Creating a Psychologically Safe Space

Designed to not only inspire, but to inform, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety (2020) by Timothy R. Clark, is a short course of useful lessons. The book focuses on how to create a safe psychological environment at work or at home.  This is done through making others feel included, and by creating safe places for them to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo.

Author’s Academic and Business Expertise

The book is written by Dr. Timothy R. Clark, who has broad experience in academics as well as business. He holds his bachelor’s degree from BYU, where he was an academic All-American on their championship football team. His master’s degree is from the University of Utah in government and economics, and a he has a doctorate from Oxford University in social science. In addition, he was a Fulbright scholar at Seoul National University.

On the business front, he is currently the founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, based in Salt Lake City. He also previously held CEO positions at Novations SDC and Decker Communications, which are both high level consulting and coaching organizations. Clark’s combination of theoretical knowledge and practical experience flow throughout this book.

The Concept and Question Format Creates Context

Though Dr. Clark claims this book is not about learning, he does give quite a bit of information explaining psychological safety, and why it is important. These concepts are discussed at length because they provide the background information required for the self-reflection and change that Dr. Clark asks of his readers. In the book he first describes key concepts, and then challenge readers to reflect, by scattering related questions throughout each chapter. For example, he starts this process right in the preface with the following concept:

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

Key question: Are there any areas in your life where you are losing the ability to connect by making unhelpful or destructive comparisons with others?

An Easy to Process Workbook Style

Not only does Dr. Clark present these types of concepts and questions throughout each chapter, he also ends each chapter with a review of the 10 or so ideas and questions. I love this approach because it provides context for the lessons, by embedding the concepts and questions within the text. He then creates a workbook-type process by ending each chapter with a review of the concepts in one place. This allows the reader to move through chapters in a natural flow, and work on the lessons once each chapter is completed. It’s a wonderful way to teach each lesson, and allows the reader ample opportunity to self-reflect, learn, and grow.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

Cook describes the 4 stages of psychological safety as:

  • Inclusion Safety– allowing others into the tribe based on respect for their humanity
  • Learner Safety– providing support, inviting questions, and withholding judgement
  • Contributor Safety– is earned when an organization grants more autonomy to contribute after competence is demonstrated
  • Challenger Safety– supporting dissention and speaking truth to power, without fear of reprisal

Thoughts on the 5-Step Inquiry Process

There are some sections of the book that I do not think go deep enough. For instance, in the chapter on Challenger safety, Dr. Clark provides a five-step process of inquiry, those steps are:

  1. Ask Questions
  2. Collect Data
  3. Recognize Patterns
  4. Reach Conclusions, only then should you
  5. Make Decisions

There is nothing wrong with this process. It was intended to emphasize that leaders should be fostering an atmosphere where people are free to ask questions. In their book The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner describe a similar concept, called Challenge the Process. Clark’s process also emphasizes a growing leadership trend, which is to ask questions, and not just tell people what to do. Leadership is not only about being the smartest person in the room. It’s about making tough decisions after engaging with the ideas of a diverse and informed constituency.

My Critique

While it’s possible I just missed the point, I think Dr. Clark’s process of inquiry falls a little short. I do think that his process is good, but it could go into even further depth. Two models I prefer are Double Loop Learning by Chris Argryis, and Theory U by  Otto Scharmer. Both of these methodologies are consistent with Clark’s, but take it a step or two further. They ask you to revisit decisions after they have been made and implemented.  This allows you to review and reflect on what lessons have been learned. Don’t get me wrong, Clark’s process is still sound and is a great step in the right direction. It can be a very beneficial process whenever change is contemplated or needed.

I do recommend that anyone who aspires to be a leader should read The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. Whether you desire to be the leader of an organization or workgroup, or lead as a spouse or parent. The concept of creating psychological safety in any group is critical to allowing others within the group to learn, grow, participate, and have a voice in their lives, at work or at home.