ladder of safety

Over the past several months, we’ve written about the importance of psychological safety in the workplace, and how the great resignation creates an urgency for organizations to raise the bar. The 4 Stages framework for psychological safety, authored by Timothy Clark, is a powerful tool to support leaders committed to the effort of improving psychological safety in their organizations.

More than “All or Nothing”

Psychological safety is the ability to take risks without fear of negative consequences. Not all risks, however, are of equal magnitude. For example, if you are starting a new job, there might be social risk involved in simply introducing yourself to new people. At the same time, that level of risk pales in comparison to another example, speaking up to disagree with a senior leader about an important strategic decision. These are both examples of risks that employees may face in an organization. As such, an environment of psychological safety should strive to reward both interactions and remove the risk of negative consequences from either. But psychological safety means different things in different contexts. The 4 Stages offers the language and understanding to navigate the broad variability that exists within psychological safety.

Understanding the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

The 4-Stage framework describes the level of safety in a team environment through several stages that naturally build upon one another. These stages are defined as:

  • Inclusion Safety: the ability to belong in a group, feel safe being yourself, and be accepted for who you are
  • Learner Safety: the ability to learn and grow by asking questions, giving & receiving feedback, experimenting, and even making mistakes
  • Contributor Safety: the ability to make a difference by using your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution
  • Challenger Safety: the ability to make things better by speaking up and challenging the status quo when there is an opportunity for improvement.

Throughout each stage of safety, the emphasis remains on providing an environment where risks and vulnerability are rewarded.

Ladder of Growth

It’s possible to think about each of these stages of safety as steps on a ladder. The benefit of thinking in this way is that anybody, whether that is any organization, any team, any individual, or any leader, can take a step further to advance the safety in the environment. Many environments may already have some degree of safety. But you can always take a step up the ladder. When an organization achieves challenger safety, it can unlock an extraordinary level of team performance. Individuals are free to practice divergent thinking, boost creative friction, offer constructive dissent, and speak candid feedback, all in a welcoming environment.

The 4-Stages of Psychological Safety Assessment

If you are interested in assessing and improving the levels of psychological safety of your organization, consider the 4 Stages Team Assessment and Workshop. The training enables teams to examine internal norms and explore behaviors that deepen the level of Inclusion, Learner, Contributor, or Challenger Safety and foster conversation and behaviors to help grow safety. Learn more about the 4 Stages Assessment and Workshop here.