The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 211

Timothy R. Clark

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

How can you mitigate feelings of fear and uncertainty at work? Timothy Clark, founder and CEO of LeaderFactor and most recently the author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, seeks to understand why and how people manage the “expense” of this kind of safety. Discover the four stages and how they compound, whether or not we can have an intellectual disagreement without making it personal, and how empathy can diffuse defensiveness.

About

Get the book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, from Amazon here:

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Website: Leaderfactor.com
Bio:  Timothy R. Clark is founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, a global leadership consulting and training organization. He is the author of five critically acclaimed books on leadership, culture, and change. His newest release, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, is considered a breakthrough contribution in the field of organizational culture and transformation. Clark earned a Ph.D. in social science from Oxford University.

Video

 

Peter

Today is Tim Clark. He is the founder and CEO of leader factor. It’s a global leadership consulting training and assessment organization. And he’s the author most recently of the four stages of psychological safety, defining the path to inclusion and innovation. And I’m delighted to have him on the Bregman leadership podcast. The issue of psychological safety, I think is a super tricky one, especially in high performing organizations. It’s super, super critical and people often get it wrong. So I’m really happy to have Tim join us, Tim, welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast.

Timothy:

Thanks Peter. It’s great to be with you.

Peter

Tim. First define psychological safety for us.

Timothy:

Let me give you a definition that maybe is a little bit different than some people have heard. So let’s put it this way. Psychological safety means it’s not expensive to interact socially in a team or an organization. And when I say expensive, it’s a, that’s a real key word here socially, emotionally, politically, and financially when it is expensive. And it often is for people, then they don’t, they retreat, they recoil and they manage personal risks. So that’s a basic way of defining it. It’s not expensive. And so therefore you’re much more likely to engage. Does that make sense?

Peter

Yeah, absolutely. I love the way you’re you’re thinking about it too, because just the language itself makes it more appealing for leaders who might not otherwise be disposed to creating select psychological safety to doing it because the, you know, but there is a cost, right? There’s a cost to innovating. There’s a cost to taking risks. There’s a cost. And and if the cost is too high, you won’t do it. So creating psychological safety reduces the cost.

Timothy:

That’s right. It reduces the cost of it in that economic sense as a transaction. And I think it becomes much clearer to people,

Peter

Right? I love it. You sort of talk about as a key concept that the leader’s task is to simultaneously increase intellectual friction and decrease social friction. Right. Can you just that it’s, it’s sort of self explanatory, but give us a sentence or two. So that that’s really clear because that to me is the underlying purpose of everything that we’re trying to do. And we’re trying to create psychological safety.

Timothy:

Sure. So what are we doing? Our teams and in our organizations, we’re trying to solve problems. We’re trying to create solutions. We’re trying to innovate. How do you do that? You do that through intellectual friction. We need, we need creative abrasion. We need constructive dissent. We need ideas, colliding and rubbing against each other. That’s intellectual friction. So we cannot solve the problems that we need to solve. We cannot create the solutions. We cannot innovate without intellectual friction. That’s the mechanism. But what happens is the natural, the natural tendency, the natural pattern is as the intellectual friction goes up, the social friction goes up too, right? The social friction goes up as well. At some point it stops it halts that process of intellectual friction. So the leader’s job is to increase that intellectual friction so that we can, we can do that innovation. We can create that, that constructive dissent, but at the same time, keep the social friction down so that we have that lubricating oil to keep doing this. Right.

Peter

Right. So I have this whole list of questions I’m going to throw out right now, because what I basically want to do is just have an instructive and constructive conversation about how to do that. I’ve got the four questions and we can kind of play out with the four questions. But I think what makes this conversation most interesting is that idea is super compelling, right? And it’s, and it’s an idea. And it’s a, it’s a challenge that for the most part is very difficult to achieve sort of in Christianity, you would sort of say, love the sinner, hate the sin, but hard to hate something about someone without also making them feel hated, especially if it’s essential about them. So hard to criticize someone’s opinion sometimes without also creating distance between them. Especially if there’s, if that’s, if that disagreement is expensive to them, meaning they, you know, they have a stake in the game and they have an opinion that might help grow their business and you’re disagreeing with it. Then how do you have that intellectual disagreement without making it personal? And, and that, by the way, the fear of that is also the reason why we don’t have disagreements because we’re afraid of hurting the, you know, we’re afraid of creating social friction. So I think this is a $60 million question and, or maybe it was 20 years ago now it’s the $60 billion question. Right?

Peter

So let’s talk about that. I mean, and you can start wherever you want to start, and you have these four stages of inclusion, safety learners, safety, contributors, safety, and challenges, safety. But let’s just start with this basic question. How do you,

Timothy:

So I think, I think where we start Peter, is that we start at stage one inclusion, safety, that’s your foundation. So inclusion safety means that I feel part of the team I fit in, right? I’ve been accepted. I’ve been invited into your community, right? For example, I might be hired as the last software engineer on the team. So I’m hired in, I’m an employee. You’ve onboarded me. I’m part of this team. And let’s say there’s eight of us. So I am officially a member of this team. That’s not what we’re talking about or talking about is the socio cultural acceptance. So I need to be accepted in that way, which means that the team members give me inclusion safety. That means they accept me by virtue of my human status. And so they’re accepting me on that basis based on my worth as an individual, not my worthiness. Okay.

Peter

So let’s, let’s explore that for a second because if we’re just friends fine, right. But Tim, if you and I are on a team and we have performance objectives, right. And you’re not necessarily achieving your performance objectives, how do we maintain the sense of inclusion or the sort of inclusion safety when I’m actually starting to not value you in the same way? And I’m not valued as a member of team. And you could say, well, you have to evaluate, you have to value me as a person. And like, one of the things you say is that men, you know, do you believe that all men and women are created equal? Do you accept that others? Do you accept others, welcome them into your society just because of who they are. Right. And I wonder if that truly applies to a performance driven organization.

Timothy:

Well, let me give you an example. So think about, think about someone that had a significant impact on your life could have been a parent teacher, coach, friend, neighbor. Now evaluate the nature of your relationship with them based on, let’s say two dimensions, number one, the level of intimacy with them, the level of the degree of closeness. So typically it’s going to be very high, right? Intimacy is going to be high right on the other dimension, think about accountability. So it was the accountability low or high. Now here’s what most people find as they think about people that have had the most profound impact on their lives. They’ll see a pattern where the relationship is characterized by high intimacy and high accountability. And so if on your team, you have a person say I’m not performing and you’ve got to tell me, so, and you’ve got to coach me and help me.

Timothy:

If our relationship cannot withstand accountability, then we need to question the nature of the relationship because solid relationships can withstand accountability. But a lot of people, they back off from the accountability because they think that if they hold someone accountable, it will sacrifice the relationship. Right? It’s the relationships just not there right now, if we go back to conventional wisdom, right? The old industrial model was maintain personal and professional. It was all accountability, no intimacy. Yeah. Right. But what we have found based on sociometric research and new research coming out of the, for example, the MIT human dynamics lab is that you, the familiarity is not something that you want to run, run away from. It’s something that you want to cultivate because as you get, as you get higher levels of intimacy, as you become closer, if it is authentic intimacy, it can withstand the accountability. Right. And you’re going to be able to, so, so, so where am I going with this,

Peter

By the way, that’s not true. The opposite. Meaning if it’s authentic accountability, it can’t necessarily handle the internal

Timothy:

That’s. Right, right. That’s very good point. But ultimately what we’re saying is we need to create a relationship that can withstand a high tolerance for candor. Right? That’s what we want. Ultimately, as a leader of a team, what’s my goal. My goal is I need to, I’m the architect of the culture, right? I’m the curator of the culture. I need to create a culture of intellectual bravery. Right. That’s what I need.

Peter

So it’s actually interesting because I’ll tell, let me share my methodology. And some of the, a lot of the work that I’ve been doing recently is around emotional courage. So you’re, you’re sort of talking about this sort of intellectual cards or intellectual bravery. And I want to just throw into this conversation, emotional cards, which is the willingness to, to withstand feelings, like to be willing, to feel things. Because when I, when I think about someone who might be hesitant to hold someone else accountable that because maybe they don’t have the strength and the intimacy or the trust in the intimacy, but if you’re not willing to hold someone accountable, it’s because there’s something that you don’t want to feel like you might feel the distance in the relationship that you don’t want to, you might feel them push back and reject you. You might feel these things you don’t want to feel. And so if you’re not willing to feel those things you won’t follow through on the actions. And so the emotional courage, the emotional bravery you need, I think sort of needs to go along with the intellectual bravery. Is that, am I thinking about this? I’m curious. What, how you, how you, how that lands.

Timothy:

No, I think that’s true because, so in order to create a culture of intellectual bravery, this is what, this is what I found in my research is that when we act with vulnerability in an organization on a team, when we do anything that exposes us to risk or the possibility of loss, that vulnerability is either punished or rewarded, it’s never neutral. If I put myself out there, my vulnerability gets punished or it gets rewarded and I’m going to pay very close attention to what happens when I expose myself that way, right. When I’m vulnerable. Right? So the pattern is what people pay most attention to. So if the leader can reward the vulnerability, even if the, even if the suggestions or the import or the feedback, it may not be great. Right? But if, if the leader can reward that vulnerability, that attempt at contribution, then the person now you’re building the, the emotional capacity to be intellectually brave. Right? It’s all about that pattern. Will the vulnerability be punished? Will it be rewarded?

Peter

There’s some concrete things that the leader can do to reinforce that culture of inclusion.

Timothy:

Sure. So let’s, let’s start with this. The leader has to model a pattern of vulnerability himself or herself. And what does that mean? Give us an example. So that might mean in a, in a meeting that might mean thinking out loud about ideas, some of which may be silly. It may be sharing a past mistake. It may be sharing failures. It’s, it’s simply revealing the fact that you really are human. You really have made a lot of mistakes. You really have had failures, and you got to share that. And so you create a pattern. You model a pattern of vulnerability that everybody can see. Because these days we, we learn our living. We don’t earn our living as much. We, we learn our living. We need to show, we need to demonstrate a pattern of aggressive, self directed learning, and we need to do it in front of everybody else.

Timothy:

Number two, here’s another one. So another suggestion would be that you pay very close attention to the way that you emotionally respond to dissent and bad news. These are the most important signals that you send out to your team. When the dissent comes back, when the bad news comes back, everybody’s watching you. That’s when you’re scrutinized the most. So if you can accommodate that emotionally, it sends very clear signals to your team that, Oh, you know what? I guess we do descent. We do bad news here. And that’s okay. But if your emotional response to dissent and bad is defensiveness insecurity. If you’re shutting people down, everybody gets it. And so they will respond accordingly. So there’s a couple of suggestions.

Peter

Now there’s a lot of leaders who listened to this podcast for whom this is really useful advice. There are a lot of people who work for leaders who don’t follow the advice. And one of my questions is if you don’t have a leader who can create who, who does create that kind of psychological safety, then it becomes probably unfair to expect that people within the organization will have the intellectual bravery to confront them with it, because probably that will end poorly. So it’s like, how do you change this? Other than from, you know an aha moment from a leader or someone like you or me coming in from the outside or some other way. And I could tell you I’ve come in from the outside. And I’ve worked with leaders for whom eventually I’ve walked away because I’ve said, they’re not interested in changing this behavior. They’re not going to be able to. And I’m curious what advice you have for people who are, you know, in that room who don’t feel inclusion, safety, because the leader is not demonstrating that kind of thing.

Timothy:

That reminds me Peter of a boss that I had earlier in my career, he was a tyrant. What was his name? That’s right. So he was a tyrant. He ruled through fear and intimidation. He would push the fear button every day. This, by the way, let me just say this to all the listeners out there, pervasive fear on a team or in an organization is the first sign of weak leadership. That’s that’s the first, that’s the first sign it’s symptomatic of weak leadership, the greater, the fear, the poor, the leadership. We know that. So that’s the way this gentleman ruled fear and intimidation. And then he would come to us and say, I need your feedback. I need your feedback. I need your input. I need you to weigh in on this. Well, who’s going to do it. It’s expensive, it’s expensive. And that’s what you’re saying. So if you have a boss that makes the interaction expensive, then it’s a very natural, reasonable response to not engage because what are you doing? It’s personal risk management, it’s loss prevention, it’s pain, avoidance, right? We’re being human.

Peter

Part of what you’re saying is the advice to them is either accepted or leave, but don’t try to be, but it will probably be too expensive for you to try to change from the middle or bottom of the organism.

Timothy:

It may be too expensive, but let me give you one more option. The other option is before you come to a conclusion about whether it’s you, you, you can’t overcome it. You need to look carefully at the situation and ask yourself, how can I get this leader, this boss to listen to me? What can I do to build credibility in his or her eyes to build trust with him or her so that we can begin so that I can begin to get some traction and get an audience with this person. So you have to think very carefully in spite of the dysfunction, in spite of the maybe the abusive behavior, whatever it is. And in spite of all of that and got to think through, is there a way that I can build the credibility and the trust to get this individual to listen to me?

Timothy:

Because if I can make some inroads, sometimes leaders they’re full of bluster and bravado initially, but they’ll soften up, right? If you could just build some of that credibility initially. So how do you do that? The way that I would do that is I would begin by spending more time, trying to spend more time, more interaction and ask questions. Questions are usually nonthreatening. And so you’ve got to, you’ve got to create more dialogue and more face time with that person ask more questions. They’ve got to get to a level of, of, of comfort that they’re not at right now. And sometimes even the really hard crusted leaders they’ll soften up and you can make gains that you never thought possible.

Peter

So let me, let me throw in one more challenge to that, which is oftentimes with the kind of leader who’s created an environment that creates fear in the culture is, you know, there’s like, I don’t want to label, but there’s like some element of narcissism or this is about me or right. And so when I start to ask, let’s say, I’m reporting to that person. And I start to ask questions. They are only too happy to step into the role of ha let me teach you young one who doesn’t know. And let me talk to you about it. And the more questions you ask, the more I’ll tell you, and I’m perfectly happy in that relationship. Like that’s a great relationship. I’ll keep teaching you. You keep asking me questions. I feel really great because you want to know, but that doesn’t necessarily mean if I’m that leader that I’m ever open to them giving me advice, because I haven’t done anything to create that dynamic. The only dynamic is a dynamic that I’ve probably as that leader already encouraged, which is one where you sit quietly and ask me questions and listen, and take in what I want to say.

Timothy:

Sure. So the, so the other piece that we need to add to the equation is you’re searching for intent. So when you’re working with that executive or that leader, or that boss, you’re trying to understand his or her intent. If they’re pathological narcissist, you’re probably going to have to write it off because it will always be too expensive to engage. It’s not going to work, but if you’re, if you can carefully search for intent and you, you may find that there’s some pure intent there and that this person isn’t perhaps as insecure, isn’t perhaps as self serving as maybe you thought, and if you come to the conclusion that there’s some good intent there, and that this person may have the ability to not hide behind title, position, and authority, which is a complete cop-out, but actually collaborate with you in good faith, then that may encourage you to take another step. Got it. So you’re sniffing for intent, right? You got to sniff hard and see what you,

Peter

And what’s the sign of the right intent or what do you do to bring out a sign of the right intent?

Timothy:

I think you’re, you’re searching for why that person does what he or she does. So what’s the why behind what they do. And this is where you go into discovery mode and you ask some very carefully thought out questions to try and get at that.

Peter

So I have a thought to him based on that, that, that I’m curious to know what you think about, which is, so the dilemma we’re facing right now is you’ve got someone who loves to, you know, who creates an environment of fear, which means that they’re probably putting all the energy out and you’re receiving all the energy and you want to shift the dynamic and asking them questions may not shift the dynamic. It may, but it may not shift the dynamic because it kind of reinforces the dynamic, but possibly a way. And I’m just thinking about this in this conversation, which is why I love these kinds of conversations, because they kept me thinking too, is empathy with that person allows them to start to listen to you in a way where they may see value. So if I’m able to empathize with you, let’s say you’re that leader.

Peter

And I’m able to say, and I’m just riffing off of what you said, which is understanding their intent to be able to go, yeah, this must be this. Like, I can see how through your eyes, this is a really challenging situation because you know, you’re at stake for the board with this. And meanwhile, you know, there’s six of us who come from different men who were coming from different opinions and maybe we’re advocating for our own perspective, but you’re the only one holding the larger perspective. And that’s gotta be kind of frustrating for you and a little hard and to have them then say, yeah, yeah, that is how I’m feeling. Now you’ve changed the dynamic. Now the dynamic is, I’m saying something to you, you’re listening and agreeing with me. That’s right. And I’ve empathized with you. I’ve explained I’ve, I’ve understood you. I’ve understood your intent. I’ve understood you well enough. So that you’re at a point where you’re looking at me, not as the disciple, but as someone who actually has some insight that you agree with, cause I’m reflecting back, what’s going on for you that you feel seen and heard in that way, which then allows you possibly the space to be in seeing and hearing me,

Timothy:

I think that’s right, Peter. And I think that it demonstrates how empathy is able to diffuse defensiveness. And sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but before you come to conclusions about whether you can work with a boss or not, I think you need to exhaust those possibilities. Right? That’s what I would say. I think you have to do it right.

Peter

Let’s do a quick dive into stage two learner safety and see if we can get to stage three and stage four. It just overview because this was a sort of a fun, deep dive into inclusion safety.

Timothy:

So inclusion safety is your foundation. And then we moved to stage two, which is learner safety learner safety means that I feel safe and engaging in all of the aspects of the discovery process, the learning process. So I can ask questions. I can give and receive feedback. I can experiment. I can make mistakes. I’m not going to be embarrassed for it and not going to be punished or marginalized,

Peter

Which is very similar to what we were sort of like the, the, the skills for creating that kind of environment at the same kind of leader that we were just talking about beforehand, that, you know, has to sort of avoid that fear. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s, they’re, they’re kind of fighting the same battle

Timothy:

That’s right, right. But you can see that the vulnerability level has gone up for exclusion safety. Just accept me for who I am. Right. But learner safety now I’m vulnerable because I have to engage in these learning activities. I’m taking, I’m taking risks in the learning process. So my exposures higher

Peter

Stage three contributors,

Timothy:

Right? Stage three means I’ve learned now I want to apply what I’ve learned, which is the natural human need. That desire is to apply what you’ve learned. So now I want to be able to act and contribute as a full member of the team. You see my abilities and I want to make a difference.

Peter

Let me ask you a question, because in my observations, I see people because what you’re doing is you’re saying deeper levels. Like it’s, you know, inclusion. If you want to go deeper, you go to learning. If you want to go deeper, like you have to be even more psychologically safe to contribute. And we’re getting to stage four, which is the most, which is I’m. I feel comfortable enough to challenge, right? Challenge or safety. What I find fascinating in organizations is people who are comfortable contributing and who are not comfortable learning that. I think in, in many organizations, learner safety is a higher bar than contributors safety because contributors safety requires less vulnerability. Hey, I’m adding value. Hey, I’m important. Hey, I’m safe and secure, but learning requires it’s the, I, I, you, you, from, from contributor safety, you start from a place of, I know from learner safety, you start from a place of, I don’t know. And I think that I don’t know is a much more vulnerable, difficult way to show up and, and higher value in many ways than I know. And I can answer what I’m curious to get your thoughts.

Timothy:

Well, here’s a, here’s another pattern that we’ve identified. So think about the fact that we have a lot of baby boomers that are incumbents in management positions throughout industry. Right? So those baby boomers, many of them are here and retirement is not too far away. Right. And yet they’ve gotten into a state of skills and knowledge obsolescence. So they’re trying to get from where they are to retirement without being detected. Right. Right, right. And so if you have become, if your skills have become obsolete and you never cultivated an aggressive self directed learning disposition, you’re in trouble because you’re an anachronism, you are, you’re, you’re an antique. You don’t know how to function in a highly dynamic environment where we, where we have to learn constantly. And so you’re very, you’re very exposed and you’re very vulnerable to your point. Right? So that’s where the learner safety is, is, is an extremely kind of daunting thing for you to continue to learn because you haven’t, you haven’t followed that path. Right.

Peter

Right. Now, that’s I see that, I find that lack of learner safety is perhaps the most expensive of all of the costs of a poor, psychologically safe environment. Because if you don’t have an organization, which people are learning, you’re capped. So I find it.

Timothy:

That’s really interesting. That’s a good point from a career development standpoint. But let’s understand though, when we go to level, when we go to stage four challengers safety, the, the, the vulnerability level is like off the charts. Right. Because now we’re saying, I want you to take it, aim at the cha at the status quo. Right. I want you to challenge the way we do things. Right. That’s a big ask.

Peter

Yeah. I think, yeah. I think that’s, I think that’s right. I mean, I also, I, it’s funny because I could see how it’s culturally culturally dependent also, we’re talking about sort of inclusion, and I know that there are certain cultures where challenging is a lot easier to do then learning. In fact, one of the reasons why challenger safety is a higher bar for leaders is because when I create an environment of that is safe for me to be challenged, it means I am willing to take the risk of learning because I’m going to learn by being challenged. So like the vulnerability of learning is a necessity to my, as a leader, creating an environment in which I can be challenged, which I think is like, why challenge their safety? So,

Timothy:

Well, I think that’s right. And that, and that’s why it’s cumulative because of the learn safety, never, the, the learning risk never goes away. It never does the vulnerability and risk associated with, with learning. It never goes away. Right. But I think there’s I think there’s a peak when you challenge that’s. So if we think about innovation that, that transition from contributor safety to challenger safety is what we call the threshold of innovation, right? Innovation by its very nature is disruptive. It’s subversive. It undermines the status quo, right? And so if the culture is not nurturing, that if the leader is not reinforcing, that it’s going to be very difficult to innovate. Right? And so I would argue if you look at most of the organizations that die and they were once successful and you do a postmortem analysis of failure, I would argue that most of them die because they lost the culture of intellectual bravery. And what did they get now? Now, what are they operating on? It’s an echo chamber it’s group. Think they’ve lost their adaptive capacity. They can no longer look out, absorb the competitive environment and adjust and adapt to it. They can’t do that anymore because internally they’ve commoditized and homogenized their thinking. They don’t permit it anymore. They don’t allow it. People don’t have a license to disagree. They revoke those licenses. So you can’t do it. Right. And so people don’t, and that becomes the new DNA.

Peter

That’s great. I love it. We have been talking with Tim Clark, his latest book, the Forrest stages of psychological safety, defining the path to inclusion and innovation. Tim, thank you so much for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.

Timothy:

Oh, I’d love, love being with you, Peter. Thanks very much for having me.

Peter

Thanks for listening. Here’s what I’ve learned from working with some of the most successful leaders of the most successful companies. Every leader, every team, and every organization has a leadership gap. If you want to become a leader who inspires your team to get things done, then you’ve got to start by raising the level of your leadership abilities. You can start by taking our free leadership gap assessment@wwwdotbregmanpartners.com forward slash quiz. Then dive deeper with a copy of my latest book, leading with emotional courage for more ways to become a truly great leader, check out our online offerings in person workshops and events and my articles@wwwdotbregmanpartners.com. Again, thanks so much for joining me today and be sure to subscribe. So you don’t miss an episode.

 

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