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Diversity and Inclusion

Psychological Safety: The Path to Inclusion and Innovation

An Exclusive Interview with Tim Clark, founder and CEO of Leader Factor, a consultancy that offers elegant, practical, and powerful performance solutions to many industry-leading businesses.

Psychological safety is the bedrock of inclusion. But the behaviors you need to practice to build it in your team go against your instincts: being vulnerable, admitting you don’t know, embracing failure, giving others candid feedback, asking for feedback yourself.

Tim Clark is the founder and CEO of Leader Factor, a consultancy that offers elegant, practical, and powerful performance solutions to many industry-leading businesses. Tim has put his wealth of experience into a new book called The Four Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

This book is the first practical, hands-on guide that shows how leaders can build psychological safety in their organizations, creating an environment where employees feel included, fully engaged, and encouraged to contribute their best efforts and ideas, and is released this March.

In this interview, you’ll learn:

  • The four-step model of inclusion
  • The three levels of organizational culture
  • Practical ways we can build a psychologically safe environment at work

Listen in above (cc available), or read below the transcript of our interview with Tim Clark. You can also listen on Spotify, iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

About The Four Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

Perhaps the leader’s most challenging task is to increase intellectual friction while decreasing social friction. When this doesn’t happen and it becomes emotionally expensive to say what you truly think and feel, that lack of psychological safety triggers the self-censoring instinct, shuts down learning, and blocks collaboration and creativity. Timothy R. Clark, a former CEO, Oxford-trained social scientist, and organizational consultant, provides a research-based framework to help leaders transform their organizations into sanctuaries of inclusion and incubators of innovation.

When leaders cultivate psychological safety, teams and organizations progress through four successive stages. First, people feel included and accepted; then they feel safe to learn, contribute, and finally, challenge the status quo. Clark draws deeply on psychology, philosophy, social science, literature, and his own experiences to show how leaders can, and must, set the tone and model the ideal behaviors – as he says, “you either show the way or get in the way.” This thoughtful and pragmatic guide demonstrates that if you 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 expectations.

The book is available on Amazon here.

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FIONA: Welcome back to Inclusion Works. I’m your host, Fiona Young, and I run the diversity inclusion and belonging practice at Hive Learning, the peer learning app for enterprises. I’m delighted to be joined today by Tim Clark, a global authority on the subject of leadership and organizational change. He’s the founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, a consultancy that offers elegant, practical and powerful performance solutions to many industry-leading businesses. Tim has put his wealth of experience into a new book called The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, defining the path to inclusion and innovation, which is due out in March 2020. It’s been described as a book that will lead to breakthroughs in every relationship of your life and I’m personally really excited to hear more about that today. So welcome Tim.

TIM: Thanks, Fiona. Good to be with you.

FIONA: Thanks. So first up can you tell us a bit more about the work you’re currently doing and what you’re trying to achieve?

TIM: Sure, I think the way to put it is that we’re trying to help organizations to adjust to the realities of the 21st century very dynamic environment, so to become more inclusive, more collaborative, more agile and that’s not an easy thing to do because a lot of us have been deeply socialized with different norms and so we’re having to unlearn a lot of things and then relearn some things and that’s what creating an inclusive culture and environment really requires.

So it’s not that easy. I think the cultural part is the hardest part. At least, that’s what we’re seeing with the organizations that we work with.

FIONA: And before we get into more about psychological safety and culture. I want to ask you something we asked all our guests on the show, which is what first made you aware of diversity and inclusion issues and led to your work in this space?

TIM: I think, well it goes way back. I’ve been in the consulting world for in the research world for about 20 years and have worked with diversity and inclusion professionals and for all those years. I guess the thing that has really got my attention Fiona in recent years is the fact that we’ve made pretty significant progress on the D. Organisations have made great strides in diversifying their employee populations, they really have. A lot have made substantial gains but we’re not doing we’re still struggling with the I.

So great progress with the D but still not great with the I and that connects directly into my research that goes back to my doctoral work at Oxford in organizational culture. And so I’ve always been intrigued with the fact that, how do you do D&I? How do you create a diverse workforce but then how do you make it inclusive from a cultural standpoint? They’re related but they’re not exactly the same thing. So I think that’s what prompted me and really grabbed my interest from the beginning.

FIONA: So I want to get more into psychological safety because I know this is really a passion point an area of expertise and obviously what your forthcoming book is about? So I know that in your book you’ve created a practical guide to building a psychologically safe team. So just to start with, how do you define psychological safety? And what does it have to do with inclusion?

TIM: So psychological safety is a basic definition for the concept is that you can feel safe in a social situation or a social unit. You can feel safe to interact without feeling embarrassed or marginalized or punished in some way. So that’s a very basic definition and the concept, well I mean the concept goes back to you know the first human interaction but we’ve kind of unified around the term that was coined in 1990 by a social psychologist by the name of William Kahn at Boston University.

So we’ve been kind of using that term collectively now for the last 29 years. So that’s where it comes from. So that’s the basic definition, but then the framework that I put forward then we go into greater depth.

FIONA: So how does psychological safety relate to inclusion? What is the relationship between those two things?

TIM: Right, so the relationship is that psychological safety is a precondition for inclusion. In fact, inclusion is what we call the first level of psychological safety. So that takes us into the framework. So all humans have a basic need to belong. So we long to belong. We want to feel- we want to fit in. We want to be accepted. We want to be included. That is the first level of psychological safety.

Humans want to be accepted before they want to be heard and so if you’re trying to create an inclusive environment, then you have to look at that environment and say look if we have a fear-based environment we’re never going to get there. And if we have an environment where people don’t respect each other we’re never going to get there.

So all of the awareness and the understanding in the world will never take you there and all of the diversity in the world will never take you there because diversity is compositional in nature. Inclusion is behavioral, in fact, it’s even more than behavioral it’s attitudinal. It goes back to your values and your assumptions and your beliefs about other people.

That’s your behavior is symptomatic of what’s going on inside of you and so that’s where we have to get to. If you don’t go all the way down to the ground, you’re never going to be able to create an inclusive environment. So the two inclusion and inclusive environment at psychological safety are inextricably bound together.

FIONA: So I like how you talk about this kind of four-step model, right. So the kind of the desire to be accepted and to create that kind of base-level respect, you mentioned is like that’s like the baseline and I’m wondering if you could talk us through that model and then also I’m just curious like, do you always have to start with the first one? Is this sort of a linear process that starts at one and moves on or is it something that you kind of do all these things at once?

TIM: Well, I think it kind of is linear. Now in reality when we put a framework together it’s pretty clean and tidy and linear and real life is messier than that, of course, but I think that this sequence holds true and I think that the pattern is universal because we share the same basic needs.

So here’s how the framework goes. The framework says that psychological safety is created through a combination of respect and permission to participate. So that’s what we owe each other. We need to respect each other, and we need to grant each other permission to participate. Now that permission to participate changes as we go through the stages. So let me just walk you through it.

So stage one is inclusion safety, which means that I feel part of the team. I feel accepted and included and I haven’t been rejected and I haven’t been punished, I haven’t been embarrassed. So I’m accepted and I’m given kind of a shared identity with the other members of the team. That’s just stage one and that satisfies my very basic need to belong, to fit in. So that’s where we start, and we don’t really pass go until we do that. We can’t accelerate to the other stages or skip this first stage of inclusion safety. That’s just not how humans work. So we put that foundation in place and then we go to stage two.

Stage two is learner safety. Learner safety is a higher stage age of personal risk and vulnerability. So, therefore, it requires more psychological safety. So I need more respect and I need more permission to participate. Well, to do what? To engage in all aspects of the learning process. So I want to feel safe to ask questions. To give and receive feedback, to try things, to experiment. Even make mistakes without again being rejected or humiliated or embarrassed.

So I’ve got to be free from that fear because if I feel that fear, that fear will trigger what we call the self-censoring instinct and we all have one. If someone triggers your self-censoring instinct, what do you do? Well you retreat. You recoil. You start to manage personal risk you have no choice. So that’s what humans do if they don’t feel that the environment allows them to learn.

So that’s stage two. Then we go to stage three. Stage three is contributor safety and this makes sense. So the natural sequence is when I learn things, when I gain experience and skills and competence, I have a natural desire to use that. I want to apply that. That’s what contributor safety is, it’s being it’s feeling safe to be able to contribute as a full member of the team using my skills and abilities to make a difference because I want to make a difference and again we’re tapping into basic human needs. So people they really do deep down they want to make a difference and if they’re denied that, if again if they’re marginalized or rejected not allowed to do that. Then it shuts them down.

So we can see that that stage three of contributor safety is an even higher level than learner safety because I am doing more and so I’m there’s more potential exposure for me, more personal risk.

Okay, then that takes us Fiona to the last stage, the culminating stage the ultimate stage of psychological safety which is challenger safety. Now, this is really interesting. Challenger safety means that I feel safe to challenge the status quo without retaliation. Without injuring my personal standing and my reputation. Think about how hard that is. So it’s one thing to be included, it’s another to learn, it’s another to contribute but now we’re talking about challenging the status quo.

So we’re saying you’re going to come to the organization and you’re going to be disruptive. You’re going to be subversive. You’re going to create an institutional challenge. That’s the highest level of personal risk and vulnerability that I can take and so, therefore, I need the highest level of psychological safety that allows me to do that.

So if I’m going to do that, if you’re going to do that, what do we need? We need and we would ask the organization to give us to protect us to give us air cover in exchange for that candor. So it’s air cover in exchange for the candor because I’m at the highest level of personal exposure, risk and vulnerability.

So those in a nutshell, Fiona, those are the four stages.

FIONA: Yes. I mean I think just from chatting with you through this before when we first got in touch with each other. I just was so intrigued by this four-step model because I’ve read loads about psychological safety, written loads about it in our own programs on inclusion and I just had never heard it articulated in such a really clear-cut way and also I think the process that you go through, the kind of building up the baseline of inclusion safety and then layering on the kind of the learner, the contributor, the challenger makes a lot of sense to me and I guess my next question for you is, I’m just curious in your opinion how much of all this is down to an individual leader versus the organization’s culture.

So I’m curious like put an amazingly inclusive leader who’s woke to this stuff and passionate about as an ecological safety, even hope to create this in their team if the business is particularly like high stakes, cutthroat, political and so forth.

TIM: It’s a phenomenal question, Fiona. Here’s what I would say. I think you have to go back and look at the anatomy of culture in any organization. So culture exists at on at least three levels. So there’s the overall institutional culture kind of the macro culture for the whole organization. Then we have subcultures. Subcultures usually exist by functional area, business line or geography. So that’s the second level and then the third level of culture would be at the team because the team as we all know in the 21st century is the basic unit of performance and so the team culture is what we call the micro-culture, that’s your basic unit of performance.

So in answer to your question. What can a leader do? The great thing about it is even if a leader is surrounded by a toxic culture in maybe a functional area or geography, just around him or her. If they lead a team, that team is an organizational unit and they can do, they can have a profound impact on that unit because in the study of organizational culture we have what’s called the culture formation hypothesis and what that says is that the modeling behavior of a leader is the single most important thing in the creation of culture at a team level.

So for those listeners out there who are a little bit discouraged or maybe despairing because they think hey you know we’re not getting it, our overall organizational culture. We need to change. So I would say don’t despair because if you have a team then make that team a pocket an enclave of psychological safety and inclusion you can do that because you have an organizational unit and you have the most profound influence over it.

Now it’s going to be hard to radiate that to the entire organization if there are a lot of countervailing resisting forces, but I would say don’t be discouraged. Do all that you can do at the team level and often times what you’ll find is that that’s transformational and it does radiate and you’re able to help with transformation regardless of where you are. Even if you’re not at the top of the hierarchy in the organization, so be optimistic about what you can do.

FIONA: I guess thinking about the flip side, I guess a lot of people listening as well will be you know responsible for diversity inclusion and their organization and I’m curious to know practically how we can build a psychologically safe environment. So what are the kind of the team rituals, everyday behaviors you’ve seen that really move the dial?

TIM: Sure. I’ll give you a couple that I think are global best practices. The first one is personal and behavioral and the second one is more process-based. So the first one is to focus on the way that you handle dissent. Now you got to think about this for a minute. So the signal that people pay most attention to is the way that the individual leader reacts emotionally to dissent or bad news.

So if he or she handles that well, accommodates that dissent welcomes that dissent is excited about it. That is not defensive, don’t take it personally. Those signals reverberate throughout the team in the organization and so the number one thing that I would say to leaders is pay attention to your emotional response to dissent. How are you handling that? Because the way you handle it either gives people a license to disagree or it revoked that license. Your behavior does one of those two things. You’re never neutral. You’re a leader by virtue of your position you are an influencer and so you can’t ever be neutral. The question is are you going to lead the way or are you going to get in the way by virtue of your behavior.

So first and foremost pay attention to the way that you handle dissent and give people a license to disagree based on the way you do handle it, if you handle it well. Second suggestion Fiona, that I would offer is more processed based and it’s related to dissent as well and the suggestion is and I do think it’s a global best practice is that when you’re working together as a team, you’re making decisions, you’re thinking about different courses of action, you’re strategizing and you’re identifying your priorities, whatever it is that you think you need to do, assign dissent to it formally from the beginning and here’s why is because if they don’t they have to rely on people to come to them with feedback or input or guidance unsolicited and that’s rarely going to happen.

You’ll get some but you’re not going to get all that you need. And so if you assign dissent from the beginning what that does is it gives people permission not only give them permission to challenge but it also removes their personal risk and replaces it with institutional risk. So you’ve taken my personal risk away and so I don’t need to take the personal risk anymore because you’ve given me permission, institutional permission to challenge this quo. I’m much more likely to do it now. So you create a tolerance for candor in the organization and you’re going to create increased quantity and quality of feedback that will be way different than if you didn’t do it. So that’s my second suggestion formerly assigned descent from the beginning to all decisions and proposed courses of action.

FIONA: I love that. So it’s like descent by default.

TIM: Yes. That’s right.

FIONA: The first bit you said as well you know I just thought was so interesting thinking about how you handle like how you immediately react to any sort of dissent or challenge and I think that that goes against everything that we typically want to do, right. We typically have a knee-jerk reaction of getting defensive and so even the simple act of noticing must be quite powerful for a leader, right. Noticing the next time someone says something that you’re not immediately just jumping on it and moving for your point of view.

TIM: I think that’s right. People have a very fine-tuned sensibility for the emotional reactions of their leaders and so think about what people do if they sense that the leader is pushing the fear button. So if the leader pushes the fear button then people retreat because it’s not safe. The leader has taken away the psychological safety and so people will freeze their discretionary effort as a consequence. They have no choice but to manage personal risk, engage in pain avoidance and loss prevention. That’s what they’re trying to do.

Now the thing that’s so interesting about it is that leaders of many leaders have been deeply socialized ever since the Industrial Revolution to an authoritarian tradition where they put fear button routinely or if it’s not so hardcore even just paternalism where they’re benevolent but they’re still telling people what to do and they’re really not soliciting their feedback.

So in a paternalistic tradition we create a make a nice culture, we’re very collegial, we’re actually very respectful but we’re not treating people with respect. That makes sense?

FIONA: Yes. Absolutely it’s like trying to overcome those kindergarten values that have been instilled in us you know always being kind and listening to the teacher and you know saying yes yes and kind of agreeing and being agreeable and those sorts of things which especially when you think about as you were talking about at the beginning of our chat today, adapting to the 21st-century world where you know things are moving really quickly and in order to innovate you do need that dissent. You need to capture all the diversity of voices and thoughts around the table.

And actually, one thing I thought about as you were talking to is about meetings. I mean I was chatting with a client recently about the challenge with their meetings and their meetings are all set up to be really about convergence. Alright, let’s all meet together and let’s just agree on this plan of action that whatever whoever is leading this project has laid out and that’s completely counter to your suggestion that we need to dissent by default in all these sorts of processes and practices.

TIM: Absolutely. So let’s talk about meetings. You made such a great point. In meetings and interactions generally, the leader has two jobs, simultaneously the leader needs to increase intellectual friction and decrease social friction. You’ve got to think about that for a minute. Intellectual friction is the way that we solve problems. It’s a way that we create solutions. We need ideas colliding. We need constructive dissent. We need creative abrasion. It’s the leader’s job to foster that. We need that to go to very high levels because that’s how we innovate but what happens is when we create high levels of intellectual friction it often corresponds with high levels of social friction because on the end of every idea or suggestion or opinion is a human being and we’re kind of sensitive. So that second job is to reduce social friction so that we can keep the collaboration going and so that psychological safety becomes that kind of lubricating oil that allows us to continue to tolerate a candor to handle the dissent and do it in a healthy way. That’s how we innovate. That’s how we create more adaptive capacity in organizations and more agility when we’re trying to compete in very dynamic environments and that’s not an easy thing to do. So the old Industrial Age notion of leadership, the leader as Oracle. The leader is the repository of all the answers. The leader that tells you what to do and dispatches you, never going to work in the 21st century. That’s such an antique notion, I mean you just can’t compete. You just can’t compete.

FIONA: Absolutely. It’s so interesting hearing your take on psychological safety. Thanks for that Tim.

TIM: Sure.

FIONA: So just to close off. I want to ask you another question we love to ask all the guests on Inclusion Works. So what is one thing that anyone could do in their workplace this week to build inclusion?

TIM: I think one thing that you could do and this is from personal experience and that is to take someone that you know and go introduce them to someone that they don’t know. That’s a very simple thing but one of the things that we have observed that accelerates the creation of inclusion in any environment is when we are able to build the relationships faster and deeper and often people need help. They need some facilitation, they need a guide, they need an escort in that process.

So a very practical thing that you can do this week, you find someone that you know, you have a relationship with and you deliberately take them and introduce them to someone that you know they don’t know and then you start you help them to facilitate that relationship to build a new bond. That’s a very practical thing that you can do. It makes a big difference.

FIONA: That’s great and it kind of reminds me that weak links idea like actually the best Intel in your network is through this sort of second-degree connections, not the people you’re talking to every day because they’re most likely to be just like you, right have the same perspective as you.

TIM: Really good point. Yes, really good point Fiona.

FIONA: Great. Thank you and thanks for sharing all the insights with us. I’m sure there’s loads for listeners to take away from this session as well. So if anyone listening wants to stay connected with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

TIM: Sure. Well connect with me on LinkedIn, I’m there or you can visit our website @leaderfactor.com and feel free to reach out.

FIONA: Thank you Tim.

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An Exclusive Interview with Tim Clark, founder and CEO of Leader Factor, a consultancy that offers elegant, practical, and powerful performance solutions to many industry-leading businesses.

Psychological Safety: The Path to Inclusion and Innovation

Check out our other interviews with inclusion’s change-makers, thinkers, and influencers.

Click here to check our interviews

Fiona Young (she/her)

Having previously led Learning and Development for 3,000 people at Europe’s leading venture builder, Blenheim Chalcot, Fiona knows a thing or two about how to build high performance culture. As Content Director at Hive Learning, Fiona pioneered the organisation's leading guided content programmes which are designed to turn learning into action. Most recently, Fiona led the inception, development and delivery of Inclusion Works by Hive Learning - the world’s first diversity and inclusion programme focused on turning unconscious bias into conscious action - created from over 1,000 leading sources.

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Psychological Safety: The Path to Inclusion and Innovation

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