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How to develop a Growth Mindset via Psychological Safety?

The Safe2Great model integrating Psychological safety and growth mindset

Growth Mindset is not possible without Psychological Safety; Psychological Safety is not enough without Growth Mindset.

Safe2Great – the Concept that Integrates Psychological Safety and Growth Mindset

In the landscape of organizational and leadership development, the concepts of Growth Mindset and Psychological Safety have become increasingly prominent over the last decade. These ideas, often discussed separately, hold immense potential when merged into a cohesive framework. This integration is precisely what the ‘Safe2Great’ method achieves, offering a groundbreaking approach that combines the transformative power of a Growth Mindset with the foundational stability of Psychological Safety.

The ‘Safe2Great’ model presents a sequential pathway, guiding individuals from a state of survival, marked by reactive and fear-driven behaviors, to a state of proactive growth, characterized by continuous learning and adaptability. This progression is mapped out through four distinct stages.

1.  Survival Mode 

Survival Mode, within the ‘Safe2Great’ framework, is an instinctual state where individuals often find themselves overwhelmed by the demands and pressures of the workplace. It’s like being in choppy waters, where the sense of overload can trigger primitive responses such as fight, flight, or freeze. 

In the fight response, individuals may confront challenges with aggression or defiance, sometimes clashing with colleagues or leadership. In flight, there’s a tendency to shy away from problems, to withdraw in hopes that challenges will resolve themselves. The freeze response is akin to paralysis, a shutdown in the face of adversity where action feels impossible.

This mode is rife with complaining—a vocal expression of dissatisfaction that can foster a negative atmosphere. Criticism becomes the default language, often without the constructive intent to improve situations. Procrastination is another hallmark, delaying essential actions due to underlying fear or reluctance to face the impending challenge. 

Avoidance manifests as dodging responsibilities or difficult conversations, while cynicism creeps in, casting a shadow of doubt on motives and questioning the value of efforts. Isolation is a common consequence, as individuals retreat into silos, cutting off from the support and collaboration of their peers. And finally, blame is often assigned as a defense mechanism, a way to deflect from facing one’s vulnerabilities or shortcomings.

In Survival Mode, the focus is on immediate survival, not growth. The behaviors it elicits are counterproductive to development, collaboration, and the fostering of a positive work environment. The challenge for individuals and leaders is to recognize this mode and implement strategies that help navigate away from these reactive tendencies towards a more constructive and growth-oriented mindset.

2.  Protective Mindset 

This stage is characterized by one-dimensional strengths where people are encouraged to be themselves. While positive values, ambitions and healthy habits emerge at this stage they are poorly integrated with how we build our potential together with others. This is essentially an individualistic phase with little recognition of collective needs and potential for development.

Moving from survival to a protective mindset involves letting go partially of the fears of the survival mode. There’s a shift from feeling unsafe towards feelings of stability and security. While this stage offers a sense of safety, it can also lead to resistance against change and a preference for the status quo. This phase involves seeking comfort, sticking to routines, avoiding conflict, resisting change, and focusing on controlling the environment to maintain stability. The shift from survival to protective mindset includes reducing immediate threats and seeking a sense of security.

In the ‘Safe to Great’ framework, the progression from surviving to a protective mindset is intrinsically connected to the first two stages of psychological safety—Belonging and Shared Path. These stages are fundamental in transitioning individuals and teams from a state of mere survival, characterized by fear and defensiveness, to one where they begin to lay the groundwork for protection, stability, and eventually growth.


The stage of Belonging counteracts the survival mode’s isolation and fear by fostering an environment where individuals feel unconditionally accepted. In survival mode, people often operate under stress, viewing the workplace as a threat to their security or status. By establishing a sense of belonging, this threat is diminished, allowing individuals to shift from a defensive stance to one where they feel part of a supportive community. Belonging creates the psychological safety necessary to move away from survival instincts towards a more protective and stable mindset, where the fear of negative judgment or repercussions is lessened.

Shared Path

Once the foundation of Belonging is set, the Shared Path stage reinforces the transition to a protective mindset by uniting team members under a common vision and purpose. This collective movement away from individual self-preservation towards shared goals marks the beginning of a protective mindset. Team members start to perceive their environment as less volatile and more predictable, which encourages them to protect the shared vision and contribute to the group’s objectives. The recognition of a Shared Path cultivates a sense of purpose, which is essential for individuals to feel protected and invested in their roles and the direction of the team.

These initial stages are critical as they address the fundamental human needs for safety, connection, and purpose, which are prerequisites for developing higher levels of psychological safety. They enable individuals to transition from a reactive and survival-focused approach to one where they are more open to collaboration, learning, and taking on responsibilities—key characteristics of a protective mindset. This progression sets the stage for further development towards a learning mindset and ultimately a growth mindset, where the full spectrum of psychological safety can be actualized.

3. Learning Mindset

Transitioning from a protective to a learning mindset involves stepping out of one’s comfort zone to embrace challenges and changes. In this stage, individuals begin to see the value in personal and professional growth, accept feedback, and become more open to new experiences. This is where the principles of ‘Aim High’ and ‘Explore’ from ‘Safe to Great’ come into play, as individuals set higher aspirations and explore new opportunities for development.

The learning mindset introduces an openness to new experiences and feedback. It’s a pivotal stage where the individual begins to value growth over comfort, and trust starts to build. Developing a learning mindset is a critical step towards embracing a culture of continuous improvement and resilience.

The third and fourth stages of psychological safety, Space to Learn and Increasing Voice and Responsibility, are pivotal in the evolution from a protective to a learning mindset.

Space to Learn

The Space to Learn stage is where the transition truly gains momentum. Moving from a protective mindset, where stability and risk aversion are prevalent, this stage introduces an environment that not only permits but actively supports personal and professional development. It’s a nurturing space where teaching, guidance, and mentoring are readily available. This facilitation of learning opportunities is essential as it encourages individuals and teams to venture beyond their established boundaries and engage in the process of growth. The protective mindset’s inherent caution begins to give way to a proactive pursuit of knowledge and skills, laying the groundwork for a learning mindset that values development over security.

Increasing Voice and Responsibility

With the foundation of learning established, Increasing Voice and Responsibility allows individuals to apply their newfound knowledge and insights, giving them a platform to contribute meaningfully to the team’s objectives. This stage is characterized by a shift from merely following directions to actively shaping outcomes. As team members begin to express their thoughts and take on more significant roles in decision-making and problem-solving, the learning mindset is solidified. They move from passive participants to engaged actors, which not only reinforces their own learning but also contributes to the collective intelligence of the team.

The progression from a protective to a learning mindset through these stages represents a shift in focus from maintaining safety to embracing growth. It reflects a growing trust in the team and the organization, where the fear of making mistakes or facing repercussions for speaking up is diminished. The provision of a Space to Learn and the encouragement of Increasing Voice and Responsibility demonstrate a commitment to the individuals’ and the team’s continuous improvement. These stages cultivate an environment where learning from challenges, experimentation, and shared leadership are not only accepted but are seen as essential for innovation and success.

By fostering a culture that prioritizes learning and open communication, organizations can effectively move their teams from a protective stance, often rooted in fear and resistance to change, to a learning mindset, which is essential for adaptation and growth in a complex and ever-changing world.

Safe2Great Model depicting the relationship between psychological safety and openness to challenge .

4. Growth Mindset

The final transition to a growth mindset is marked by a willingness to innovate, a passion for learning, and the resilience to recover from setbacks. Individuals in this stage actively seek out challenges, learn from criticism, and focus on continuous improvement. The growth mindset represents the apex of this progression, where individuals fully embrace challenges, view efforts as the pathway to mastery, and see setbacks as opportunities for development. Trust is established not only in one’s own abilities but also in the process of growth itself.

The transition from a learning mindset to a growth mindset is intrinsically connected to the fifth and sixth stages of psychological safety—Freedom to Explore and Freedom to Challenge and Grow. These stages are critical in facilitating the leap from an environment that supports learning to one that fully endorses and practices the principles of growth and innovation.

Freedom to Explore

The Freedom to Explore stage is where the seeds planted in a learning mindset begin to flourish. It is a stage characterized by granting individuals the autonomy to test out new ideas and approaches. This freedom is pivotal as it allows for creativity and innovation to emerge without the constraints of rigid structures or the fear of failure. This environment is supportive yet liberating, signaling a group’s readiness to embrace change and consider diverse perspectives. The trust and safety that have been built up to this point encourage individuals to step beyond familiar territory and venture into new, unexplored realms of possibility. This willingness to explore is at the heart of the growth mindset—where learning is applied, and knowledge is used as a springboard for innovation.

Freedom to Challenge

At the sixth stage, Freedom to Challenge, individuals reach the pinnacle of psychological safety. In this environment, the culture is not just open to new ideas but actively encourages the questioning and challenging of existing norms and practices. This stage is crucial for the development of a growth mindset as it embodies an ethos where constructive dissent is not merely tolerated but is seen as essential for continuous improvement and evolution. It showcases a commitment to adaptability and a dedication to a culture of ongoing self-improvement. The shift to this stage indicates that a growth mindset has been fully integrated into the team’s ethos, with individuals and the group consistently seeking ways to better themselves and their work.

The distinction between these stages and the dynamics of more restrictive or defensive groups is stark. In closed groups where belonging comes with stringent conditions, the latter stages of psychological safety that are essential for fostering a growth mindset may be absent. These groups may promote unity, but often at the cost of individual autonomy and innovation. In contrast, environments that successfully navigate through the stages of psychological safety to the Freedom to Challenge and Grow stage encourage a culture where the status quo can be examined, and growth is a collective ambition.

The journey from a learning mindset to a growth mindset, underpinned by the five and six stages of psychological safety, reflects a transformational process. It requires not only the individual’s willingness to learn and adapt but also an organizational culture that actively supports exploration, challenges current paradigms, and champions the continuous evolution of its people. By facilitating this journey, leaders can foster resilient, innovative teams capable of exceptional performance and adaptability in an ever-changing landscape.

Each stage requires overcoming specific barriers, such as fear, the need for control, or resistance to feedback. Leaders can facilitate this progression by creating environments that support risk-taking, encourage learning from failure, and recognize and reward progress in personal development. This creates the psychological safety necessary for individuals to move through these stages and fully embrace a growth mindset.

While this pathway delineates a forward trajectory, it’s crucial to understand that the development of a growth mindset, much like the building of trust, is a gradual process. It requires consistent nurturing through positive reinforcement, an environment conducive to learning, and leadership that values and exemplifies these principles. However, this mindset can be compromised or lost if not continually supported. Just as trust can be eroded by inconsistency or negative experiences, a growth mindset can regress to earlier stages through a persistent culture of fear, lack of support, or failure to recognize and celebrate progress.

Skip Bowman, keynote speaker on psychological safety and growth mindset

Skip Bowman

Author of Safe2Great, keynote speaker on psychological safety and growth mindset

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