr Clark says, “If the organisation wants candour, you need cover – you need real and sustained air cover to be brave enough to take what is almost always a substantial personal risk.”
This is about encouraging debate without fear of intellectual conflict. It’s about being prepared to change your mind, to embrace ideas whether or not they are fully formed.
To survive and thrive in this super competitive world you need to adapt and learn i.e. progress from the status quo. Success will come from your team creating value beyond the sum of its parts.
Here are two tips on how to create challenger safety, the hardest level for many to achieve.
- Apply the disruption question sequence
Asking these three questions signals there are no restrictions in challenging the status quo. It energises divergent thinking.
These three questions are an inquiry into the future and identify what could be done, what is possible, and what could be explored.
- Why i.e. why do we do it this way?
- What if i.e. what if we tried something else?
- How – how might we do that?
- Give your team member a licence to disagree
We have both worked with fast-growing technology companies which appoint a ‘red’ team to be the dissenting voice in the room. To be the devil’s advocate or to do the pre-mortem. The point is you are giving your team members permission to tell you why something might not work. And you expect them to rise to the challenge.
The ROI On Skillfully Nurturing Psychological Safety Will Surprise You
We suspect Google is full of pretty smart people. And so when they embarked on research into the ingredients of high performing teams, we assumed the main conclusion would be that they are able to attract the smartest and the best talent.
It turns out that although it may be true they are able to attract the best, the reason Google became the #1 search engine in the globe and that it keeps winning is not because it is smarter but because it is safer! I would call a valuation of c.$900 billion a pretty strong ROI. That being said, with the recent redundancies at Google, let’s see what happens to that safe environment and Google’s progress!
If you want to create a moat around your business, a competitive advantage that others will ignore or struggle to build and maintain…
If you want to learn how to climb The Ladder of Psychological Safety…
Get in contact with Anu or Mark and we will help kick off your journey of creating a winning culture with psychological safety at its foundation.