Psychological safety is an essential ingredient for a healthy, vibrant culture, says Dr. Timothy Clark, Founder and CEO at LeaderFactor and the author of several books, including The Four Stages of Psychological Safety. In his work he has identified the stages of psychological safety in an organization and how to measure it. To have a high performing team, there must be a solid foundation of the very first stage of inclusion safety - the need for individuals to be accepted as they are and to belong. Without successfully building the four identified stages of psychological safety, says Dr. Clark, you cannot have innovation.
Here are my three big takeaways from the conversation:
Psychological safety is not a binary thing; it instead lies on a spectrum.
Psychological safety is rewarded vulnerability; the lack of psychological safety is punished vulnerability.
There’s often a disconnect between leaders, who believe they have psychological safety in the organization, and team members, who may hold back because they perceive uncertainty as whether they’ll be rewarded or punished for being vulnerable.
Dr. Clark takes a deep dive into the mechanics of establishing psychological safety in teams - this is a must listen for any leader of people.
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Tim: But it's incredible as I look at just neutral zone scores to see just how much ambiguity is in so many team cultures. And what does that do to people? It immobilizes them.
Aaron: I'm Aaron Levy. And I have this vision of a workplace where your manager doesn't suck where instead your manager is your coach helping you to reach your full potential at work. I founded Raise The Bar, wrote Open, Honest and Direct, and started this podcast to help companies transform their workplace to a place where both the company and employee succeeds.
In this podcast, I get to interview leaders who built high-performing teams. And learn from them on what it takes to unlock a team with potential.
Today we're lucky to have Timothy R. Clark, the founder and CEO of Leader Factor, a global consulting training and assessment organization that focuses on leadership, culture, and change. Dr. Clark is an international authority in the field of psychological safety and innovation, and is the author of the best selling book, The Four Stages of Psychological Safety.
In today's conversation, we talk about vulnerability and how vulnerability in the way it's modeled and the way it's rewarded is the key element in building and delivering psychological safety to others and to teams. It's a really intricate and interesting conversation about the levels and stages of psychological safety building in an organization and a culture.
I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. Cheers.
Aaron: I'm just so excited to have you on and was so interested about your story and your journey and when I did my, my little bit of research on you, and I guess the, the first thing I'm curious about is, you've gone pretty heavy into psychological safety and what inspired you to, to dive head on into that realm and that topic.
Tim: Well, first of all, Aaron, thanks very much for having me. I'm happy to be here. The way I got into it was I've been in the area of organizational culture for many, many years. That's what I studied at Oxford when I did my PhD there. For years and years, we've been trying to measure culture.
We've been trying to understand culture. We've been trying to figure out how to change it because culture is in and around us. It's, I mean, fish have water and humans have culture, so we swim in it and it's a fascinating variable. It's both a cause and effect. In research, we call it an independent variable and a dependent variable, because if you think about it, we are able to shape and influence culture, but culture also shapes us.
So it has what we call reciprocal influence. So it's a, it's a fascinating thing, but when you try to measure it, it's like squeezing jello. It's pretty hard to do. And so we've, we've had a hard time doing that over the years but this subfield of psychological safety started to emerge in the 1960s and it's part of culture, but it's, it's a kind of a subfield in culture.
So I, I've been in the area for many, many years, but as I looked at this and as I was going through the research literature, it was very clear to me that psychological safety was at the root of how a culture was performing. If the culture was healthy, vibrant, strong, then psychological safety had a lot to do with that, and I could see that.
And so what we've found over the years is that psychological safety is perhaps the best proxy indicator of how an overall; So I, I've been in the area for many, many years, but as I looked at this and as I was going through the research literature, it was very clear to me that psychological safety was at the root of how a culture was performing, if the culture was Team or organization is doing what the culture is really like. It's the best barometer that we've been able to find. And so it's been a long journey, about 30 years worth.
Aaron: But this is an area that's bearing more fruit than really any area that I've seen in many years. What were the elements that gave you those moments to say, this is the barometer when there's so many other realms that someone else could say is a barometer of culture?
Tim: So if you ask 50 people, what culture is Aaron, as you probably can imagine, you're gonna get 50 different answers. I mean, they'll overlap and they'll be similar, but, people are gonna point to values and assumptions and mores and customs and traditions and artifacts, and it goes on and on and on, and, and pretty soon you're thinking, okay, well this is great, but this is overwhelming.
And so as I, as I look at what matters with culture, I focus on one. And that is, and this is, this is the definition that I use in an organizational setting. Culture is, is four words. It's the way we interact. That's what matters. It's the way we interact. Now, all of the other elements of culture come into play here.
They inform. They influence the way we interact, but what really matters is the way we interact. And so with that definition in mind, you, you start to be able to see why culture is so important. It, it affects everything. It's in and, and around everything. And so, and then you, you, you start to be able to understand how you can change it.
Because what happens is in, in culture formation or transformation, there are kind of three units of analysis. The first unit of analysis is at the individual level. So a pattern of, of behavior or conduct and a person is a habit. But then we start to interact. A pattern of interaction between or among people is what we call a norm.
So we have, we have habits, and then we have norms. A collection of norms becomes a culture. So if you want to change culture or transform culture, you have to work backwards. So you begin with the culture, you break it down, you can break culture down into prevailing norms, and then you can break those norms down into individual behaviors at the individual level.
And, and so with that kind of anatomy we're able to see that if you change norms on a team, The team being the fundamental unit of performance that you can actually transform a culture. But what we often do in organizations is we start at a, at a very broad level and in an institutional level, and we have a really hard time doing that.
So it's, it's better to look at team level of culture, which is what we call the microculture, and then really think about what you want to change at that level. That helps a lot.
Aaron: It's, it's fascinating and I mean, we think very we're very focused on individual habits as a means to change team behavior, and individual behavior first and then team behavior. And I, I love that you're saying that, and what I'm wondering is I go back to kind of one of the first things you said a few moments ago, which is culture's so hard to measure, and then the best proxy to measure that is building psychological safety.
Can you explain how you use psychological safety as a proxy? How is, how are you able to measure that through the habits and norms and the way to get an indicator of where a culture's at?
Tim: Yeah. So the way that, the way that I've done that, Aaron, is the, the question that I asked myself, the, the basic research question that I asked myself a few years ago was this.
Well, first of all, we understand that psychological safety is not a binary proposition. It's not a matter of having it or not having it. It's a matter of degree. So you could have a, it could be low, it could be high, it could be somewhere in the middle. Every, we all understand that if it's not binary, then there must be a pattern in the way that it increases.
It can't be an arbitrary pattern. And, and so the research question that drove me was, what is the pattern in the way that psychological safety increases on a team or in an organization? And so that's the question that I researched for about three years, and that ended with the identification of the Four Stages model.
And so the Four Stages model, Aaron, is a framework that describes the way that psychological safety increases in a social unit or collective of any kind. And the way that it works is that when humans come together they, well, if they don't know each other and they've never worked together before, then they are by definition in a state of exclusion.
But as they begin to interact, the, the norms emerge. Those patterns of interaction emerge.
Aaron: Can I pause you for a second, Tim? When you say a state of exclusion, what do you mean by that?
Tim: That means they don't know each other. They've never worked together before. Until they begin to interact, they're in a state of exclusion.
They're not including each other yet. So that's the default position. If you just take people and you put them together and they don't know each other and they've never worked together before. So then as I conducted the research, and it was qualitative, it was an anthropological study to begin with, I looked at patterns.
So what are people trying to do? What are they doing? And it was very clear that the first thing that they were trying to do was to satisfy the basic human need to be included, to be accepted, and to to belong, to have a sense of belonging. And so this helped me understand that the first stage of psychological safety is what I call inclusion safety.
This is the first need that the vast majority of people want to satisfy, and we were able to confirm this with quantitative research in our global survey. 92% of employees around the world, they said the same thing. The first need that I want to satisfy is to be included and accepted and belong. And then the second stage after that is what we call learner safety.
Which means that you feel safe to engage in the learning process without being embarrassed or marginalized or punished in some way. So you can engage in acts of learning and those acts of learning. Vulnerable activities. And by the way, let me, let me just step back, Aaron, and let me give you a basic definition of psychological safety as we move through the stages.
Psychological safety is a culture of rewarded vulnerability. That's the essence of what we're talking about. Because human interaction is a vulnerable activity. So if I interact with you, then you can punish my vulnerability or you can reward my vulnerability. But if we're interacting, there's really no such thing as a neutral response.
So you're either gonna receive a punished response or a rewarded response for your vulnerable activity.
Aaron: Can you give me an example of that? Like something in the workplace?
Tim: Yeah. let's just pick it up with, with stage two learner safety. So for learner safety, this would connect directly to acts of learning vulnerability.
So asking a question asking for feedback, saying that you don't know. Experimenting, trying something new, making a mistake. These are all acts of learning vulnerability. They're, they're tied directly to learning and psychological safety. An environment of psychological safety would reward you in those behaviors, not punish you.
And that's important because the learning process is both intellectual and emotional. You can't separate the thinking brain from the feeling brain in the learning process. So for example, Aaron, if you are consistently punished in your acts of learning vulnerability over time . You will withdraw, you will retreat, you will recoil, and you will also become cognitively impaired.
As a learner, you won't be able to learn at capacity, but if you're rewarded consistently for those acts of learning vulnerability. You will become cognitively enabled. So we can see how the, the thinking brain and the, and the feeling brain are connected.
And then we move to, to stage three, which is contributor safety, which means that you're given an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution and you're given an appropriate level of autonomy and guidance and support.
And so to kind of summarize stage two, Is the stage of preparation, learner safety, and stage three contributor safety is the stage of performance, so we go from preparation to performance. Learning always precedes contribution. And then finally, we go to stage four, which is challenger safety. Now this one's actually really quite fascinating.
This is the culminating stage and challenger safety says that you feel safe to challenge the status quo. Without fear of retaliation or repercussions, but the nature of the vulnerability that you feel at stage four has changed again, and this time pretty dramatically because as, as you can imagine, Aaron, when people challenge the status quo, they're really worried, but they're worried about different things.
It's, it's higher stakes in most cases. They're worried about, their reputation. They're worried about their standing. They're worried about upward mobility opportunities and potential. They're worried about their careers, and so challenging the status quo is not an easy thing to do. But the irony is that's exactly what we have to do in order to innovate.
Because to create an incubator of innovation, we need an environment that reward challenging and dissenting behavior. You can't innovate unless you're challenging the status quo. So that's a, a brief overview.
So back to how do we measure it? We've developed a very accurate instrument, a psychometric scale that consists of 12 items that we can give to a team, and it will measure their psychological safety based on the four stages and give a very accurate reflection of where they are based on those four stages.
Aaron: And from what you've seen in working with organizations and teams, what are the biggest obstacles to putting psychological safety into practice, to, to helping people move along these stages or be in a state where they hover on the higher ends of these stages.
Tim: Yeah, it's a fantastic question. So on our survey platform, we're measuring teams every, every week from around the world. And so I'm looking at data every week, and the patterns are, they vary, They vary greatly by team.
And so there's not one pattern, but what I will say is 1 predominant pattern that we see again and again and again is that the team has not solidified. It has not consolidated stage one inclusion safety. It's, it's not there. And we consider stage one inclusion safety to be the foundation. So for a team to really become a high performance team, it needs to put that foundation in place because that stage one inclusion safety is really the basis of human interaction.
And so if it's not there, it's very difficult to perform at the high levels that the team probably aspires to perform. Because the basic terms of engagement based on respect and permission are not quite there.
Aaron: Can you gimme an example of like what that looks like if I'm trying to understand how that presents itself on a team?
Tim: First of all, psychological safety is a function of respect. The respect we give each other and permission, the permission to, well to, to interact and work together and collaborate. So if that's not solid in with stage one inclusion, safety, then we still have biases.
We still have prejudice, we still have exclusive patterns. We still have behavioral patterns of exclusionary behaviors that we're using. We're not consistently validating each other in the ways that we influence each other. We still may be using manipulation or coercion, we still may be pushing the fear button.
All of those things are abdication of leadership. You know, one of the things that I say in the book The Four Stages of Psychological Safety is that if you find a team that has pervasive fear, a high level of fear, that's the first sign of weak leadership. Fear is an indication that the leader is using fear as a proxy for leadership.
So they've abdicated leadership. They're not using leadership, they're using fear as a substitute. At least they're trying and that doesn't work very well. And so fear is a dead giveaway that the leadership's not there. And so then the team's gonna fall into some pathology of dysfunction or toxicity. That's always gonna be the case.
So, coming back to your original question the first pattern is that teams often, they just haven't built the stage one inclusion, safety as their foundation.
Aaron: And when you see that, what's the advice or how do you help organizations and teams get out of that?
Tim: First of all, they have to understand where they are.
And so when we measure, when we give them the team survey, we have an accurate baseline. So now we understand the current state, and then after that, they have to do two things to get better. So if psychological safety is a culture of rewarded vulnerability, then the central mechanism for cultural transformation is to do two things.
Number one, to model vulnerability and number two to reward vulnerability. And there's no, there's no other way to get there. There's no shortcut, there's no work around, there's no back door. It's the central mechanism for culture formation and transformation.
So, so what that team has gotta do is we'll give them a resource called the Behavioral Guide, which identifies very specific behaviors related to stage one inclusion, safety. And the team can take that and they can build an action plan and they can say, okay, we're gonna work on stage one, inclusion, safety for a month or two or three and we're going to select behaviors that we need to do better in modeling and rewarding.
And we may take one behavior a week, we may take one behavior for a couple of weeks, and we're going to try to practice modeling and rewarding that very consistently. So you have to go down to the behavioral level because it's at that level that you are able to change the prevailing norms on a team.
If you don't go down to that behavioral level, it'll never work. So that's normally the way that we would work with a team to build an action plan, and then they go execute that plan consistently.
Aaron: Yeah. I love the concept of you've got to give vulnerability and you've got to reward vulnerability. It's powerful. Really. It's simple, but really powerful.
Tim: It is simple, but it's not that easy. Right. Aaron.
Aaron: Yeah. Yeah. That, and that's what I'm, that's what I'm hovering on too, is like, what are some of those behaviors or do you have a story about, you know, a leader Who's uncovered that? And started to share vulnerability.
And promote vulnerability.
Tim: Well, let's talk about what managers do. So if you're a manager, a team leader, you lead a team, and your job is to lead that team. Then, You need to be very reflective about the way that you're interacting with each member of that team based on where that individual is in performance and capability.
So if you think about it on a spectrum, Aaron, at one end of the spectrum you can be a micromanager. And the real definition of micromanagement is that you are overmanaging people when they have the demonstrated ability to do more, to have more autonomy, but you're not giving it to them.
So you are the obstacle. You are standing in the way, you are holding people back. You are stunting their growth. And we find this pattern throughout organizations and even very well intentioned, good, benevolent people do this well, why do they do it? They do it out of their own insecurity. So they are the problem.
It's not the people, they're the problem. That's, that's the pathology of micromanagement. On the other end of the spectrum, you have managers that that act like absentee landlords. So they're just not present. They're not available. They're not providing the support. they're, they're just not doing the job.
They're not there and they don't care. So that's a pathology at the other end. And if you've ever worked for a micromanager or an absentee landlord, you know, the frustration. You, you know, how painful it can be. So what we're saying with psychological safety is that your job is to model and then reward vulnerability, and then provide the appropriate level of direction and guidance and support to each person based on where they are.
It's not easy, and each person requires a little bit of a different approach. And it also requires real genuine intent because if you're in a leadership role over human beings, but you don't show good faith and there's not genuine intent, then people can smell that, right? Humans can smell intent, and so you can't compensate for that with more.
That's not gonna do it. So you've gotta have the compassion and the empathy and the genuine concern in order to do that job.
Aaron: Yeah. It needs to be real.
I love how you took this, we started this conversation, right, with culture, right? And this big idea of culture and how it's so hard to track down or I'm, I'm like squeezing it, like grab, grab. Yeah. And, the definition of it is the way we interact.
And then thinking about on the more minute level, the way to think about that and measure that is through psychological safety. And I like the concept of rewarded and promoted vulnerabilities. It, it makes it really, really simple. And I think the other thing that you said that makes it super simple is, And I'm just repeating, but it's, it's giving vulnerability and rewarding vulnerability.
Mm-hmm. . And it's like such an aha. It's like, yeah, of course people will feel safe if I give them some of myself if I put myself out there. And yet that's not easy to do.
Tim: I'll give you another example. Aaron and I was speaking with a woman the other day. She said Tim the hardest thing for me to do right now with my team is just to show up.
I said, Really? She said, Yeah. That's the kind of environment that I'm working in right now. So there's a real lack of psychological safety and just showing up is an incredibly difficult act of vulnerability for me because it’s almost always punished in some way. Subtle ways, mild ways. And I just thought that was fascinating.
So here we have, we have a woman that's a part of a team and she's in the shadows. She's being marginalized. And this is often how it is for people on teams. You talk to the leader, the team, and the leader says, “Oh yeah, the team's doing great”, and you ask the, the team leader: “Well, do you have high psychological safety?”
And they say, “Absolutely very high. We all get along, We all . Respect each other. We, we all collaborate. I mean, it's an incubator of innovation. We're doing fantastic.” Then you go measure the team and you find out that it's anything but that because the leader is projecting their experience on the team.
The leader is culturally tone deaf; the leader is just not paying attention and people are having very different experiences, one from another because the prevailing norms are not consistently rewarding vulnerability. So we see this in teams all the time. Every week I'm looking at data and the way that we measure it - by the way, is that, we distinguish a blue zone, which means high psychological safety, a neutral zone, which is neither high nor low.
A neutral zone would indicate that you're not sure, you're not sure about the, the environment. Sometimes it punishes your vulnerability, sometimes it rewards your vulnerability. And then finally a blue zone where the psychological safety's high. And your vulnerability will be consistently rewarded.
And so as we look at the, the results of team surveys, it shows blue zone area, neutral zone area, red zone area. It's very, very interesting. There are many teams where the neutral zone area is very large, and again, that indicates there's hesitation, there's doubt, there's uncertainty about what the response pattern is gonna be the next time.
Now Red Zone's very clear what that means. You know, the team's not doing well and there's a pattern of punishing vulnerability. But it's incredible as I look at just neutral zone scores to see just how much ambiguity is in so many team cultures. And what does that do to people? It immobilizes them.
They're not gonna jump in, they're not going to really engage the way that they could or should. So it's, it's fascinating just looking at real data every week from around the world.
Aaron: Yeah. As I'm thinking about this and absorbing this more, it's, it's not that you have to reward or are, it's not that you can't give feedback that something's not working, but it, but you still wanna reward the vulnerability for someone putting it out.
Right? Like Tim, thank you for sharing this challenge that you're facing and that we're facing as a business. Now what we're doing is clearly not working, so we have to figure something else out. Right? Or like, Tim, it's still on you to figure out how do we make this work? Is that, it seems like that's kind of a way in which you can, cuz if I was a leader listening to this and say, well, so I just have to reward everybody for everything.
And what I'm getting from you is it's not for everything. It's for being vulnerable. It's for showing up.
Tim: Well, you're gonna reward the behavior. You're not necessarily going to adopt or accept or implement what people want to do. That's the distinction between participation rights and decision rights. And I, I, I wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review last month.