I was fortunate enough to host several sessions at the recent Generation CFO Bootcamp. There were so many different subjects covered, all with insightful stories and information to help you on the transformation journey. If I were to pick the one that surprised me most, it was the psychological safety discussion lead by Talita Ferreira, including David Tuck and Woody Ruane.
For those that have not seen the session, it is a must-watch. To précis what it means, psychological safety is the belief that you will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions or concerns, or for making mistakes.
In the Generation CFO Bootcamp session, Talita draws inspiration from ‘The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation’, a book was written by Timothy R. Clark a social scientist and organisational consultant.
© Leader Factor – Dr Timothy Clarke
The first stage is inclusion safety where the team accepts you and grants you a shared identity. Learner safety, the second stage, is where you feel safe to ask questions, experiment, and even make mistakes. Next is the third stage of contributor safety, where you feel comfortable participating as an active and full-fledged member of the team. The final stage is that of challenger safety. This allows you to take on the status quo without repercussion, reprisal, or the risk of tarnishing your personal standing and reputation.
The various levels of psychological safety
As we went through the Bootcamp session and the panellists discussed individual experiences of the various levels of psychological safety, I had flashbacks to situations in my own career. Some of those are where I was subservient and on the receiving end of the action, others when I was the ‘boss’ and senior to others. These range from a seemingly innocent rolling of eyes at someone for asking a ‘dumb’ question in a team meeting to the extreme of dismissal for making a mistake on system implementation. And, of course, these situations do not just affect the person concerned, they have an impact on all those that witness or hear of this behaviour.
It is so important that managers nurture psychological safety within their teams to make the most of their skills. When trying to improve inclusion, do not be afraid to share your vulnerabilities. Be open and tell your team about failure in your career, how this was received and, more importantly, how you bounced back. See vulnerability as a strength, not a weakness.
With so much change taking place in transformation projects, learner safety is particularly important as it satisfies the basic human need to learn and grow. If we create learner safety, we encourage learning. If there is a lack of learner safety, staff will put up barriers and manage personal risk. I have seen examples in practice where this is the major cause of project failure.
As we have all seen for ourselves, the knowledge and expertise of our staff is key to transformation success. We want our staff to contribute and make a difference, to add value to the process. This contributor safety creates energy and enthusiasm that drives the project forward and maintains momentum. When we are able to create contributor safety within our team, we empower and encourage them to reach their full potential.
The final stage is passing the innovation threshold and achieving challenger safety. This is where we want to satisfy the basic human need to make things better. It is the courage to ask the questions that challenge the status quo, such as, “Why do we do it this way?” or “What if we tried this?” How often have we seen people too scared to ask these questions or to disagree with someone when they think something is wrong and needs to change? When we create challenger safety, we give everyone the right to speak openly.
If we are to successfully transform and/or develop high-performance finance teams, we need to nurture psychological safety within our staff. We have all seen for ourselves how important it is that our staff challenge the status quo and come forward with innovative ideas. If they are not encouraged to do this, going beyond the innovation threshold without fear, it is a huge opportunity missed. Who is going to put their head above the parapet and volunteer to head up an implementation if someone is going to take a shot at them if they fail? Why take the risk when you can sit back and play it safe by doing nothing?
As the saying goes, “Imperfect action beats perfect inaction every time” – President Harry Truman. Without psychological safety, perfect inaction prevails, transformation stalls and nothing changes. If we want the transformation to succeed, and we want high-performing finance teams, we need psychological safety to encourage imperfect action.