In the fast-paced and ever-evolving landscape of modern workplaces, the concept of psychological safety has gained significant traction. Coined by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety refers to an environment where individuals feel comfortable expressing themselves, taking risks, and contributing their ideas without fear of judgement or reprisal. Research has consistently shown that teams with high levels of psychological safety tend to outperform their peers, leading to increased innovation, productivity, and overall success.

Psychological safety is not a static state but rather a dynamic process that evolves over time. It encompasses four distinct stages: Inclusion, Learning, Contribution, and Challenge. Each stage represents a critical aspect of team development, and proactively managing these stages is essential to ensuring sustained high performance across the team’s lifecycle.



Stage 1: Inclusion

The need – and basic individual right for inclusion is at the foundation of psychological safety. Inclusion involves creating a welcoming and supportive environment where every team member feels valued, respected, and accepted for who they are. It is about creating a sense of belonging and ensuring no one feels excluded or marginalised.

To promote inclusion within the team, leaders must prioritise diversity and equity, actively seeking out different perspectives and experiences. They should encourage open dialogue, celebrate individual differences, and address any instances of bias or discrimination promptly. By establishing a culture of inclusion from the outset, teams lay the groundwork for building trust and collaboration, setting the stage for future success.

Stage 2: Learning

Once a sense of inclusion is established, teams can focus on the stage of learning. Learning involves creating an environment where individuals feel comfortable taking risks, experimenting, and making mistakes without fear of judgement or punishment. It is about encouraging curiosity, exploration, and continuous improvement. What is important however is the reciprocity that is afforded by both parties i.e. that the team and organisation encourage learning and that the individual reciprocates by actively and proactively pursuing new knowledge and skills that contribute positively to the team’s performance.

Leaders play a crucial role in promoting learning within the team by modelling vulnerability and humility. They should encourage team members to ask questions, share their thoughts openly, and seek feedback from one another. By creating a safe space for learning and growth, teams can harness the collective intelligence of their members, leading to greater innovation and adaptability.

Stage 3: Contribution

As team members become more comfortable expressing themselves and learning from one another, they transition to the stage of contribution. Contribution involves actively participating in team activities, sharing ideas, and collaborating with others to achieve common goals. It is about leveraging individual strengths and talents to drive collective success.

Leaders must empower team members to contribute meaningfully by providing opportunities for involvement and recognition. They should model and embed a culture of trust and accountability, where every voice is heard and valued. By encouraging active participation and ownership, teams can tap into the full potential of their members, leading to improved performance and outcomes.

Stage 4: Challenge

The final stage of psychological safety is challenge. Challenge involves pushing the boundaries of comfort and striving for excellence. It is about setting ambitious goals, embracing stretch assignments, and encouraging healthy debate and dissent. In a psychologically safe environment, team members feel empowered to challenge the status quo and push for continuous improvement.

This culture of challenge is created by setting high expectations and providing support and resources to help team members succeed. Leaders should encourage constructive feedback and dissenting opinions, thus creating a culture of innovation and excellence. By embracing ‘challenge’ and pushing the limits of what is possible, teams can achieve breakthrough results and drive sustained success. 

A critical watch out here is for leaders themselves, if team leadership lack the emotional maturity to truly adopt, encourage, and ‘be’ on the receiving end of meaningful challenge and feedback – the outcome can be a collapse of trust and a breach of psychological safety. So, leaders and senior team members…check your egos, you are not ‘above’ the psychological contract!

In conclusion, psychological safety is a critical factor in creating high-performing teams. By proactively managing the four stages of inclusion, learning, contribution, and challenge across the team’s lifecycle, leaders can create an environment where individuals feel empowered to express themselves, take risks, and collaborate effectively. By prioritising psychological safety, teams can unlock their full potential and achieve remarkable results.

OMT Global

Established in 1989, OMT works with large organisations to develop the leadership skills of their people managers, from first-time leaders right through to senior-level executives. We provide a range of consultancy, training and development services for organisations that want to further develop and retain their talent. OMT excels in helping organisations move from ad hoc or one-off efforts to a new way of behaving and working.

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