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How Your Leadership Can Build Desperately-Needed Psychological Safety Today

Part of the series “Today’s True Leadership”

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Fear has a profoundly negative impact on engagement, learning efficacy, productivity, and innovation. And in today’s uncertain times, fear is at an all-time high. In his new book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, social scientist and organizational consultant Timothy Clark provides a framework to help move people through successive stages of psychological safety, and gives a blueprint for leaders and organizations to help foster the psychological safety that is so needed today.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, a leadership consulting and training organization that works with executive teams around the world. 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 book defines psychological safety as a condition in which human beings feel:

  1. Included
  2. Safe to learn
  3. Safe to contribute
  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, according to Clark, make up a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. When teams, organizations, and social units of all kinds progress through the four stages, they create deeply inclusive environments, accelerate learning, increase contribution, and stimulate innovation.

I caught up today with Clark to learn more about how leaders and organizations can mitigate and de-escalate fear and build more psychological safety, and why they need to in times like these and beyond.

Kathy Caprino: Dr. Clark, can you talk about how leaders and organizations can de-escalate fear in crisis times like these?

Timothy Clark: In a crisis, the leader is not advancing, not attacking, not charging to take the hill. The leader is retreating, retrenching, and protecting.

Leading in crisis is the art of playing defense. You can’t control the crisis or the forces at work, but you can create psychological safety in your response, which will allow your people to play offense in the way they play defense. Your people will act preemptively and collaboratively to protect the organization.

A crisis creates vulnerability, which, of course, is exposure to potential loss. Clearly, the coronavirus is no respecter of persons. We all expect to take some losses. But here’s the interesting thing: a crisis doesn’t automatically create fear. Why? Because during a crisis, people always look at two things. First, they look at the conditions around them. Second, they look to their leaders. It’s this combination—with particular emphasis on leaders—that either escalates or de-escalates fear.

Caprino: Can you offer some specific examples of this de-escalation of fear?

Clark: Sure. Here’s a case in point. I’ve had conversations with two Fortune 500 CEOs in the past week. Both are calm and collected. Both took swift action to reduce the risk of catastrophic loss. Both are communicating to their people with incredible candor and compassion. But they’re not promising zero loss.

Now I’m not suggesting that these organizations won’t suffer heavy losses. They will, but those losses won’t be nearly as bad as they would have because these leaders are draining as much fear out of their organizations by creating psychological safety. They are unlocking creativity and innovation instead of adding a layer of fear to what already exists. A lame pep talk won’t boost morale, but good planning, constant communication, candid disclosures, and compassionate connections can neutralize much of the fear.

Caprino: How do we model poise when we feel anything but poised?

Clark: What a timely question! Let’s borrow some concepts about labor from sociology. When we perform any work—and leadership is certainly work—there are three kinds of labor that we give to that work:

1. Physical labor

2. Cognitive labor

3. Emotional labor

Leadership demands all three. If we attempt to provide the emotional labor that our work requires, but we don’t feel the actual emotions we’re trying to deliver, we’re doing what’s called “surface acting.”

In other words, we don’t feel what we want to feel and what the job is asking of us to feel. So what do we do? The answer is simple but not easy: we try the best that we can. People understand the situation. They get the stress and strain you’re under, so they will give you credit for your intent even though you may not be demonstrating the unflappable grace under pressure that you wish you were modeling. And chances are that you’ll get better as you gain confidence under crisis conditions.

Caprino: You talk about resilience in your book. Why is resilience the most important leadership skill now?

Clark: There’s not a leader on planet earth with a playbook for navigating through the coronavirus pandemic. We’re all playing defense and responding to rapidly changing conditions. That’s where resilience comes in.

As a leadership attribute, resilience is an overall measure of your adaptive capacity as an individual. It includes several qualities such as stamina, perseverance, tenacity, grit, tolerance for ambiguity, confidence, and optimism. Roll all of these together and you get resilience.

At its core, resilience is the ability to adapt to challenges and recover quickly from failure, adversity, and tribulation. Now let’s go back to the three kinds of labor we discussed in the last question. Is resilience physical, cognitive, or emotional? The answer is yes. It’s all three. A fundamental distinction between a leader with resilience and one without is mindset. The leader with resilience sees a crisis as temporary, changeable, and influenceable. The leader without it sees it as permanent and unchangeable, and is prone to engage in catastrophic thinking.

Sometimes we need resilience because we choose to take on a challenge. At other times, we need resilience because a challenge chooses to take on us. Whether you like it or not, at this moment, you’ve been chosen.

Caprino: How do you lead in crisis when all you’ve known is a 10-year economic expansion?

Clark: You may not like my answer to this question. Let me frame it this way: There are three basic ways to learn. The first is instruction, the second is observation, and the third is participation.

Instruction is formal learning. It’s what we do in school or in any kind of structured learning environment. Observation is informal learning and what we do all the time. We look around. We watch. And hopefully, we see what works and what doesn’t work. We identify patterns. We notice cause and effect relationships.

Finally, there’s learning through participation. We also call this learning by doing. It’s experiential. For many things in life, the third way is the only way. Leading in a crisis is one of those. You can learn about it through instruction. You can read books, watch videos, and listen to podcasts. You can also learn about leading in a crisis through observation by watching others in action. Those two methods are necessary, but never sufficient. Until you get out there in the middle of it and start leading, you are the soldier that never went to war, never saw action, never engaged in combat.

If you came of age during the recently-ended ten-year economic expansion, the current crisis will no doubt become one of the most defining leadership tutorials of your life. My advice is to jump in. Help others. Make a difference.

Whatever you choose to do, you will come out the other side a different human being.

For more information, visit The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

For career and leadership support today, visit Kathy Caprino’s Career Breakthrough Programs, and her upcoming book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss.

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