Book excerpt: The 4 stages of psychological safety – defining the path to inclusion and innovation

Timothy R. Clark offers powerful new insights about psychological safety.


Reading time: 5 minutes.

Commercial organisations survive and succeed through competitive advantage, which ultimately means innovation.

Most people don’t realise it, but innovation is almost always a social process and almost never a lightbulb moment of lone genius. It requires creative abrasion and constructive dissent – processes that rely on high intellectual friction and low social friction.

The best innovation incubators in the world combine tolerance for candour with the absence of fear. If you want to stimulate innovation on your team, start by meticulously examining your cultural stewardship for the team.

Key Concept: The leader’s task is to simultaneously increase intellectual friction and decrease social friction.

The absence of physical safety can bring injury or death, but the absence of psychological safety can inflict devastating emotional wounds, neutralise performance, paralyse potential, and crater an individual’s sense of self-worth. It can also destroy organisations.

One of the first things you learn about leadership is that the social and cultural context has a profound influence on the way people behave and that you as the leader are, straight up, responsible for that context.

The other thing you learn is that fear is the enemy. It freezes initiative, ties up creativity, and represses what would otherwise be an explosion of innovation.

Key principle: The presence of fear in an organisation is the first sign of weak leadership.

If you can banish fear, install true performance-based accountability, and create a nurturing environment that allows people to be vulnerable as they learn and grow, they will perform beyond your and their expectations.

Key questions: Have you ever been a part of an organisation or team that was dominated by fear? How did you respond? How did other people respond?

For the past twenty-five years, I’ve been a working cultural anthropologist and a student of psychological safety, working with teams across every sector of society.

Key concept: Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo— all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised, or punished in some way.

All human beings have the same innate need: We long to belong. As a homeless man wrote on a tattered piece of cardboard, “Be kind if you not my kind.” And yet that basic human need can be taken too far, which leads to its own set of problems.

Not long ago, my sardonic teenage daughter, Mary, went to a high school basketball game and held up a poster that revealed a penetrating truth: “I’m just here so I don’t lose friends!”

I’m in the pattern-recognition business. When it comes to the way people interact, the patterns are unmistakable, and the challenge is universal

This book is about the interdependence of the human family. I want to shine a light on how we get along, decode the science of silence, and explore what it takes to liberate our voices and connect our hearts and minds.

Specifically, I want to share with you what I’ve learned about the way psychological safety influences behaviour, performance, and happiness. What’s the mechanism? How do we activate or deactivate it?

I’m in the pattern-recognition business. When it comes to the way people interact, the patterns are unmistakable, and the challenge is universal. What I have to say is both empirical and normative.

I make no apologies for combining cold, dispassionate observations with warm, passionate pleas because the use case, the job to be done, is to offer you practical guidance.

Key question: Have you ever had the realisation that family life is almost always the most challenging place to model and apply correct principles of human interaction?

Sometimes we’re noble and good to each other. Sometimes we’re criminally irresponsible. Our track record as a species is, for the most part, a chilling history, a pageant of war, and a chronicle of conquest.

Maya Angelou rendered the lamentable past as few literary voices can: “Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good.

Our greed, fear and lasciviousness have enabled us to murder our poets, who are ourselves, to castigate our priests, who are ourselves. The lists of our subversions of the good stretch from before recorded history to this moment.”

Why, after thousands of years, are we technologically advanced and still sociologically primitive?

As social creatures, we act like free electrons, demonstrating both connection and contention. It’s true that we need each other to flourish.

Yet despite knowing this, we suffer from compassion fatigue, are handicapped by our blind spots, and chronically regress to the mean.

We go through cycles of embracing and exiling each other. Indeed, the study of humans in social settings is largely the study of exclusion and fear.

For example, a mere third of US workers believe their opinions count. Why do we hire people if we don’t want their opinions?

Drawing lines of exclusion is not rooted in our biology. It’s the adoration of power and distinction, insecurity, and ordinary selfishness that lead us to partition ourselves. As humans, we look for loyalties to attach to.

Out of our attachments emerge our differences. Out of our differences emerge our divisions. Out of our divisions emerge our classes, ranks, and stations.

And it is out of those spaces between us that the comparisons begin, the empathy flees, the fear and envy emerge, the conflicts arise, the antagonisms gestate, the destructive instincts and impulses for abuse and cruelty arise.

In the spirit of our bigotry, we invent dogmas to justify the ways we torment each other. Ironically, in our digital age, we connect and feel alone, compare and feel inadequate. Indeed, if you have a sudden urge to feel “less than,” spend an hour on your favourite social media platform.

Key concept: When you compare and compete, you lose the ability to connect.


About the excerpt

The 4 stages of psychological safety: defining the path to inclusion and innovation by Timothy R. Clark is published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers and will be available on 3 March 2020.


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