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78 / Psychological Safety Inspires Innovation

Hosted by Sean Flaherty



Dr Timothy Clark Guest Speaker at Product Momentum Podcast

Dr. Timothy Clark


Dr. Timothy R. Clark is the founder and CEO of LeaderFactor. Tim ranks as a global authority in the fields of senior executive development, strategy acceleration, and organizational change. He is the author of five books and has written more than 150 articles on leadership, change, strategy, human capital, culture, and employee engagement. He is a highly sought-after advisor, coach, and facilitator to CEOs and senior leadership teams.

Tim’s leadership experience is extensive. He was previously President and CEO of Decker, a consulting firm based in San Francisco, and CEO of Novations SDC, a consulting and training firm based in Boston. Prior to these assignments, Dr. Clark spent several years in manufacturing, serving as a vice president of operations and plant manager of Geneva Steel Company. He began his career as a survey research project director for what is now Harris Interactive in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Clark earned a doctorate degree in Social Science from Oxford University and was both a Fulbright and British Research Scholar. He also earned a master’s degree in Government and Economics from the University of Utah. As an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, he was named a first-team Academic All-American football player where he completed a triple degree cum laude.

Psychological safety is the great enabler, says Dr. Timothy Clark, founder and CEO of LeaderFactor. In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Tim joins Sean to give us a behind-the-scenes look at his 4 Stages of Psychological Safety and explain why it’s the foundation of all high-performing teams.

Product leaders are vital to building that foundation, he adds. When they model and reward “everyday acts of vulnerability,” they guide their teams from Stage 1 (it’s not expensive to be yourself) through Stage 4 (respectfully challenge the status quo). Imagine an environment where you’re free to direct your energies and intellect to solving complex problems — instead of whether your team members will criticize your every suggestion.

Acts of vulnerability include asking questions, challenging opinions, offering feedback, and even responding, “I don’t know” – perhaps the epitome of vulnerability. Teams that do this well are on the fast track to building psychological safety and celebrating the innovative creativity that is sure to follow.

Tune in to learn more from Timothy Clark, and follow along as he guides us through the 4 Stages. Listen carefully as he clearly defines a glossary of key terms we use regularly in our product space. By simplifying the complex, Tim provides actionable strategies from which we can all benefit.

Sean [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. This is a podcast intended to entertain, educate, celebrate, and give a little back to the product leadership community.

Sean [00:00:32] Hello and welcome to the podcast. Today, we have the great pleasure of introducing Dr. Timothy R. Clark. He’s the founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, a training, consulting, coaching, and assessment organization that focuses on leadership development, organizational change, strategic agility, psychological safety, and emotional intelligence. He is most notable for his contributions to the field of psychological safety and for his framework, which I happen to adore the four stages of psychological safety. We’ll talk about that today. Tim is the author of five great books, all of which I’ve read. Dr. Clark, welcome to the show.

Timothy [00:01:03] Well, thanks Sean.

Sean [00:01:04] All right, so our audience is out there creating software products in the wild. We talked a little bit about this in the pre-call. You know, it’s a very human business.

Timothy [00:01:14] Yeah.

Sean [00:01:15] I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between creativity and psychological safety, because, at the end of the day, we’re all supposed to be innovating. We’re supposed to be building things that didn’t exist before or building them in a better way, improving them. And that’s all about creativity.

Timothy [00:01:30] Yeah. So what I would say, Sean, is that when we’re being creative, we’re doing it in context. We’re doing it somewhere. And that context, the conditions, the atmosphere, that affects our ability to be creative. It either enables it or it shuts it down. And so this takes us to a concept that is very important for all of us to understand, especially for the folks out there that are building software products. And that is that when we’re interacting when we’re in a social situation, we engage in what we call threat detection. It’s a very normal and natural process that we go through. When we’re working together, we’re trying to figure out if we’re in a safe or an unsafe environment.

Timothy [00:02:09] And if we’re in a safe environment then we typically offer a performance response. And what that means is that we believe we’re in a safe environment so we can go for it, we’re eager to participate, we can release our discretionary efforts, our creative powers can find their full expression. But what if we’re not in a safe environment or we perceive that we’re not in a safe environment? Then we’re going to offer a fear response and a fear response is quite different.

Timothy [00:02:38] So let me go back. The purpose of a performance response is to create and add value. The purpose of a fear response is different. It’s to survive. And so going back to your question, what is the relationship between creativity and psychological safety? Well, it’s direct and fundamental. Psychological safety is the great enabler of creativity. It allows it to find full expression. So if you’re in an environment that is filled with fear and you offer a fear response, what are you doing? You’re preoccupied with managing personal risk, self-preservation, loss avoidance. So you’re literally reallocating your productive and your creative potential because you’ve got to protect yourself. So it has everything to do with creativity because we’re creative in a social context.

Timothy [00:03:41] Think about innovation. Once in a while, innovation and invention is a light bulb moment of lone genius. But that’s the exception. Most of the time, what does it look like? It’s a collaborative enterprise where we are working together. We’re trying to figure things out. We have to be able to debate issues on their merits. We have to be able to talk openly. We have to be able to have a high tolerance for candor. We have to have creative abrasion. We have to have constructive dissent. So if you don’t have psychological safety, how are you going to do all those things? You can’t do it.

Sean [00:04:17] Yeah. See, I think like by default, as people, we know this, but we’re constantly being pressured back to deliver things, to put things out the door. And we put all these artificial measures on, well I don’t want to say artificial, because they’re very real measures, like output, like how much code are you outputting? How much product is being released into the wild?

Timothy [00:04:38] Yeah.

Sean [00:04:39] And it turns into this pressure that I believe and I’ve seen results in poor performance because we’re not maximizing the creativity that we get from people. We overfocus on these little things like, “Hey, you know, are we causing this to occur?” Or are we… features for dollars, are we getting this code out the door?

Timothy [00:04:57] Yeah.

Sean [00:04:57] It creates a lot of this artificial pressure and you can’t just leave it completely open. You can’t just be like, “Hey, go program whatever you want.”

Timothy [00:05:04] No, you can’t. So that brings up the corollary principle, which is, creativity is done in a social context, number one, but it’s also done in the context of real constraints, time constraints and resource constraints. And that’s the way it’s always been done.

Sean [00:05:21] Yeah.

Timothy [00:05:21] If you go back to the Renaissance when artists were commissioned to produce a sculpture or a painting, they had constraints and yet they were able to produce masterpieces. So we’re never going to get rid of these constraints. But the point is, is there a second layer of fear that you add? Right, we already have constraints and pressure, but what about the culture of the team? What about the tone that the leader is setting? If you’re adding another layer of fear based on what you already have, then that’s going to be debilitating. That’s going to get in the way. But people already understand that they’re working under constraints, and that’s not a bad thing. In many ways, that’s what sparks the innovation and the creativity that we need. So let’s not forget the constraints is one of the most important factors, that leads to innovation because we are forced to work with what we have and that helps us engage in divergent thinking, perhaps better than we otherwise would.

Sean [00:06:28] Yeah. So what I’m hearing you say is that constraints are actually a necessary part of innovation.

Timothy [00:06:33] They are.

Sean [00:06:34] I love that concept. It’s like a way to more safely talk about, “Hey, we have these real constraints; let’s get it on the table so we can work together.”

Timothy [00:06:42] But we also have to acknowledge, I think, Sean, that can that go overboard? Can it be too much? Can we be asking too much of a team? Can we pile them up to the point that it’s demoralizing? Yeah, we can do that, too. And so we have to be careful about that. Do we want to put some stretch into it? Yes. But do we want to overwhelm them? No. That comes back to good leadership, understanding context, understanding the configuration of the team, understanding the talent, what people are capable of. So we have to exercise judgment as we look at the objectives, we look at the resources, we look at the composition of the team. What we’re trying not to do is add a lack of psychological safety because let me, let me translate it. So psychological safety, we can define it in five words. It’s an environment of rewarded vulnerability. So the opposite is punished vulnerability. Right? So if a product team is out there and they’re building a product, that psychological safety becomes the lubricating oil for their collaboration. They absolutely need that to be able to work at capacity. And what that means is they have the ability to challenge each other. If they don’t have that because they’re typically punishing each other’s acts of vulnerability. And once you get into an environment where there’s punished rather than rewarded vulnerability, the team is not going to perform.

Sean [00:08:16] I love that definition, an environment of rewarded vulnerability. So talk about this concept of rewarded vulnerability. What do you mean when it’s rewarded?

Timothy [00:08:25] Sure. Well, let’s back up one step even further, and let’s define vulnerability. Vulnerability is exposure to the possibility of harm or loss. Now, what kind of harm or loss are we talking about? We’re working on a product development team. Vulnerability creates opportunity. There’s the irony. You have to have vulnerability in order for a team to work at capacity, to do their best work. That means you need to reward it in order to draw it out. So let’s get specific. A product development team will engage in very common, everyday acts of vulnerability, such as asking a question, giving some feedback, saying you don’t know, pointing out a mistake. These are all acts of vulnerability. If those are rewarded, the psychological safety goes up and you’re able to maintain it.

Timothy [00:09:25] If those very same acts of vulnerability are punished, then what happens? People retreat, they withdraw, they start managing personal risk. So now the team is behaving very differently in an environment where they have punished vulnerability. We’re talking about very common everyday things that we have to do to interact effectively with each other. Right. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to teams that have implemented Agile tools and methodology. OK. It’s not going to save you, right? Go back to The Agile Manifesto. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. You can have the most exquisitely talented team in the world and if they don’t have psychological safety, that will kill the team. So the heart of their ability to be effective, it comes back to the patterns of interaction. And what are we saying? We’re saying that acts of vulnerability need to be rewarded. They need to be modeled and rewarded. That’s the key mechanism.

Sean [00:10:34] The modeling and the rewarding.

Timothy [00:10:35] Yep.

Sean [00:10:36] Love it. You said something earlier about having goals, so like alignment on the goals is a part of this. Like we have to be pointing at the same thing in order for us to be moving in the same direction like if you don’t have that set up right, then how do you know what to give feedback on? Or how do you know what questions to ask? Right, to provide vulnerability. So as a starting point, it’s got to be really important to get those goals right. Do you agree with that?

Timothy [00:11:04] I would. You used the word alignment, Sean. So here’s the way that I would define alignment. Alignment is a combination of understanding, number one, and commitment number two. So to your point, I totally agree with what you’re saying. At the beginning of any project, ambiguity is not your friend because clear expectations allow us to create alignment. There’s no alignment without clarity. Now, of course, we all understand, though, that as we go down the road and we’re on this journey, it’s also going to be emergent, right? So you can have your plans and your goals. And if you’re building software, your architects can say, “this is where we’re going and this is what we’re trying to do and here your wireframes'” and that’s great. But guess what? It’s not going to end up exactly the way that you envision it. We all know that, and that’s the nature of what we’re doing, but we’re striving for as much clarity around the goals and the expectations from the beginning so that we can create that alignment. And then we go.

Sean [00:12:15] Great. So if I could summarize, clarity around where we’re going together is somewhat of a predecessor for real psychological safety.

Timothy [00:12:25] It does because one of the natural sources of fear is ambiguity and uncertainty. Now we’re not saying that we’re going to remove that, but we’re going to try to get as much clarity as we can from the beginning, and then that will contribute towards the psychological safety, that environment of rewarded vulnerability, and then we can begin. But we know that we’re going to need adaptive capacity. We just don’t know exactly what we’re going to find.

Sean [00:12:58] So we have to leave space for the emergence.

Timothy [00:13:01] Yeah, we do.

Sean [00:13:02] You’re not going to have any innovation if you just do exactly what you planned, right? So if we want innovation, we have to create the room and the space for experimentation and for us to learn in the face of, you know, an ever-changing environment.

Timothy [00:13:16] Well, I think you said something important there Sean and that is that product development is a real-time learning enterprise. And so what does that require? It requires that the team develops learning agility. What’s the definition of learning agility? The ability to learn at or above the speed of change. The team has to demonstrate the ability to do that, and they have to be able to do that together because it’s like strategy. There’s deliberate strategy which says, “here’s our goal, and here’s how we’re going to get there” and we have it down. But as soon as that plan meets reality, that plan is going to be wrong. It’s just a matter of degree. It goes back to the famous Mike Tyson quote, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”.

Timothy [00:14:08] So we know that we’re going to do the best job that we can to create the best plans that we can with clear objectives. But we know that when we collide with reality, we’re going to have to adjust and we know that the customer is the boss and the customer is going to either reward us or punish us when we provide our product to them. And so there’s just so much that we don’t know. We have to be ready for that.

Sean [00:14:37] Yeah. I love how fantastically clear you are with your language. You take the time to define the words you’re using so that we can communicate better. And I’ve found that to be refreshing, so thank you for that. I also can go in fifteen different directions based upon the all things that you’ve just laid out here. Might need to do another podcast episode at some point. But for the sake of time, I want to jump into the four stages. So your four stages framework is amazing. You talk about the definition of psychological safety as an environment of rewarded vulnerability. So now if you take that and overlay it on your framework, the framework, for the audience’s sake, is basically an x-y-axis. On the x-axis you have permission, on the y-axis you have respect and then you have different stages of actual psychological safety, which once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It makes perfect sense. I’ll let you explain the different levels if you would.

Timothy [00:15:27] Sure. So as you said, Sean, psychological safety in the first place is a function of respect and permission. It’s the fusion of those two dimensions. And then beyond that, there’s a succession or there’s a progression rather, of four successive stages. So stage one is inclusion safety, and this is the foundation stage. Inclusion safety means that you feel included, you feel accepted and you have a sense of belonging and that’s your foundation and that’s the foundation upon which we build everything else. But sometimes, if you take a look at teams, not everyone feels stage one inclusion safety, even though they’re part of the team. And so that would say that we don’t even have stage one, so we’ve got work to do. Another way to explain the definition of stage one inclusion safety is that it’s not expensive to be yourself. It’s not expensive socially, emotionally, psychologically. You really can bring your whole self to work. So that’s stage one.

Sean [00:16:25] In that low range, near the origin, you actually have the word exclusion.

Timothy [00:16:29] Yes.

Sean [00:16:30] You feel excluded.

Timothy [00:16:31] Yeah.

Sean [00:16:31] There’s no opportunity for psychological safety. That’s kind of brilliant.

Timothy [00:16:34] Yeah. You haven’t even achieved stage one. You don’t feel that threshold sense of inclusion and acceptance and belonging and attachment and connection. Then from there, we go to stage two, which is learner safety. Learner safety means that you feel safe to engage in the learning process without fear of being marginalized or embarrassed or punished in some way. So think about the acts of vulnerability that are associated with learning. You can ask questions. You can give and receive feedback. You can experiment. You can make mistakes and you’ll be rewarded in that behavior, not punished.

Timothy [00:17:13] Then we go to stage three, which is contributor safety. Contributor safety means that you’re given a legitimate opportunity to make a meaningful contribution, make a difference. So what does that imply? It implies that you’re given an appropriate level of autonomy, together with support and guidance and direction. And humans have a very deep need to be able to contribute and make a difference. And you’ll notice the sequence, learning, stage two, precedes contribution. You can’t participate in that value creation process if you don’t have knowledge and experience and skills in the first place. So that’s stage three.

Timothy [00:17:59] Then finally, we go to stage four, which is challenger safety. Challenger safety means that you feel safe to challenge the status quo without fear of retaliation, without fear of jeopardizing your personal standing. And what you’ll notice is that as you’re moving through the stages, you are also climbing a ladder of vulnerability. By the time you get to stage four, the culminating stage, challenger safety, we’re talking about challenging the status quo, which for many people is a pretty scary thing to do. So think about this in the context of a product development team and ask yourself this question, do you feel safe to challenge the status quo?

Timothy [00:18:46] Now think about how vital this is because this is where we innovate. Innovation by its very nature is disruptive of the status quo. So it shows us that in a product development team, the aspiration is to go all the way to stage four, challenge safety. If they want to realize their full potential, they’ve got to create psychological safety at that highest level because they thrive and they’re productive on the basis of their intellectual friction. So they need extremely high levels of intellectual friction, but they need to keep the social friction down at the same time because it will eventually shut down the intellectual friction. So that’s really the defining characteristic of an extremely high-performing team that is able to get all the way to stage four.

Sean [00:19:39] Brilliant. So there should be, there are behaviors that leaders, first of all, have to learn this framework so they can see where their team is at. They can see behaviors that indicate people are at this stage, they’re not at the challenger stage yet. We can draw them up and learn as leaders how to model the behaviors themselves, how to model the vulnerability themselves.

Timothy [00:20:02] Yeah, that’s exactly right, Sean. As I said before, the core mechanism for cultural transformation is to model and reward the acts of vulnerability associated with each stage. There’s no other way. Everything else is secondary. That’s the core mechanism. So for those of you out there who are leading product development teams, this is where you want to take a hard look in a very clean mirror and ask yourselves, right, “do I model and reward acts of vulnerability for stage one: inclusion safety, stage two: learner safety, stage three: contributor safety, stage four: challenger safety?” Because you set the tone, right, so the level of psychological safety will be a reflection of your modeling behavior more than any other single factor.

Sean [00:20:53] Brilliant. We could stop there, but we’re not going to do. I got a few more things on the chart I just want you to explain for the audience. What happens when you have an environment of low respect but high permission?

Timothy [00:21:04] So low respect and high permission leads to a failure pattern that we call exploitation. Now you’ve heard the word, everybody’s heard the word exploitation. But maybe this will help provide a little bit more insight and operationalize the definition of this word that we throw around. To exploit: low respect, but high permission. Now, why would I interact with someone like that, on that basis? I’m giving them a lot of permission to contribute, to work, to add value, but I’m interacting with them with low respect. We call that exploitation because what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to extract value from them, but I don’t value them as a human being. That’s the difference.

Timothy [00:21:55] Now you can think about it on a spectrum, right. So there are very destructive, egregious, blatant forms of exploitation. You know, we can think of things like bullying and harassment and public shaming and things like that. We’re familiar with those. They’re so visible and they’re so destructive. But there’s also the other end of the spectrum where acts of exploitation are subtle and they’re more deniable. For example, I could say, “Sean, absolutely fantastic job,” and praise your work and then I overload you with more work. Right.

Sean [00:22:30] Exploitation.

Timothy [00:22:30] That’s exploitation. Or I could just steal a little bit of credit from you. So there are subtle forms, but again, it all goes back to I’m trying to extract value, but I’m not respecting you as a person. I’m not valuing you as a person.

Sean [00:22:47] Great. Love that response. How about a situation where you have high respect but low permission?

Timothy [00:22:53] Okay, so think about this one: high respect, but low permission. In other words, I’m putting you on a very short leash, I’m micromanaging you, but I do respect you. You got to think about this one for a minute. This is what we call paternalism. Paternalism means that I am unnecessarily micromanaging you. I’m getting in your way. I’m holding you back. Now, why would I do that? We see patterns of paternalism across most every organization. Well, think about the motivation of a manager or a leader that’s paternalistic. I’m treating my people… I’m like a helicopter parent. I pat them on the head, “I love you, don’t touch anything.” Why would I act like that?

Timothy [00:23:35] The most common root cause is that I don’t understand leadership. Leadership is about becoming a force multiplier. It’s about scaling influence and impact. And if I don’t understand that, then I keep getting in the way. And what we find are often we find leaders and managers who are very well-intentioned, good, benevolent people, but they’re still paternalistic. They just don’t get leadership and they don’t learn how to let go. They don’t learn how to empower. They don’t learn how to really delegate. They don’t learn how to really coach. And so they perpetuate this pattern of paternalism. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked for a paternalistic boss, but it’s tough.

Sean [00:24:23] Yeah. All right. One more question here. Actually, two more questions. One, what are you reading these days that you would recommend to the audience?

Timothy [00:24:30] Let’s see. The book that I’m reading right now is called This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends and it’s about cyber terrorism and cyber warfare. Pretty incredible read from a New York Times journalist. And I read widely across disciplines. I don’t focus on business books. I’m also reading The Quest for Cosmic Justice by Thomas Sowell. The reason that I try to read widely, and this goes back to creativity and innovation, most of the time when we’re at our best creatively, it’s cross-disciplinary.

Sean [00:25:06] For sure.

Timothy [00:25:07] And so I think that if we come at things from different angles and different perspectives, I think that we’re capable of doing better work.

Sean [00:25:17] It looks like you’re sitting in a library with tiers of books behind you. You’re very well-read, I’m sure. Those are great suggestions. Thank you. And lastly, you’ve been very generous with your definitions today, so I’m going to ask you for one more. How do you define innovation? What does it mean to you?

Timothy [00:25:33] Innovation? Hmm. Let me distinguish between two kinds, let’s say type one and type two. Type one is incremental and derivative, let’s say that. So incremental means I made a little improvement, and that improvement derives from what we’ve already been doing. So it’s incremental and it’s derivative. That’s type one. And I would argue, Sean, that probably ninety-nine percent of innovation is type one. We’re building on what we already know and what we’ve already done, and that’s fantastic. Type two is radical and disruptive. It does not build on what we’ve done before. It departs from it, and it represents a step-change improvement, a nonlinear change. Honestly, if you really think of it, there’s very little genuine type two innovation, radical and disruptive. But I think it’s helpful to distinguish between type one and type two. I think those are helpful frameworks to think about. And then in that context we can think about what we’re trying to do. So that’s the way I define it.

Sean [00:26:48] Love it. All right. Anything you’ve got coming up in the near future, any books coming out or anything you’re doing that you want to tell the audience about?

Timothy [00:26:55] Well, we just released our second generation team transformation process. And that’s a process that we send teams through. They take an assessment based on the four stages of psychological safety to get a baseline, and then they help each other through a 12-week process where they try to shift the prevailing norms of the team and achieve higher levels of psychological safety in each of the four stages. So we’re pretty excited about that.

Sean [00:27:22] That sounds exciting. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. Appreciate your insights and knowledge sharing.

Timothy [00:27:28] Well, thank you, Sean. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Sean [00:27:33] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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