What We’ve Learned from The Participant Experience
Psychological safety is a hot topic, and it is quickly gaining importance as a much-needed component of training in organizations. At FlashPoint, our experience with this program has been an exciting whirlwind of new terms, activities, and perspectives.
Now that we have conducted multiple sessions with different clients, we thought it would be helpful to share the participant perspective on the content so you can understand how this program can impact your leaders, teams, and anyone in your organization.
If your organization is new to conducting this training, it is likely many of your leaders don't know what to expect when you say the words "psychological safety".
After spending the last 5 years of my career in the leadership development space, I can confidently say there are no better words to hear from participants at the beginning of the session than the ones I heard in a recent psychological safety session I attended:
- "I don't know what to expect, but I'm here to learn."
- "I'm brand new to this topic and excited to understand it."
- "I want to find out how this will help me understand those around me."
Many folks don't know what to expect when you say the words "psychological safety". It's a new topic to many of us and it is gaining importance quickly. Most participants want to know, "What is it and is this really up to me, or is this up to organizational leaders?" As we’ve discussed in a previous blog, we believe it is up to everyone to create a culture of psychological safety.
Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, defines psychological safety as “an environment of rewarded vulnerability”. When we work in an environment that welcomes vulnerability—for example, asking questions, learning, failing, and challenging the status quo—and our vulnerability is met positively with no fear of repercussions, we will more readily bring our whole selves, energy, and effort to our work. We feel no reason to hide or hold back.
Participants in The Four Stages™ workshop learn psychological safety with each stage building on each other, starting with Inclusion Safety, then Learner Safety, Contributor Safety, and finally Challenger Safety. Through the four stages, we learn to create an inclusive environment, accelerate learning, increase contribution, and stimulate innovation.
The Power of Vulnerability
During the workshop, we ask participants to reflect on what makes them feel vulnerable. A common example that is shared by many participants was, "I feel vulnerable when I give a wrong answer or make a mistake because nobody wants to look dumb."
The heart of psychological safety is summed up right there in that participant's explanation of something that makes them feel vulnerable. They are sharing what learner safety and contributor safety are—without even having covered those topics in the session yet!
This answer comes down to: "Giving a wrong answer or making a mistake means others will think I have less value." In a high psychological safety culture, giving a wrong answer is an opportunity to learn from someone else who knows a better answer. When we have psychological safety on our teams and we make a mistake, it's not an indictment of our capability or our value as an employee. We have the leeway to try new things and bring forward a new idea, even if that idea may fail.
One organization where we facilitate an annual program differentiates between "good" mistakes and "bad" mistakes. "Good" mistakes are based on a solid foundation of information from experience, research, others' perspectives, and some creative thinking. "Bad" mistakes are the ones that could have been avoided with research or perspectives from others.
When someone makes a good mistake, it's because they aren't afraid to say, "Let's try it this new way instead of just the way we've always done it." That is challenger safety done right.
"Bad" mistakes, on the other hand, can arise from low psychological safety where it is risky to show vulnerability and admit you don't know an answer or need to ask a question. "Bad" mistakes happen when folks are afraid to say or ask something for fear of "looking dumb".
Fostering true psychological safety in our work culture requires us to re-think the scripts we have been taught throughout our lives in so many different settings, from school to work. It asks us to bring people around us toward purposeful work through inclusion and to take others' experience and suggestions into account. But most importantly, it asks us to question our default assumption or reaction so that we are open and able to contribute at our highest level and encourage others to do the same. Without psychological safety, the door is closed to innovation because the risks appear too high: "If I speak up or out, I make myself vulnerable to being punished or ostracized."
My biggest personal experience with learner safety came in 2020, when COVID changed the nature of our client work significantly and my career took a pivot from content marketing to project management. Aside from being a naturally organized, deadline- and detail-oriented, "type A" sort of person, I had little experience in formal project management methods and none in an official project management role. I learned as I joined the project and, in some ways, we all learned together as a team how a virtual leadership conference was different from and similar to the in-person events we were experienced in.
I asked questions, I put forth ideas, I admitted when I wasn't sure about something and would need to consult another team member. And not only did the event succeed, I found myself in a new career trajectory, partially because I was open to something new and I had the psychological safety to learn a different role and skillset.
The Role of the Cultural Architect
In The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™ model, a cultural architect is someone who creates a culturally “flat” (equal) work environment by modeling and reinforcing equity, respect, and high performance.
I saw some heads perk up toward the middle of the session when the facilitator talked about "culture by design" and "culture by default". This is the place where it really hit home for this group of participants that I am part of this culture. Culture is a verb, something that we actively do—or don't do—each day.
Psychological safety can be a foundational part of our culture, as long as we practice inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety. In doing so, we open the door to new ideas, to improvement, and to deeper connections with our teams. That's something we should all be excited to learn more about!
We have a number of resources available if you are just starting on your organization’s psychological safety journey. If you are interested in learning more, you can read more here or contact us to inquire about our offerings.