The 4 stages of psychological safety

We know that Psychological Safety might be the most important factor contributing to your team’s performance and a prerequisite for true innovation. Let’s dive deeper into the construct and look at the 4 stages of psychological safety.

Innovation is a group effort. The image of a lone genius might be one that appeals to the imagination, but is not a realistic one. For a team to be able to come up with novel ideas, a foundation of trust – or more specific psychological safety – needs to be laid. Timothy Clark describes in his excellent book The 4 stages of Psychological Safety that there are four stages of psychological safety, and you need to get to the last stage to come to groundbreaking innovation.

Clark defines psychological safety as: “… 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, marginalized, or punished in some way

The 4 stages thus are: inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety and challenger safety.

Inclusion Safety

It all starts with inclusion safety. Being adopted and accepted in the team is the first step in feeling psychologically safe. As a new member you are now part of the social collective and granted a shared identity. A point Clark makes that is worth emphasizing is that inclusion safety is not just tolerance of the group towards the newcomer. It is being genuinely welcomed in the group.

Learner Safety

The next step is learner safety. When there is learner safety, team members are not afraid to ask each other questions, try new things, experiment and make mistakes. While in the previous stage of inclusion safety you could stay relatively passive, in this stage you will need to actively pursue to learn how things are done. Mind you: in the learner safety stage your responsibilities and constraints are narrow. Which brings us to the next stage.

Contributor Safety

Contributor safety is the stage where you may fully employ your skills and expertise. Here you have demonstrated that you’re competent and can do your job autonomously. Your responsibilities are bigger, and your freedom with that too. Contributor safety is sometimes reflected in a promotion or in a role you get. You are granted contributor safety because people assume you will perform your job well.

Challenger Safety

The last stage of psychological safety. Challenger safety is where the magic happens. In this stage you feel free to disagree, challenge the status quo and pitch novel ideas, without the fear of punishment or damaging your reputation. It allows for the creative dissent that is needed for innovation. Clark puts it this way: “challenger safety is the license to innovate”.

Only when reaching stage 4 will teams be truly able to come up with real innovation. Not the incremental, evolutionary improvements, but the revolutionary ideas that you never saw coming. So it pays off to invest in the psychological safety of your teams.

Where’s your team at?

Wondering where you’re team is at? I developed an online tool to measure the psychological safety of your team. Team members can completely anonymously fill in a questionnaire. The results tell you how the team members assess the psychological safety in the team and gives you guidance on how to improve it. Try it out, it’s free!


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