Creating Psychological Safety as Pandemic Eases

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There is no question that relationships across the board have changed over the past pandemic year. With the varying opinions on wellbeing during COVID-19 and its resulting restrictions, values have been challenged. Take, for example, the value of freedom vs. the value of safety.

Those who value freedom may resist wearing a mask, while those who fear the loss of safety for themselves and their families may choose to stay away from such perceived health dangers. Disrespect slowly builds for those on each side, which can permanently damage relationships.

Physical and psychological safety have become intertwined. As we consider reentering our places of work with our teams and colleagues, there is much to consider beyond the new physical barriers and six-foot distancing rules.

Dr. Timothy R Clark has written an inspiring book: The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

I was fascinated when listening to Clark describe these four stages during a Teleclass this past week. The saying ‘simple but not easy’ came to mind as I listened to him describe these four imperative stages. In a nutshell, it comes down to desire, intention, focus and execution.

According to Clark: “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, afterward they contribute, and finally, challenge the status quo.” Now, this is a culture in which any of us would thrive. This leads to the development of a strong, healthy culture.

Stage ‘1’ is Inclusion and Safety. New hires ask questions like “Do I belong?” During this stage, a new employee is encouraged to ask many, many questions. I have seen the curiosity of new employees bring a refreshingly new light to the status quo. These employees are included in a variety of conversations and invited to an assortment of companywide meetings, which allows them to see and be a part of your larger company picture.

When others invite us into their culture, we develop a sense of shared identity and a conviction that we matter. The need to be accepted precedes the need to be heard. 

“When we create inclusion safety for others, regardless of our differences, we acknowledge our common humanity and reject false theories of superiority and arrogant strains of elitism.” Dr. Timothy Cark

Stage ‘2’ is Learner Safety. During this stage, employees are becoming a bit more comfortable in their new professional environment. They ask themselves: “Am I learning? Do I feel safe to continue to be curious, ask more questions and make mistakes?” Employees are encouraged to be vulnerable as they learn and develop their own style, perhaps slightly redefining their role. 

How is this best encouraged? By the manager or leader being vulnerable themselves. One of the most powerful leadership tools I encourage my clients to use is to be vulnerable. 

For example, client Daniel makes it a practice to take his employees out to a monthly lunch during their first year with his company. As they express any struggles they are experiencing, he provides examples of how he handled or mishandled similar challenges along his path to success. His vulnerability, often humorous, creates a safe environment for his employee to continue to learn, ask questions and grow. 

“Learner safety satisfies the basic human need to learn and grow. It allows us to feel safe as we engage in all aspects of the learning process — asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting and even making mistakes, not if but when we make them.” Dr. Timothy Clark

Stage ‘3’ is Contributor Safety. At this stage in employees’ development, they ask themselves: “How can I apply what I’ve learned to make a difference?” This is the natural human desire to feel empowered to make a difference. They are now certain that they belong in your company and this position. 

They are secure in being a full member of your team. They have learned enough to make suggestions to improve systems or processes. This is best encouraged through their freedom to ask the ‘why’ we do things in a certain way. Exploring the ‘why’ from years ago can lead to transformation today. 

“The more we contribute, the more confidence and competence we develop. When we create contributor safety for others, we empower them with autonomy, guidance and encouragement in exchange for effort and results.” Dr. Timothy Clark

Stage ‘4’ is Challenger Safety. According to Dr. Clark, few teams reach this point, though it begins the realm of innovation. Seasoned employees ask themselves: “Am I safe to challenge why we do things this way, to challenge the status quo?” 

This stage requires strong leadership Emotional Intelligence (EI). While encouraging intellectual friction, it is vital not to increase social friction. Leaders cannot allow these challenges to get personal. Instead, deep listening skills, being open to novel ideas and curiosity will win the game. Not all challenges need lead to action; however, if they are encouraged, they can lead to brilliant and highly profitable innovative changes down the line. 

“Challenger safety provides respect and permission to dissent and disagree when we think something needs to change and it’s time to say so. It allows us to overcome the pressure to conform and gives us a license to innovate and be creative.” Dr. Timothy Clark

Many of the mental and emotional effects of this last most challenging pandemic year are now coming to light. As leaders, it is imperative that you pay attention not only to the physical safety of your teams as they reenter your place of work but to their psychological needs. You truly do not know all that they have experienced over this past year. 

I challenge you to take Dr. Clark’s stages of psychological safety to heart as you welcome back your team members. Spend time asking how they are, what they now need and listening to them. Ask yourself which stage of psychological safety each employee may be experiencing. 

Relationships have changed and shifted; many may need rebuilding. I have complete faith in your ability to strengthen and enhance your team for the betterment of all involved.

Executive and Leadership Coach Ann Golden Eglé, MCC, has steered successful individuals to greater levels of success since 1998. Ann is president of Golden Visions & Associates, LLC, can be reached at 541-385-8887, ann@gvasuccess.com or GVAsuccess.com. Subscribe to Ann’s internationally acclaimed ‘Success Thoughts’ e-zine on her website.

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Ann Golden Eglé, MCC

Master Executive & Leadership Coach Ann Golden Eglé, MCC, has steered highly-successful individuals to greater results since 1998. President of Golden Visions & Associates, LLC, Ann can be reached at 541-385-8887 or subscribe to her newsletter at www.GVAsuccess.com.

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