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The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety
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The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

Timothy R. Clark

Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation

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4.3 (275 ratings)
19 mins
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Management & Leadership
Career & Success

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety (2020) is a practical handbook for creating and maintaining psychological safety in the workplace. In order for employees to take risks, ask questions, challenge the status quo, and make mistakes – all while learning and growing – they have to feel included and safe. This book shows how leaders can reduce social friction while encouraging collaboration and innovation.

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To create inclusion safety, make sure team members feel unconditionally included from the very beginning.

The first stage of psychological safety, inclusion safety, is a prerequisite for everything else. This involves an initial offering of unconditional respect for all human beings – an acknowledgment that everyone deserves respect and therefore deserves to be included. Later, inclusion might be withheld or revoked – but, at the start, the only condition for inclusion should be a person’s fellow humanity.

In this day and age, leaders tout “diversity and inclusion” as buzzwords to brag about their wokeness – so why does there continue to be a lack of inclusion safety? For one, not everyone who talks about it actually puts it into practice. More often than not, as we saw with the first team you visited previously, a tense, distrustful environment is favored over an empathetic and inclusive one. A study by Ernst & Young found that not even half of employees trust their bosses. So what can you do to avoid becoming part of this statistic?

Before you can address this, you’ll need to ask yourself a question: Why do you choose to include some people and not others? 

According to the author, Timothy R. Clark, children seem to intuitively know the importance of inclusion. It’s strange, then, that this doesn’t transfer to adulthood. One answer could be that, as adults, we continually find ways to justify why we’re superior to other people. We tell ourselves that our differences are a reason for conflict, not celebration. Often, it’s a way of compensating for things we’re insecure about. Interestingly, we don’t always exclude someone because we don’t like them; usually, it’s because we have unmet needs. 

This attitude starts at the top – with a manager, teacher, or parent more concerned about being right than creating an environment that stimulates safety or innovation. Then it trickles down through the ranks. 

Clark witnessed this effect first-hand when he started out as manager of a steel plant in Geneva, Utah. The first team he spoke with at the steel plant pulled him aside and insisted that their department was a little special. They had more expertise than the other teams, they said. Their work was more complicated, and they were absolutely essential to the steel plant’s operations. It made sense at first – but every team he met with after that said the exact same thing. They all believed they were special, that they were the most important. And in trying to distinguish themselves, they were putting down the others. This resulted in each department becoming isolated, and averse to collaboration and communication. They were stuck in a cycle of unhealthy competition.

Now, here’s a solution: suspend your judgment – initially, at least – to encourage inclusion. Think about who you include and exclude. Now ask yourself why? What biases or prejudices might be at play here?

Perhaps it’s easier said than done. You can’t get rid of personal bias altogether; you’ll always have a bit of it lying around. But by identifying it and noticing where it affects your behavior, you can slowly start working on eliminating its influence. If you’re having trouble with this step, ask a close friend or acquaintance about your unconscious biases.

Once you’re comfortable providing inclusion solely on the basis that every human being deserves a fundamental level of respect, you can move on to the next stage of psychological safety: the safety to learn, make oneself vulnerable, and make mistakes in the process.

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