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The 4 stages of psychological safety (free psychological safety test)

High-performance teams and psychological safety go hand-in-hand

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What is psychological safety?The four stages of psychological safety at workThree behaviours for psychologically safe leadersHow Spill can help you create psychological safety

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  • Psychological safety is the shared belief within a group that no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.
  • At work, psychological safety is essential for employee wellbeing, engagement, and performance.
  • There are four stages of psychological safety: including, learning, contributing, and challenging.
  • Each stage of psychological safety highlights behaviours that a team can adopt to create an inclusive, supportive, and safe working environment. 
  • The optimum environment for innovation and growth is for a team to have high psychological safety and high accountability.
  • Psychologically safe leaders tap into their vulnerabilities and model the behaviours that underpin psychological safety at work.

Unlocking the key to a high performing team has kept business leaders occupied for decades. From self-directed companies like those in the ‘Silicon Valley of the North’ (Finland) to Gary Neville’s regular mini-retirements (ahem), CEOs, founders, and directors alike have been relentlessly trialling novel ideas to make their teams more effective.

Well, it turns out that in between mixing up the team’s structure, taking time off (let’s call a spade a spade, Gary), and carrying out detailed analyses of the wider team’s personality traits, there’s something that’s a) really important and b) often overlooked in the modern workplace. And that’s psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the shared belief within a group that no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Before we dive into the four stages of psychological safety, let's take a step back and understand what it means to achieve a psychologically safe workplace.

First coined* by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is the shared belief that a group, or team, is safe for taking interpersonal risks. And by that, we mean things like speaking up, sharing ideas, and expressing opinions without worrying about the consequences. 

*We say first coined, but in truth, the idea had been toyed with since the 1960s. Edmonson however, put the idea back on the map and has since dominated the field with her research.

As Edmonson points out in her TEDx talk, each of these interpersonal risks could make us look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative, when really, we all want to look smart, helpful, and positive. To take those risks, we, and those around us, need to feel psychologically safe.

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The four stages of psychological safety at work

While Edmonson coined the phrase ‘psychological safety’ as we know it today, it was Timothy R Clarke, founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, who came up with the model of dynamics and behaviours that teams can move through to create an inclusive, supportive, and safe working environment. While billed as the ‘four stages of psychological safety’, they’re not particularly sequential: teams can (and do) move between them throughout the day, across projects, and when working with new people.

Psychological safety stage 1: Everyone on the team feels included, accepted, and respected 

(a.k.a Inclusion safety)

Widely considered the foundation of psychological safety, inclusion safety means creating an environment in which everyone feels included, accepted, and respected within the company.

From a spell of recent user calls with our customers, we’ve learned that diversity and inclusion is high on the agendas of many companies this year, and inclusion safety is a part of that: fostering a sense of belonging, valuing diverse perspectives and backgrounds, and providing equal opportunities for everyone.

How to know if your team has inclusion safety

✅ Job titles, position, and authority aren’t used as status symbols.

✅ Everyone’s personal differences and experiences are celebrated

✅ Everyone regularly connects, be it in person, online, or via messaging

✅ No one’s name is unknown or mispronounced

✅ Everyone feels able to share information about their life outside of work

Three ways to get your team to this stage as a leader

🗣️ Ask for input, opinions, and feedback from your team to be inclusive in decision-making and explain the reasoning behind your decisions, acknowledging the input from others.

💬 Share your personal ways of working and encourage others to do the same. Discuss how you can support each other and possible changes to accommodate different needs (e.g. two meeting-free mornings a week to accommodate people who work best first thing). 

👋 Be available and approachable by making time for ad-hoc 1:1s, offering and inviting feedback, and actively engaging with your team (ask questions, listen, make eye contact, respond verbally).

Psychological safety stage 2: Everyone on the team feels able to take risks, fail, and learn 

(a.k.a Learner safety)

Here, your team feels able to take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, and (actually) engage with learning and development opportunities. Creating learner safety means viewing mistakes as learning opportunities and encouraging employee development at every level. 

Your goal with establishing learner safety is to build a culture of innovation, adaptability, and personal growth that benefits your employees and the company itself.

How to know if your team has learner safety

✅ Everyone feels able to make and share mistakes

✅ Learning is as important as the outcome

✅ Everyone is learning together, constantly (leaders, too!)

✅ Feedback is part of everyday company life

✅ Everyone is comfortable saying “I don’t know” 

Three ways to get your team to this stage as a leader

💡Focus on solutions rather than blame by asking “How can we make sure this goes more smoothly next time?” rather than “Why did you do this?”.

⚠️ Talk about the risks you’re taking and failures in your own work to encourage others and show it’s safe to try new things, even if they fail.

🤓 Dedicate time to your own learning and share what you find out: your optimism, enthusiasm, and your willingness to learn will be contagious.

A graph showing Tim Clark's model of psychological safety, with inclusion safety at the bottom and challenger safety at the top
Tim Clark's model of the four stages of psychological safety

Psychological safety stage 3: Everyone on the team feels able to share their ideas and opinions

(a.k.a Contributor safety)

As your team becomes more confident in their ability to learn and grow, they’ll start to feel more comfortable sharing their unique ideas and opinions. Creating contributor safety means building a culture that values and respects the contributions of every team member, encourages ownership, and recognises individual contributions. Get to this stage, and you’ll tap into the full potential of every single team member. 

How to know if your team has contributor safety

✅ Everyone is working with passion and enthusiasm

✅ Teams are solving problems, not completing tasks

✅ Everyone naturally works with autonomy 

✅ More questions are being asked than answered

✅ Everyone feels able to participate and share their ideas

Three ways to get your team to this stage as a leader

👍 Let your people do it their way: delegate, set clear expectations, and then…get out of the way.

💙 Express gratitude for any and all contributions, and praise people publicly: this will show your team that it's safe to share their individual ideas.

👂 (Really) listen and show your team you value their thoughts: shut your laptop, ask questions, and reframe your employees' words to show you truly understand.

Psychological safety stage 4: Everyone on the team feels comfortable challenging the status quo

(a.k.a Challenger safety)

Inclusion safety, learner safety, and contributor safety will lay the foundations for the final stage of psychological safety: challenging the status quo. This is a stage that builds a culture of innovation, critical thinking, and constructive debate. When your team feels safe to challenge assumptions and contribute alternative viewpoints, you’ll notice better decision-making, increased creativity, and a more flexible approach to changing circumstances. 

How to know if your team has challenger safety

✅ Everyone has a voice and is listened to

✅ There’s no tiptoeing around bad news

✅ Teams are comfortable sharing their half-baked ideas

✅ Disruptive ideas are encouraged and discussed

✅ Things get done because your team is excited to tackle new problems

Three ways to get your team to this stage as a leader*

👌 Give permission: start each discussion or meeting by reminding people that it’s a safe space and their honest opinions are not only wanted, but needed, to get to the best outcome.

🐘 Choose an ‘elephant miner’ in each meeting to unearth buried conflict. Ask “could we have more disagreement before we move forward”, “what might another team be unsure about here?”, “What would the counterargument be here?”.

🧠 Introduce a conflict framework like the Thomas Kilman Instrument (TKI). The TKI helps individual team members understand their own natural inclinations around conflict so they can make more strategic, appropriate choices in future situations.

*For transparency, we’ll hold our hands up here and own up to the fact that each of these ideas has come from the book The five dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni, a.k.a Spill’s favourite book (we gift it to every new starter). Seriously, we love it.

So, that’s the four stages but what does a psychologically safe environment actually look like?

Well, it hinges on the balance between psychological safety and accountability. As this balance shifts, your team can experience different psychological zones: comfort, apathy, anxiety, and learning.

As the balance between psychological safety and accountability shifts, teams can experience different psychological zones

  • Comfort zone: teams have high psychological safety and low accountability. It’s a relaxed place to be and people will likely feel safe, familiar, and at ease. But while stable, there’s no push for creativity and growth.
  • Apathy zone: teams have low psychological safety and low accountability. In other words, there’s a lack of motivation, support, and communication, with limited opportunity for growth and development. Individuals tend to no longer ‘care’ about their work.
  • Anxiety zone: teams have low psychological safety and high accountability. A state of heightened stress, fear, or uncertainty, the anxiety zone signals that teams feel overwhelmed, unable to take risks, and are fearful of being judged or criticised.
  • Learning zone: teams have high psychological safety and high accountability. Or rather, there’s a balance between challenge and support. It’s the optimal environment for innovation and growth as teams feel empowered to take risks, embrace challenges, learn from failures, and continually improve.

As Edmonson says, leaders need to ‘free people up to really engage and not be afraid of each other’. The learning zone is the high-performance zone, but only as long as there’s uncertainty and interdependence. For your team to reach this zone, they have to have psychological safety.

Spill gives your team access to highly quality therapy, helping you create a working environment that's safe, inclusive, and effective.

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Recap: why is psychological safety at work so important?

The night shift nurse who notices that the dosage for a patient seems high, but feels unable to call the doctor at home. The young pilot in a training military flight who doesn’t speak up when he notices that his senior officer might have made a significant misjudgement. The new senior executive of a top management team with reservations about a takeover, who feels like an outsider and unable to share her concerns.

These are the three examples of psychological safety at work that Edmonson uses to open her TEDx talk. Three different people in totally different industries, united by the fear of speaking up. The fear of challenging someone at work. The fear of looking ‘stupid’.

Edmonson’s concept of psychological safety has been widely studied in organisations and teams, and it turns out, it’s key for employee wellbeing, engagement, and performance. In fact, in a survey by the Pew Research Centre, 89% of adults say it’s essential for today’s business leaders to create psychological safety. 

Google agrees, with their findings from Project Aristotle — a two-year study on team performance — declaring psychological safety as the strongest proven predictor of team effectiveness. The study found that ‘individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.’

Project Aristotle confirmed what we already know: people need to feel secure to do their job well. And emotionally secure employees are more engaged, productive, and innovative

Psychological safety is the foundation for other team dynamics associated with successful teams

Since Project Aristotle, psychological safety has gained traction as companies increasingly realise the importance of ensuring workers feel safe and comfortable at work: and not only for mental health and wellbeing, but for business benefits, too.

A company lacking psychological safety will struggle to grow, innovate, and will harbour a lot of hidden negativity. A lack of trust (in all directions) will cause people to shut down and disengage from their work, and conflict can break out.

A table showing how a lack of psychological safety affects teams: "We don't want to look ignorant, so we don't ask questions", "We don't want to look incompetent, so we don't admit mistakes", "We don't want to look intrusive, so we don't offer ideas" and "We don't want to look negative, so we don't challenge the norm"
How a lack of psychological safety can present itself within a team

In 2010, a group of researchers looked at why some groups collectively perform better than others. Surprisingly, criteria that would normally be expected to contribute to better group performance (such as the sum of individual IQs), showed no correlation. 

Out of the three positive correlations with group performance, only one was statistically significant, and that was average social sensitivity. Or rather, the skill of recognising how others are feeling based on their tone of voice, expression, and other non-verbal signs. 

In short, groups with better social sensitivity had better group performance. And that leads us back to the hallmarks of psychological safety: feeling socially safe to speak up, share ideas, and offer opinions.

In a psychologically safe work environment, your team will feel accepted, respected, and valued. They’ll feel confident that their opinions are heard and considered, even if they’re in the minority. They’ll speak up. Take risks. Embrace failure (and learn from it). And as a leader, you’ll see the benefits of a high-performance team that innovates, collaborates, finds solutions, and ultimately, is happy.

Three behaviours for psychologically safe leaders

A survey by Mckinsey concluded that (perhaps unsurprisingly), for teams to feel psychologically safe, it all starts at the top. 

As a leader, it's your job to help your team know that they’re valued, that failure is okay, and that they can safely pursue new ideas. And to do that, you’ll need to tap into your vulnerabilities and model the interpersonal risks that create psychological safety. 

In her book, The Fearless Organisation, Edmonson offers practical guidance for bringing psychological safety to life but they can be distilled into three core behaviours. They may sound simple but remember, they need to extend into everything you do and communicate as a leader:

🧠 Frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.

The outcome of work is not the only output; it should also be a learning of how to do it better next time. 

🙋 Own the fact that you’re human, and therefore make mistakes.

Admit when you’re wrong or (gasp!) don’t know the answer: it will encourage others to do the same.

❓Ask (a lot of) questions and be curious about everything.

When you ask your team about what they’re doing or for their help, you’re creating a space and a need for people to speak up: an essential part of psychological safety and high performing teams.

How Spill can help you create psychological safety

Amongst company policies, leadership qualities, communication practices, and feedback frameworks, mental health support is another consideration when it comes to achieving psychological safety. And this isn’t just us doing a shameless sales pitch — McKinsey says so, too.

Spill lets you provide some (or all) of your team with access to a team of highly-qualified, experienced therapists. A Slack or MS Teams integration, your team can book one-off sessions or a longer course of therapy, and if talking therapy isn’t quite what they need, our Ask a Therapist feature means anyone can message a therapist about what’s on their mind. Spill offers therapy in 15 different languages and our therapists cover more than 80 specialisms. 

So, what does this mean in terms of psychological safety? Here are five reasons why offering your team talk therapy with Spill can help you create an environment that’s safe, inclusive, and effective. 

1. Spill can help leaders and managers show more vulnerability and authenticity 🫶

Therapy can help anyone in a senior position develop more self-awareness about your emotional reactions, vulnerabilities, and fears, and provides a safe space to talk about the mental challenges and responsibilities that come with being a decision-maker. 

2. Spill can help employees to increase their social sensitivity and emotional intelligence 🧠

Therapy can help your team gain a deeper understanding of their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. By increasing their self-awareness, your employees will be able to better recognise their own emotional states, triggers, biases, and patterns of interaction.

3. Spill can help employees to develop assertiveness 💪

Therapy isn’t just about sharing your emotions: it also involves being challenged on limiting beliefs, building self-confidence, managing fear, and setting goals. Collectively, these can all help your team learn to be assertive, which at work could translate as setting boundaries, expressing opinions, and constructively handling conflict.

4. Spill can help employees with communication skills 🗣️

As social sensitivity, emotional intelligence, and self-confidence increases, your employees will also find their communication skills improving. They’ll be able to better express their needs, offer open and constructive feedback, and respond with empathy: many of the interpersonal skills seen in psychological safety.

5. Spill shows the whole company that you care about them 💙

By partnering with Spill, you’re sending a very clear message that you care for and value your team’s mental wellbeing: there’s no judgement on your watch. As a visible and accessible service, Spill brings the conversation around mental health front and centre, helping to reduce the stigma and create an inclusive environment where your employees will feel safe to discuss their emotional health.

Be your team’s role model

Psychological safety isn’t a new concept or trend by any means, and the shift towards a more open, honest, and equal workplace is here to stay: it’s the foundation of a healthy, happy, productive modern workplace after all. Remember, psychological safety isn’t natural: for most people, it feels safe to hold back and stay silent. As a leader, you have the power to provide a safe space for your employees to be their full selves. And to do that, you need to embody the behaviours you want in your team.

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Get your psychological safety test

Ask the right questions to get an accurate read on how psychologically safe your culture is, and to diagnose what needs improving.

Check in with your team's psychological safety with Spill Safety Net: a weekly mental wellbeing check for teams. Spot warning signs early and encourage people to open up and share.

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