Piling Canada

Transforming Culture Through Psychological Safety

Rebuilding an organization's deep foundation
Written by Timothy R. Clark
July 2020

Rebuilding an organization’s deep foundation

Let’s talk about building a deep foundation – not physically, but culturally – not by driving piles, but by nurturing psychological safety. Early in my career, I spent five years as a plant manager in the steel industry. In addition to producing hot-rolled coil and plate, our plant produced steel pipe that was sold into the deep foundation construction industry as piling. I have great affection for heavy industry, but in all candor, the prevailing culture of heavy industry is a growing liability to competitiveness in the 2020s.

Rather than tell a soothing story, here’s a challenge to take inventory of your company’s culture and lead a transformation. The crucial question: How do you know if you have a healthy culture? It’s not a secret and it’s not complicated: You know you have a healthy culture when your people are both willing to challenge the status quo and tell you when you’re wrong. Do your people do that? Has your company created a tolerance for candor that can accommodate that kind of intellectual friction?

A leader who takes their team to this point of creative abrasion and constructive dissent has created a culturally flat organization, a work environment that has neutralized the barriers of social hierarchy. Most teams and organizations never get there. Why? It’s because of the insecurity and ego needs of the leaders.

The single hardest thing to change in an organization is culture. Everything else – structure, process, systems, equipment and technology – is more easily configurable. Culture, that’s the soft operating system, the values, beliefs, norms and assumptions. Cultural change is tough business, but that’s exactly what many organizations need to do. 

Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” in 1959, and yet workplace culture is still approached like it’s 1959, which essentially means the approach is by default instead of by design. Industry continues to elevate the hard-core authoritarian bosses, conditioned in another time and place. The reason many of these leaders survive is because their organizations have sources of competitive advantage such as scale economies that compensate for and conceal their liabilities. However, those days are coming to an end. The increasing demands of hypercompetitive markets require a leader to be a direction setter, servant, coach, enabler and facilitator – an individual with flaws and weaknesses, to be sure, but also with humility and superb emotional intelligence.

Happily, the predominant patterns of leadership continue their migration from bureaucratic and autocratic to democratic and egalitarian, from task oriented to people oriented and from directive to facilitative.

So how does a company get there? How does a company transform its culture through leadership? Psychological safety. It’s the single most important measure of overall health.

Psychological safety is a social condition in which human beings 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 four stages of psychological safety is a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. When organizations progress through the four stages, they create deeply inclusive environments, accelerate learning, increase contribution and stimulate innovation. Psychological safety is what will take organizations from 1959 to 2020.

Stage 1: Inclusion Safety

Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. Whether at work, school, home or other social settings, everyone wants to be accepted. In fact, the need to be accepted precedes the need to be heard. When invited into the company of others, a sense of shared identity and a conviction that we matter are developed. Inclusion safety allows individuals to gain a sense of membership on a team and interact with its members without fear of rejection or humiliation, thus boosting confidence, resilience and independence. What if someone is deprived of that basic acceptance and validation as a human being? In short, it’s debilitating. It activates the pain centres of the brain. Granting inclusion safety to another person is a moral imperative. Indeed, only the threat of harm can excuse from this responsibility. When inclusion safety is established for others, regardless of personal differences, common humanity is acknowledged, and false theories of superiority and arrogant strains of elitism are rejected.

Stage 2: Learner Safety

Learner safety satisfies the basic human need to learn and grow. It allows people to feel safe as they engage in all aspects of the learning process – asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting and even making mistakes. Each person brings some level of inhibition and anxiety to the learning process; everyone has insecurities. Who hasn’t hesitated to raise their hand to ask a question in a group setting for fear of feeling dumb? Learning is both intellectual and emotional. It’s an interplay of the head and the heart. When people sense learner safety, they are more willing to be vulnerable, take risks and develop resilience in the learning process. Conversely, a lack of learner safety triggers the self-censoring instinct, causing people to shut down, retrench and manage personal risk. When learner safety is established for others, they’re given encouragement to learn in exchange for a willingness to learn.

Stage 3: Contributor Safety

Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need to contribute and make a difference. When contributor safety is present, employees feel safe to contribute as a full member of the team, using their skills and abilities to participate in the value-creation process. They lean into what they’re doing with energy and enthusiasm and have a natural desire to apply what they’ve learned to make a meaningful contribution. Why do employees dislike micromanagers? They don’t give the freedom and discretion for employees to reach their potential. Why do employees like empowering bosses? They encourage and draw out their team’s best efforts. The more employees can contribute, the more confidence and competence they develop. When contributor safety is created for others, they’re empowered with autonomy, guidance and encouragement in exchange for effort and results.

Stage 4: Challenger Safety

Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better. It’s the support and confidence needed to ask questions such as, “Why do we do it this way?” “What if we tried this?” or “May I suggest a better way?” It allows employees to feel safe to challenge the status quo without retaliation or the risk of damaging personal standing or reputation. Challenger safety provides respect and permission to dissent and disagree when employees feel something needs to change and that it’s time to say so. It allows them to overcome the pressure to conform and gives a license to innovate and be creative. As the highest level of psychological safety, it matches the increased vulnerability and personal risk associated with challenging the status quo. When challenger safety is created, air cover in exchange for candor is given.

Employees thrive in environments that respect them and allow them to 1) feel included, 2) feel safe to learn, 3) feel safe to contribute and 4) feel safe to challenge the status quo. If they can’t do these things, if it is emotionally expensive, fear shuts them down. They’re not happy and not reaching their potential. When the environment nurtures psychological safety, there’s an explosion of confidence, engagement and performance. My challenge to you is to crack your company open and take a look inside. If your people can challenge the status quo and tell you when you’re wrong, you’re on your way. If you need to do pile extraction, today’s a great day to start. When you drive your new cultural piles, place them deep and anchor them in psychological safety. 

Timothy R. Clark, PhD, is the founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, a global leadership consulting and training firm. An Oxford-trained social scientist and sought-after international authority on organizational change, Clark is the author of five books on leadership, including his newest release, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. Learn more at www.leaderfactor.com or connect on Twitter

Want some help taking your team to the next level? Download Clark’s Behavioral Guide to help you on that journey. 🍁

Category: Business

About Us

Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.

Sign Up

Submit your email to receive our e-newsletter.