Ep 100: Psychological Safety - Why This Leadership Skill Is Critical

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Dr. Timothy Clark introduces us to a hot and overlooked topic in leadership development – psychological safety. Tim defines the four stages of psychological safety and makes the case for why leaders need to develop this skill, which he argues few have mastered. He offers two suggestions for leaders to create an environment needed for innovation to occur, describing the two skillsets that leaders need to navigate to foster that environment. He describes two scenarios where psychological safety was missing in the leader and the impact this had on the teams, concluding with advice to HR leaders.
 
Tim is the founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, a consulting, coaching, and training organization. He is an international authority in the fields of psychological safety & innovation, large-scale change & transformation, and senior leadership development. He is the author of Epic Change: How to Lead Change in the Global Age (John Wiley/Jossey-Bass), Leadership Bones (Bradmore Road Press), The Employee Engagement Mindset (McGraw-Hill), Leading with Character and Competence: Moving Beyond Title, Position, And Authority (Berrett-Koehler). His new book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation (Berrett-Koehler) was released in March 2020. He is also the developer of the EQometer emotional intelligence assessment.
 
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Episode Transcript

Fred Bunsa:
Welcome everyone to HR Studio Podcast. I'm your host for today's episode, my name is Fred Bunsa and I'm really excited to be joined today by Dr. Timothy Clark or Tim Clark, as he suggested I call him. Tim founded, is the CEO of LeaderFactor, which is a Salt Lake City, Utah based consultancy that focuses on executive development, execution and organizational change. Tim has written five books and the one we wanted to talk about today is called The Four Stages of Psychological safety. It's available on Amazon. Here's a cover of what the book cover will look like. At the time we recorded this, it's in preorder, but you can go to Amazon and get it.

Fred Bunsa:
Tim has written a lot. He's a real academic, he's written more than 150 articles on leadership, change, human capital, culture, and employee engagement. So Tim, welcome to HR Studio Podcast. It's great to have you on the show.

Dr.  Tim Clark Quote 1 on Psychological Safety on HR Studio PodcastTim Clark:
Thank you Fred. Good to be here.

Fred Bunsa:
So psychological safety has become a really big topic and I'm fascinated by it. I think a lot of our audience has probably done a little bit of research around it or at least digging into it, but let's just kind of level set by talking about what exactly is it and tell us what you've identified as these four stages.

Tim Clark:
Sure. Well, the concept Fred, goes back to 1990. So in 1990 a social psychologist by the name of William Kahn at Boston University, he coined the phrase or the term in an academic research paper and that really allowed us to consolidate around that term. Now if you think about it, the concept of psychological safety is as old as the first human interaction. What it means basically is that you can interact in a social unit without feeling embarrassed or marginalized or punished in some way. So you're safe, you're socially, emotionally and psychologically safe. So again, the concept isn't new. The term is new and we've consolidated around that term slowly, gradually, since 1990. And now it's a term that we use universally across, well basically internationally now. You'll see that it's being used across all different societies and so it's great that we've unified around the term finally.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay. And you in your book have identified four stages of it. Are those, I'd love to hear what stages are, but also are those four stages, is that some of your contribution to this or is that something that's widely accepted and you're really just clarifying and explaining and digging into those four stages?

Tim Clark:
Well, I hope it's my contribution because what I did is I went through the research literature and I said, "Okay, this is an incredibly important concept." We understand that intuitively, we understand that from our own experience, but it's not a binary proposition. It's not a matter of either having or not having psychological safety. It's a matter of how much do you have? Every organization or social unit registers a level of psychological safety. But even more than that, I wanted to break it down. I wanted to deconstruct the concept and ask the question, "Now, wait a second. So there seemed there are different levels. So therefore are there different stages? Is there a progression?" And so that's what I've been working on for the last three years.

Tim Clark:
And I've come to the conclusion that there is a very clear progression and it's a universal pattern. And so the four stages are really quite intuitive because they follow the progress or the progression of natural human need. So stage one is what we call inclusion safety.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay. Inclusion safety.

Tim Clark:
That means that you're included by people in the group or the social unit, whatever the organization is, you're included, you're accepted, you have a sense of belonging and this satisfies the basic human need to be accepted, to belong. So that's stage one. And that's where we begin. It's the foundation, right?

Fred Bunsa:
And can you not get to stage two until that one is in place?

Tim Clark:
I don't think you can, because stage two builds on stage one. Stage two is learner safety. What that means is that you feel safe to be able to engage in all aspects of the discovery process, the learning process. So that means that you feel safe to ask questions, to give and receive feedback, to experiment, to make mistakes, again, without the fear of being humiliated or embarrassed or marginalized or punished in some way.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay.

Tim Clark:
So think about with learner safety, you're exposing yourself to a higher level of personal risk and vulnerability because I'm putting myself out there to do those things. So it builds on top of the foundation of inclusion safety. So I think the inclusion safety has to be in place, that foundation has to be there first.

Fred Bunsa:
Interesting. I think about in executive coaching work, learner's safety is, if the learning leader or the coachee doesn't feel safe or comfortable with the coach, they're going to reveal less about themselves, which means they may not make even any progress because of that. There needs to be that trust level or learner safety, as you would call it, where the person can experiment, can try things out and can look bad in front of their coach in order to grow in a skill or competence.

Tim Clark:
That's right. One of the case studies that I brought into the book Fred, is a case study with a high school calculus teacher. His name is Craig Smith, and he is perhaps the best calculus teacher in the country. He arguably is based on his numbers. But one of the things that he does to create learner safety is that he separates mistakes from failure and he separates mistakes from fear. So he pulls those two apart so that the students, they learn that, they're socialized to disconnect fear from mistakes and failure and so then he's able to draw them out. Then they release their discretionary effort and they take higher risk in their learning activities.

Fred Bunsa:
Wow.

Tim Clark:
If we don't do that, if we don't create that learner safety, then the environment may trigger what we call the self-censoring instinct. And if we activate that instinct in someone, they're going to retreat, they're going to pull back and they're going to manage personal risk. So you can see, so psychological safety is a function of two things. So we need respect and we need permission to participate. It's the intersection of those two things. So if we wrestle-

Fred Bunsa:
Wait, say that again. It's the intersection of which two?

Tim Clark:
Respect and permission to participate,

Fred Bunsa:
Respect and permission to participate. Okay.

Tim Clark:
So if you have a threshold level of respect and permission to participate, then you're going to feel included. You've got to go to another level for learner safety.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay.

Tim Clark:
Right?

Fred Bunsa:
And just like there's respect and permission for inclusion, are there aspects of the learner safety that you would put your finger on and say, "These must be present?"

Tim Clark:
Well, I think it's maintaining. You just got to go to a higher level of respect and permission to participate. Because with learner safety, there's a social exchange. The social exchange is that I will encourage your learning in exchange for you engaging in the learning.

Fred Bunsa:
Got it.

Tim Clark:
But the leader, the leader's job is to be the first mover because sometimes learners don't have the confidence, right? Think about a classroom setting where you have some learners that they don't really even have the confidence to speak up so they're not going to do it. So the teacher has to provide at least temporarily, the learner safety and the confidence in that student until he or she can gain it for himself or herself.

Fred Bunsa:
Wow.

Tim Clark:
That's how it works.

Fred Bunsa:
That's really cool. And then so what is stage three then?

Tim Clark:
Stage three is contributor safety. Contributor safety means that now you feel that you are a full-fledged member of the team and that you can use what you've learned, your skills, your knowledge, your experience to make a difference, right? To contribute. And that's the next natural stage of human need. Because what do human beings want to do when they learn something? They want to go use it, they want to go apply it. So again, we're tracking basic human need to be included and then to be able to learn and then to be able to apply or contribute what you have learned. So again, respect levels have to go up, permission to participate has to go up to allow that individual to feel that he or she really is a full member of the team and can make a difference.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah. And I could see where at that level then Tim, where respect and permission to participate, it's one thing to be given permission to sort of learn. It's another thing to actually go try it. Giving people the permission to go try something and contribute to the overall team just requires naturally a higher level of permission and being given sort of authority to act.

Tim Clark:
That's right.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay, excellent. And then the fourth stage.

Tim Clark:
Fourth stage gets very interesting. So the fourth stage is the culminating stage. It's the ultimate stage of psychological safety. We call it challenger safety.

Fred Bunsa:
Challenger safety.

Tim Clark:
Challenger safety means that you feel safe to challenge the status quo. So I want you to think about the progression. So stage one was, "Did I feel included?" Stage two was that I felt safe enough to learn. Stage three was that I felt safe enough to contribute and now we're saying that you feel safe enough to challenge the status quo. This is a different level. So now my personal exposure to embarrassment, to ridicule, my personal level of vulnerability is at the highest possible level.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah.

Dr.  Tim Clark Quote 2 on Psychological Safety on HR Studio PodcastTim Clark:
Because what we're talking about is challenging the status quo. And what we're saying is that in order to innovate in an organization, you have to cross what we call this threshold of innovation to get to challenger safety. Because innovation requires what we call intellectual bravery. And so I mean think about the nature of innovation. Innovation by its very nature is disruptive. It's subversive, it's defiant, it undermines the status quo.

Fred Bunsa:
Interesting.

Tim Clark:
You can't do that unless you feel safe in the act of creating that disruption.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah.

Tim Clark:
Right?

Fred Bunsa:
Yep. Especially, because you're not always, I mean the nature of innovation is you're not always going to be right, but you have to at least express the notion, the concept or the new idea.

Tim Clark:
[crosstalk 00:13:05] yeah. Most of the time you're going to be wrong.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah.

Tim Clark:
Right? And so then this takes us to, especially when you think about innovation and challenger safety, it requires a very interesting set of skills from the leader because the leader has to do two things simultaneously. The leader has to increase intellectual friction. That's the way that we solve problems. That's the way that we come up with solutions. We need creative abrasion. We need constructive dissent. We need ideas colliding. So we need intellectual friction for that to happen. But at the same time, the leader needs to reduce social friction because the social friction brings that process to a halt. It stops that process. That's when we come to an impasse, that's when we don't get along, that's when our efforts become fruitless because we're not able to collaborate and work together effectively. So the leader's job in order to create challenger safety and sustain that environment, increase intellectual friction, decrease social friction. Not an easy thing to do, but that's really the charge, especially if you have a team that needs to innovate.

Fred Bunsa:
Wow. I was going to ask you about like what was the most surprising data point or insight from your research? It sounds like it might be that notion of pushing people but also making it safe/ and then you call it intellectual friction and social friction. That's really the trick there because it keeps both sides. It keeps safety in place, but it keeps the rigor, the intellectual rigor pushing and pushing.

Tim Clark:
I agree, Fred. And I think one of the biggest surprises of the research was, well, first of all, that the leader has to do those two things, but second, how difficult it is for leaders to do that and how few leaders have really mastered that skill to increase the intellectual friction and decrease the social friction. As I studied, observed, interviewed many, many leaders across organizations for this book, I really found that it was a rare skill that the leaders had and that it was something that most leaders really need to work on.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah, yeah.

Tim Clark:
It's not [crosstalk 00:15:46] and I think a big part of that is because they weren't taught that this was a skill that they needed to have. No one ever framed it that way for them.

Fred Bunsa:
Yep.

Tim Clark:
Most of them were deeply socialized based on an industrial model of leadership that said, "You know what? You need to be the leader as Oracle. You need to have the answers. You need to be the repository of answers. You need to tell people what to do." If you are working or operating in an environment that is dependent upon innovation, that model, that conception of leadership is obsolete. It doesn't work.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah.

Tim Clark:
And so they really weren't taught that. And yet this is becoming a critical skill for them to be successful, especially if they're operating in a highly dynamic environment.

Fred Bunsa:
I'm curious if you have a story or two that might reflect that, but before I ask you that, it seems to me that as leaders grow in their career, they're learning the ropes, they're learning how to lead. And I mean, in the coaching that we do, I would think, I have to look at the data to see this, but it would seem to me that people kind of learn their leadership style and there are people who constantly push and drive and cause friction and they leave a lot of blood in the water. They got sharp elbows, but it works. And then there's others that are much more softer, social, they're more relational and that works too. And yet what you're saying is you actually need both. You need the intellectual friction with reducing social friction.

Tim Clark:
Right.

Fred Bunsa:
And that seems like both/and most people kind of have a preference or a personality style that would lead them towards one or the other.

Tim Clark:
I agree with that. I think that in industries that rely increasingly on innovation though, if you are a tell-based leader and you push the fear button and you've gotten good at pushing the fear button and using coercion or manipulation to get people to do things, then they're going to be acting out of compliance. And I think what's going to happen, and I think we're already seeing this, especially in the Silicon Valley tech companies that we work with, is that the organization goes into what we call creative decline. They stop innovating the way they could or should.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah.

Tim Clark:
Because the leaders keep pushing a fear button, that keeps triggering the self-censoring instinct and you're not getting the creative output from people that you could. So I think there are very serious consequences if you're subscribing to the antique, industrial-age model. I really do. I think you're going to get a very low, low yield in terms of innovation.

Fred Bunsa:
What do you recommend for leaders that would, I don't... But do you have an idea or two on how you would coach them on increasing the intellectual friction while reducing social friction?

Tim Clark:
Yeah.

Fred Bunsa:
Or is it all dependent on the culture of the organization?

Tim Clark:
Well, it is, but it's really the centerpiece of the organization. So I would give you a couple of suggestions. First, a suggestion for individual behavior for leaders would be to really refine your ability to emotionally respond to dissent and bad news. Because your behavioral response to dissent is perhaps the most important signal that you send out to the team members. Everybody's watching that very carefully. If you can accommodate that dissent, if you welcome that, if you give people a license to disagree and they use it and you can handle that, everybody gets it. So that invites more challenge. That invites more dissent, that invites more creative abrasion. So I would say number one, ask yourself, how are you responding to dissent and bad news?

Fred Bunsa:
Okay.

Tim Clark:
What is your physical, emotional response when that happens? Because that sends out very clear signals.

Fred Bunsa:
Oh yeah.

Tim Clark:
The second suggestion that I would give would be, this is more of a process level suggestion and that would be to assign dissent from the very beginning. If you're looking at a proposed course of action, if you have some kind of priority, strategic priority, a project, some kind of decision, take half of your team and say, "You, you and you, you are the loyal opposition. You are assigned to dissent to what we are proposing to do. So what I would like you to do is I want you to tell us why this is a bad idea. I want you to tell us where the weaknesses are, where the flaws are, where we are vulnerable."

Tim Clark:
Because here's what happens. The moment the leader assigns dissent, then what we're doing is we're taking away the personal risk that that person would normally feel it in relation to challenging the status quo. But if I assign you to do it, then I've given you institutional cover, I've given you institutional permission to do that. You're much more likely to do it. You're much more likely to give us high-quality feedback and input because we're protecting you in that process. So those are a couple of suggestions that work really well.

Fred Bunsa:
That's awesome. That's awesome. Do you have a story or two that shows this, these stages playing out or a leader who was able to demonstrate some of these things?

Tim Clark:
Well, there's one that comes to mind. It's a negative case study, but I think it's extremely instructive. So I was working with a team, a technology team, well a technology company with a team in the Bay Area. And this team had worked on a strategic initiative for six months. And after the six months, they were charged to come to the executive team and present their findings and their recommendations. And I had the opportunity to work with the team all the way through the process. And this was a team, this was a virtual team with members on every continent and they had worked very hard for six months.

Tim Clark:
They all came into, they all flew into the Bay Area and they came into this big conference room to present to the CEO and the executive team. They made their presentation, which went for about half an hour, and then we had planned for another half an hour or so of question and answer to discuss their recommendations and their findings. After their presentation and they'd worked so hard on this for six months, after their presentation, the CEO jumped in and he said, "Well, I don't think we can fund this for such and such a reason." He was very curt, he was very abrupt, he took about five minutes. And here's the interesting thing, after that, you can probably guess what happened.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah.

Tim Clark:
No one said anything.

Fred Bunsa:
So the other executives didn't even respond, right?

Tim Clark:
Yeah.

Fred Bunsa:
Pick it up from there.

Tim Clark:
Okay. So then the CEO iced the room, the other executive didn't say anything, the rest of the room didn't say anything. The meeting disbanded. I still remember going next door to another conference room with the members of the team. They were absolutely devastated. And so this is just a great case study of a CEO who is culturally tone-deaf, who triggered the self-censoring instinct very, very quickly and he shut everything down. And it was just a very clear example of what not to do. So I'm not necessarily saying that as leaders, we need to dismantle the hierarchy. That's not what I'm saying. The hierarchy is going to be there. We need hierarchy to run organizations, but what we do need to dismantle is the fear and the arrogance of the hierarchy. Because when that is displayed, that is a menacing influence and it just absolutely shuts people down.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah.

Tim Clark:
I've seen this over and over again. I'll give you another example. So I worked with another executive team in a biotech company and we were doing long-term, strategic planning with the executive team. And there was a member of the executive team that was making a presentation. And a few minutes into his presentation, the CEO opened his laptop computer and started doing email in the middle of the meeting and I was there. And we're all sitting around the table together. There are 15 people in the room, CEO starts doing email. That's a soft way to trigger the self-censoring instinct. So there are hard ways and there are soft ways. That was a soft way.

Fred Bunsa:
Yep.

Tim Clark:
And I still remember talking to some of the executives afterward. They were, I can't tell you how upset they were because they felt humiliated. Because he didn't give them... Remember what, let's go back to the definition of psychological safety. It's the intersection of respect and permission to participate. So he revoked that psychological safety in the room at that moment and everybody felt it and the consequences were devastating to the team.

Fred Bunsa:
Wow. Such a... I mean, that one is, yeah, I'd have to think. Again, as a coach, I have to think that he must have known he was sending a message, but he just probably didn't realize how severe the message was and how stifling it would be. I mean, he could just be that emotionally detached as I... Gosh, I can't imagine being in that kind of a meeting.

Tim Clark:
Yeah. and I guess we'll never know for sure, but there's no doubt that it stung.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah.

Tim Clark:
And everybody could feel that sting and it, it really did shut people down.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah.

Tim Clark:
And we could see the devastating consequences of that.

Fred Bunsa:
Absolutely. Well, this has been a fascinating discussion. As you can probably tell, I'm really, really into this topic and I think it really has a lot of runway. I'm excited too that your book is coming out and that you can kind of push the knowledge level here. As we wrap up the podcast, is there any final advice or final idea that you'd like to leave our audience of rising HR leaders with?

Tim Clark:
Sure. Well, I would cite a little research. So a few studies were done last year and here's the finding, one-third of employees across organizations, across industries, across sectors. One-third of employees believe their opinions count. That's it. One-third. That's the number right now. So I would invite all of the listeners to think about that. That means two out of three, they don't believe that. And what matters is the way that they feel. That's what matters. Because their cognitive and emotional state will govern their behavior and it will govern their level of engagement.

Tim Clark:
And so think about that. Two-thirds don't believe their opinions count. It's incredible. So across the board, we can clearly see based on empirical evidence that we have a lot of work to do in organizations to increase the level of psychological safety so that people feel again, included, they feel safe to learn, safe to contribute and safe to challenge the status quo. So I would invite all of the listeners to do a little introspection and ask yourself to what extent what are you doing to allow people to do those four things, to move through the progression all the way to challenger safety?

Fred Bunsa:
Okay. Inclusion safety, learner safety, contribution safety, and challenger safety. Those are the four stages that you've laid out. And Tim Clark, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us on this cutting edge topic. The book is called The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. And to get more information about Tim and his organization, you can log into HRstudiopodcast.com. There, you can subscribe to our podcasts. You can look at past episodes and all of Tim's social and media handles are there, as well as the notes from today's episode. Again Tim, on behalf of HR Studio Podcast, thank you so much for joining us today.

Tim Clark:
Thanks very much Fred, I appreciate the opportunity.

 

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Date: 
Tuesday, March 3, 2020 - 8:00am
Industry: 
Consulting
Host: 
Fred Bunsa
Guest: 
Tim Clark
Type: 
HR Studio Podcast