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Prioritising psychological safety

A few months ago, I attended a leadership meeting for a large organisation starting their diversity and inclusion journey. I was nervous: it was my first time back in a Melbourne office for a long time. I’d previously met only two of the leaders virtually.

What happened in the next two hours said a lot about the level of psychological safety in the team. The CEO welcomed me and offered gentle reassurance when I explained my nerves. He said he was curious to learn more about a topic he cared deeply about. He explained two people would be on their iPads taking notes: he didn’t want me to think they weren’t listening. Each time I paused and asked for feedback on a specific topic, we heard from each member of the team. Perspectives varied. The CEO shared his thoughts after hearing from the team first. Everyone (including me) learned something from this conversation.

When a team culture like this feels safe, you can be yourself, contribute well, experiment, and challenge the status quo when there’s an opportunity to improve.

We’ve observed many organisations elevate their focus on building inclusive team cultures and psychological safety over the past eighteen months. While most have long focused on physical safety of employees, the prioritisation of psychological safety is relatively new.

 Despite all the uncertainty of the pandemic, this new focus is encouraging. Talk of the ‘Great Resignation’ or the ‘Great Realignment’ as leadership expert Dr Kirstin Ferguson recently called it – as employees reconsider their work and personal priorities – may be one of several factors driving some organisations to prioritise their focus on people and culture.

Dr Timothy R. Clark, author of The Four Stages of Psychological Safety published last year, says the interest in psychological safety has exploded because organisations around the world have two common goals: ‘to create sanctuaries of inclusion and incubators of innovation’.

Dr Clark says psychological safety is the heartbeat of culture. Leaders create it by design, not default. He sums up the essence of psychological safety in five words: ‘an environment of rewarded vulnerability’.

When we enter groups of any kind, he explains, we try to understand whether vulnerability is rewarded or punished. If it’s unsafe, we go into survival mode and withdraw. If it’s safe, we thrive.

Dr Clark sums up the essence of psychological safety in five words: ‘an environment of rewarded vulnerability’.

The term psychological safety was first coined by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis at MIT in 1965. It has steadily gained prominence through the work of Professor Amy Edmonson from Harvard University and, more recently, a three-year study of 180 teams in Google (called Project Aristotle) that showed psychological safety is the most important ingredient of high performing teams.

Psychological safety is the most important ingredient of high-performing teams. Google, Project Aristotle.

Four stages of psychological safety

What we’ve learned from Dr Clark’s extensive research is that there are four stages of psychological safety. This staged concept is new. Inclusion safety comes first.

Challenger Safety – where you feel safe to challenge the status quo without fear of retaliation or retribution – is the culmination of the four stages, and the ‘domain of innovation’.

Stage 1 is Inclusion Safety – where you can be yourself

Stage 2 is Learner Safety – where you feel safe to engage in the learning process and can make mistakes

Stage 3 is Contributor Safety – where you’re given the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution

Stage 4 is Challenger Safety – where you can challenge the status quo when there is an opportunity to improve

Dr Clark says this is a ‘universal pattern that cuts across cultures and demographics’. Leaders have a job to approach increasing psychological safety as ‘an acquired discipline’.

Applying the learning

We’ve been applying this new research in our workshops, coaching and strategies. It expands the framework of an inclusive workplace defined by Catalyst (2019) that we regularly use: where you feel valued, trusted, can be authentic, and have psychological safety. We coach leaders on affinity and sunflower biases that so easily lead us to thought cascades and away from diversity – of people and ideas – in our workplaces.

We’re particularly excited to have been selected to lead 90-minute Inclusive Leadership Conversations for hundreds of leaders in several large organisations. The conversations have a significant focus on psychological safety. Carefully designed follow-ups help embed the learning.

You can see the positive impacts of these coaching conversations in many ways. They help leaders create space for people to speak up about ethical concerns and contribute breakthrough ideas. They help leaders create space for team members with different lived experiences who may often be unfairly stereotyped, overlooked, or marginalised.

And they help leaders build humility, empathy, and place value on differing perspectives and experiences. These are the skill sets crucial for the Great Realignment, says Dr Kirstin Ferguson.

‘The Great Realignment can only be solved by modern leaders who put people and purpose at the centre of their decisions and who not only appreciate, but also catch up to the shifting mindset of their employees… Leading with empathy means respectfully listening to the diverse views of others and seeking out those experiences and perspectives which are different to their own and understanding that it is in those differences where the real value lies.’

Dr Kirstin Ferguson, Australian Financial Review

When more of us feel safe to learn, contribute and challenge, just as I did earlier this year in that Melbourne boardroom, the benefits are obvious for individuals, teams, and organisations.

Like to know more?

In the past year, more than 80 organisations have chosen Diversity Partners to make a positive difference to their workplace. Our team has expanded to meet growing client demand to accelerate their diversity and inclusion progress.

 To have a conversation about how we might help your organisation in 2022, please email us at or call our office on 1800 571 999.

About Dr Katie Spearritt

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