4 Stages of Psychological Safety

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety categorises different elements of psychological safety within groups and how this affects performance, effectiveness and team dynamics.
4 Stages of Psychological Safety Mutomorro
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What are the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is a theory that looks at our level of perceived safety within our environment. In particular, it focuses on organisational and team environments, but can apply for any group of people.

The 4 stages Psychological Safety is one interpretation of this topic. It looks to compartmentalise and categorise different stages of Psychological Safety. It focuses on our need for belonging (feeling included), how safe we feel to learn/grow (safe to learn), how welcoming the environment is to contribute (safe to contribute) and finally how easy it is to challenge the status quo (safe to challenge).

As Timothy Clark describes it, psychological safety is an environment of rewarded vulnerability.

How are the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety used?

Psychological safety is an essential characteristic of effective teams and has been well documented as an important factor in how well teams and organisations function in general.

At it’s core is the principle that vulnerability is an important factor for a team to function effectively, and a lack of vulnerability and emotional trust makes it harder to work together.

Psychological Safety is a useful tool in exploring team dynamics, analysing performance and finding ways to develop trust within a team.

Uses for the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety:

  • To analyse a team’s trust and ability to be vulnerable with each other.
  • To explore ways the team my be dysfunctional through a lack of trust.
  • As a way to bring a team together and explore ways to improve performance.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

In this model, psychological safety is broken down into 4 categories on a sliding scale. We’ll look at each in the following sections.

4 Stages of Psychological Safety - Overview

There are two axis in this model. One relates to respect, the other to permission.

Respect: This is how well team members respect each other. Their contributions, ways of working and point of view. Building respect for each other

Permission: This is related to how easy it is to participate, get involved and share your thoughts. The less permission there is, the harder it will be for team members to get involved and contribute.

The 4 Psychological Safety stages (+ 1)

Along the axis are 4 stages. Essentially, these move along as the levels of respect and permission increase.

Exclusion: Not considered part of the 4, but included in the model. This represents respect and permission at their lowest.

  1. Inclusion Safety: The feeling of belonging and being included.
  2. Learner Safety: The ability to feel safe to learn and grow.
  3. Contributor Safety: The ability to feel safe to share your thoughts and opinions.
  4. Challenger Safety: The ability to feel safe to challenge the status quo.

Paternalism

This is a characteristic of respect given but without sufficient permission. This is often a characteristic of micromanagement, where the team are given very little ability to contribute. Respect will be given in terms of the teams ability to follow orders rather than self-initiation.

Exploitation

This represents a team dynamic where members are given permission but without any degree of respect. In essence, this is related to trying to extract value from an employee but without respecting their value.

0. Exclusion

At the very bottom of the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety is exclusion. Technically not one of the four stages – it is the outcome from no, or very little, respect or permission.

4 Stages of Psychological Safety - 0. Exclusion

Teams in this section are likely to be highly fractious, dysfunctional and tend to be run by fear. They represent the absence of any feeling of safety within the group and as such will also lack trust in one another.

Vulnerability is actively discouraged or, in extreme cases, punished. Weakness is often considered a failure and lessens the individual’s position in the group.

1. Inclusion Safety

4 Stages of Psychological Safety - 1. Inclusion Safety

Inclusion safety is related to the sense of belonging and informal acceptance within the team. It explores how well the group is able to meet basic human needs of belonging and inclusion.

It also looks at the criteria used for acceptance and inclusion inside the group, and whether these criteria contribute toward creating a safe and accepting environment.

Inclusion safety is the foundation of psychological safety. It is the belief that all team members are valued and respected for their unique perspectives and contributions. When a team has inclusion safety, team members feel comfortable being themselves and sharing their opinions without fear of judgement or exclusion.

One example of inclusion safety in action is when team members feel free to share their personal experiences and perspectives, even if they are different from the majority. This can lead to more creative solutions and a deeper understanding of the problem at hand. A team that lacks inclusion safety may have team members who feel excluded or ignored, leading to lower morale and decreased productivity.

To determine if your team has inclusion safety, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do all team members feel comfortable sharing their opinions and ideas?
  • Are different perspectives welcomed and encouraged?
  • Do team members feel valued and respected?

If you answered no to any of these questions, there are several ways to improve inclusion safety. One way is to create opportunities for team members to share their experiences and perspectives, such as through team-building exercises or open discussions. Another way is to lead by example and model inclusive behaviours, such as actively listening and valuing different opinions.

2. Learner Safety

4 Stages of Psychological Safety - 2. Learner Safety

Learner Safety is focused on the individuals ability to learn, develop and grow within the group. Does the group allow, encourage and support learning.

This area looks at the ability to ask questions, try new approaches, test theories and the reaction to failures. This last point is critical because without trial and error is difficult for a team to grow and develop. Does the group offer a supportive, positive environment to try new things or are they overtly or covertly punished?

Encouraging learning safety allows teams to explore what they do now, what might be missing and try new ways of working that help them perform more effectively.

Learner safety is the belief that it is safe to learn from mistakes and ask for help without fear of judgement or punishment. When a team has learner safety, team members are more likely to take risks and try new things, knowing that failure is a natural part of the learning process.

One example of learner safety in action is when team members feel comfortable admitting when they don’t know something and asking for help from their colleagues. This can lead to a culture of continuous learning and improvement. A team that lacks learner safety may have team members who are hesitant to take risks or admit mistakes, leading to missed opportunities for growth and innovation.

To determine if your team has learner safety, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do team members feel comfortable admitting when they don’t know something?
  • Is it safe to make mistakes and ask for help?
  • Does the team have a culture of continuous learning and improvement?

If you answered no to any of these questions, there are several ways to improve learner safety. One way is to encourage team members to take risks and try new things, while also acknowledging that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. Another way is to create a culture of feedback and coaching, where team members are encouraged to learn from each other and receive constructive feedback.

3. Contributor Safety

4 Stages of Psychological Safety - 3. Contributor Safety

Stage 3 of the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety looks at how the group deals with different contributions and the sharing of ideas.

In essence, this area is focused on the equality of opinions and voices. Are people actively encouraged to share their views and is there an equity in how these voices are listened to. The ability for all members of a team to feel safe to contribute illustrates a high level of respect and permission.

Equally, how are different views and perspectives listened to and acknowledged? In teams that lack contributor safety you will see more extreme views and people hunkering down around their own perspectives. Team problem solving will feel more confrontational than conducive.

Conversations will tend to be about defending a position rather than exploring a problem with a shared goal in mind. It is also likely that the most vocal or opinionated in the group will control the narrative.

Contributor safety is the belief that it is safe to contribute to the team’s goals and objectives without fear of retaliation or negative consequences. When a team has contributor safety, team members are more likely to speak up and share their ideas, knowing that their contributions are valued and appreciated.

One example of contributor safety in action is when team members feel comfortable challenging the status quo and suggesting new ideas, even if they are not popular. This can lead to more innovative solutions and a culture of continuous improvement. A team that lacks contributor safety may have team members who are hesitant to speak up or share their ideas, leading to missed opportunities for growth and innovation.

To determine if your team has contributor safety, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do team members feel comfortable challenging the status quo?
  • Is it safe to speak up and share ideas, even if they are not popular?
  • Are contributions valued and appreciated?

If you answered no to any of these questions, there are several ways to improve contributor safety. One way is to encourage team members to speak up and share their ideas, while also acknowledging that not all ideas will be implemented. Another way is to create a culture of recognition and appreciation, where team members are recognised for their contributions and feel valued for their work.

4. Challenger Safety

4 Stages of Psychological Safety - 4. Challenger Safety

Challenger safety represents a high level of respect and permission. It is the ability for team members to challenge the status quo and those in authority.

Teams with a high level of challenger safety are comfortable with questioning decisions from senior members or how things are done. They’ll be an open dialogue – questions like “why do we do things this way”, or “may I suggest we try something different?” and encouraged.

They are also comfortable to question and challenge the way things are done in an environment that encourages healthy exploration.

It’s important to note that challenge does not mean confrontation, and true challenger safety is as much about how new ideas and thoughts are welcomes, managed and discussed. Teams or individuals that push their agendas, views and gripes in unconstructive ways tend to be focused more on exploitation and control that collaborative problem solving.

Challenger safety is the belief that it is safe to challenge the ideas and assumptions of others without fear of judgement or retaliation. When a team has challenger safety, team members are more likely to engage in constructive debate and challenge each other’s ideas, leading to better decision-making and more innovative solutions.

One example of challenger safety in action is when team members feel comfortable questioning the assumptions behind a proposal or challenging the logic of a decision. This can lead to a deeper understanding of the problem at hand and more effective solutions. A team that lacks challenger safety may have team members who are hesitant to challenge the ideas of others, leading to a lack of critical thinking and missed opportunities for improvement.

To determine if your team has challenger safety, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do team members feel comfortable challenging the ideas and assumptions of others?
  • Is it safe to engage in constructive debate and challenge each other’s ideas?
  • Are decisions made based on logic and evidence?

If you answered no to any of these questions, there are several ways to improve challenger safety. One way is to encourage team members to challenge each other’s ideas and assumptions, while also providing a framework for constructive debate. Another way is to create a culture of evidence-based decision-making, where decisions are made based on facts and data rather than personal opinions.

Summary of the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is crucial for team performance and productivity. The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety is a useful starting point for exploring your own team’s Psychological Safety. By creating a safe and inclusive environment, team members are more likely to take risks, be creative, and collaborate effectively. To improve psychological safety, leaders can focus on the four stages of inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety. By asking the right questions and implementing the right strategies, leaders can create a culture of psychological safety that leads to better outcomes and greater success.

4 Stages of Psychological Safety PDF Template

Use this 4 Stages of Psychological Safety PDF Template to explore where your team sits and the part psychological safety plays in your effectiveness.

4 Stages of Psychological Safety – Free Template

Click the link to download this 4 Stages of Psychological Safety PDF template and use it to explore your own team or organisation.

4 Stages of Psychological Safety - Overview

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 James Freeman-Gray 

I'm James. A change consultant and organisational development specialist. I've been working in people-centred change for over 15 years. I partner with causes, champions, teams & leaders on projects for social, environmental, technological & human good. If you think I can support in making your change a success, drop me a message. 

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