Create psychological security!

Until recently, dealing with dynamics, uncertainty and complexity was purely a management privilege. But the heroic attempt to protect organizations and employees from this has failed. Today more than ever, managers want their employees to “co-creatively intervene”. But they are rarely clear about what conditions they should create for this. What about you?

What is psychological safety?

The term “psychological safety” describes a human need for an environment in which one is intellectually challenged, but in which little or no personal social friction is a distraction. This safety is particularly important for companies because it bridges the gap between integration and innovation. In a psychologically secure company, social frictions are reduced, but intellectual frictions are increased - they are important drivers for reflection and therefore development.

Similar to Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the concept of psychological safety also distinguishes between cumulative stages that build on one another (see diagram below). Only when the requirements of one level have been sufficiently fulfilled does the potential of the next higher level open up. If all four levels are sufficiently developed, psychological safety can unfold in a company.

The levels of psychological safety are called

  1. inclusion safety
  2. learner safety
  3. contributor safety
  4. challenger safety

These four levels are a balance between permission and respect. If you give an employee a lot of respect but hardly any permission, you are acting in a patronizing manner. Conversely, if you hardly respect the employee but give her a lot of permission, you are exploiting her.

Source: Clark, T. (2020): The Four Stages of Psychological Safety

Against this background, you can see that the “co-creative involvement” mentioned at the beginning is only possible at the fourth level (Challenger Safety). Because only there are employees not afraid of sanctions if they question the status quo. They know that different opinions are accepted, that they are not breaking any taboos or offending anyone or hurting anyone’s pride.

This explains, among other things, why leaders who are new to a system, for example, and immediately initiate controversial discussions, receive little or no feedback or resonance - which they often describe as a frustrating experience. Awareness of the four stages and a brief assessment of the status in one’s own organizational unit can massively reduce such an experience.

In my view, it is worth noting that Inclusion Safety is not simply the lowest level, but requires a minimum level of respect and permission - the Inclusion Threshold. Only at this level do employees feel fundamentally safe (in the sense of integrated, belonging, welcome, …).

The need to be accepted is greater than the need to be heard.

The concept of the 4 levels shows impressively that it is of little use to simply demand “innovative, entrepreneurial behavior” from employees without having created the necessary conditions for this. As an employee, I can only contribute innovatively (i.e. exceed the “innovation threshold”) if I not only feel that I belong (inclusion safety), am allowed to learn and ask questions (learner safety), but can and should also contribute to the company’s value creation (contributor safety). It is probably only thanks to the first three stages that it is possible to come up with new ideas, adopt out-of-the-box perspectives or constructively question the status quo.

Unfortunately, I have also come across companies in which the first three levels were cultivated with a great deal of energy, but access to the last level remained closed. Further development outside a certain framework was not desired or tolerated. This last stage can also instill fear. Because if many things are allowed to be questioned, it is not clear per se what the consequences will be. This is why leaders often resist such fundamental discussions in order to protect their current sphere of influence. In short, they cannot demand a challenger mindset while at the same time categorically excluding certain topics from critical discussion - this is implausible, paternalistic and sometimes simply cynical. PS: I will address this topic in one of the next newsletters - using the “elephant in the room” metaphor.

The goal of psychological safety: personal responsibility

But what is the point of all this? Ultimately, the focus is on psychological safety because employees should not only dare to take new steps, but also contribute and expand their potential. They should take risks, seize opportunities and identify possibilities that will also help the company move forward. This high degree of personal responsibility is the primary (and fortunately observable) goal of a company that actively and consistently invests in a psychologically safe environment.

Note on change projects: Once the concept of psychological safety is understood, it becomes difficult, for example, to link resistance to change to functions (middle management) or age (over 55). Rather, the focus shifts to the question of who is at what level and therefore needs what in order to move on independently and autonomously. Or the other way round: who has neglected what at which of the four levels to date, so that resistance to movement is now emerging in the company?

Building psychological safety

In the following table, I have compiled helpful questions and possible actions for building or strengthening psychological safety in a company. The basis for this is my involvement in numerous companies (link on HP) in various sectors (insurance companies, banks, travel providers, management and business consultancies, ICT companies, construction companies, automotive suppliers, etc.) in Germany and abroad.

CONCLUSION Of course, you cannot simply build up psychological safety and then leave it alone. In line with the corporate culture, you and your management team are required to perform this “you are never done” task continuously and consistently. In the table below you will find small and helpful questions and actions to support you in this. Let yourself be guided by this mnemonic: Being ignored is often more painful than being rejected - integration is THE key to performance, innovation and development. Good luck!

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