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Four Stages of Psychological Safety

engagement self-awareness Oct 13, 2020

In our last post, we answered, “What is Psychological Safety?” and we followed it up with a webinar on the topic. During the webinar, we asked attendees to rate their current level of psychological safety at their workplace from 1-5 with 5 being the highest.

What would you say about yours?

For our webinar attendees, the average response was 3. If this was a test, the score would be 60%, a grade of D.

One of the definitions we highlighted comes from Dr. Timothy R. Clark, who says psychological safety is:

“A condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo—without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in any way.” (Clark, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety)

Here are Clark’s four stages:

  1. Inclusion Safety
  2. Learner Safety
  3. Contributor Safety
  4. Challenger Safety

Not only could you rate safety overall, but you could also rate safety per stage. And so maybe your level of Inclusion Safety is high—you feel included and a sense of belonging—but maybe your level of Learner Safety is low—you don’t feel welcomed to ask questions and make mistakes.

Let’s look at the four stages, common barriers, and ways to boost them:

Inclusion Safety

Inclusion Safety is where you feel included as a member of the group regardless of any criteria, characteristic or performance. You have not begun to “prove” yourself as a team member and don’t have to in this stage. Here you are welcomed simply because you’re a member of the team. You have been invited and brought in.

A common barrier to Inclusion Safety is discrimination, where you are left out or mistreated because of something about you. Here you don’t feel like you’re really a member of the group.

However, a boost to Inclusion Safety is acceptance, where you are fully accepted, not just in word but in deed. The group goes out of their way to make you feel accepted, and your belonging is not based on performance or any other reason.

After Inclusion Safety comes Learner Safety.

Learner Safety

Learner Safety is where you feel safe to discover, explore, ask questions, and make mistakes in the learning process. You start to “get your feet wet” as a member of the team. You get curious, start to figure out how things work, are bold enough to ask questions, and even start to make mistakes.

A common barrier to Learner Safety is fear, where you are afraid of looking stupid, appearing as an imposter, asking dumb questions, and doing something wrong. Your fear keeps you back from jumping in as a student.

However, a boost to Learner Safety is encouragement, where you are openly encouraged to try new things, ask questions, get your feet wet, even make mistakes. It is better to try and fail than not to try at all. The encouragement has to be bold, loud, and often to overcome the voice of fear.

After Learner Safety comes Contributor Safety.

Contributor Safety

Contributor Safety is where you are expected to perform in your assigned role with knowledge and competency as a member of the team. You are able to do what you were hired or expected to do. You can fully contribute alongside the other members of the team.

A common barrier to Contributor Safety is lack of autonomy. You’ve been asked to contribute, but not given the right to do so. Your methods and means are micromanaged, and you’re not given ownership of your work. You’re left to wonder, “What am I here for then?”

However, a boost to Contributor Safety is permission, where you are given clear permission to “own” your work and deliver results the best way you can. You are given autonomy to do your job, and you feel trusted to perform.

After Contributor Safety comes Challenger Safety, the fourth stage.

Challenger Safety

Challenger Safety is where you challenge the status quo and question how things are done for the sake of something better. This is the most difficult stage to get to, but the one most likely to produce innovation and excellence.

A common barrier to Challenger Safety is conformity. It’s easy to do things like they’ve always been done, go with the flow, keep the peace. This is comfortable, but the comfort of conformity is the enemy of invention.

However, a boost to Challenger Safety is protection, where the leader and group offer spoken and proven protection when you want to challenge the status quo. If you don’t feel you will be protected when you speak up or mess up, you most likely won’t. It’ll be comfortable, but not innovative.

Now that you’ve learned about the four stages, let’s do something with it.

  • Which stage are you at on your team?
  • What is holding you back from moving to the next stage?
  • What is one action item you can take that will move you forward?



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