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The 6 Stages of Psychological Safety reimagined for the global, digital workplace.

“Belonging and a shared path will always be the foundation for psychological safety and thus innovation and change.”

In the face of mounting uncertainty, globalized workplaces, and the burgeoning influence of artificial intelligence, the traditional models of psychological safety face new, complex challenges. The 6 Stages of Psychological Safety model, a cornerstone in fostering inclusive and innovative organizational cultures, must now adapt to a world where the Allan Curve’s insights into proximity and communication take on new dimensions.

Uncertainty and Psychological Safety

The modern leader’s role is complicated by the pervasive nature of uncertainty. Rapid technological advancements, geopolitical shifts, and global health crises contribute to an unpredictable environment where decision-making becomes more complex. Psychological safety, which is the bedrock for teams to take risks and voice their opinions, is now tested by the very nature of today’s unpredictability. Leaders must navigate these murky waters by ensuring that their teams feel secure enough to express ideas and concerns, even when the outcomes of actions are far from certain.

Global Work and the Challenge of Proximity

Global work magnifies the challenge of maintaining psychological safety. The Allen Curve, which suggests that communication is most effective and relationships are strongest among individuals who share physical space, points to proximity as a key factor in collaboration. However, in a global context, teams are often distributed across different geographies, cultures, and time zones, diluting the sense of closeness and immediacy that comes with physical proximity. Leaders must therefore innovate new ways to build and sustain psychological safety across the virtual divide.

Artificial Intelligence and Psychological Safety

Artificial Intelligence (AI) introduces both opportunities and challenges to psychological safety. On one hand, AI can provide tools for better communication and analysis, supporting decision-making in uncertain times. On the other, the integration of AI into the workplace can cause anxiety around job security and the value of human roles, which can erode the trust and openness that psychological safety requires.

Revisiting the 6 Stages of Psychological Safety

The 6 Stages of Psychological Safety model must evolve to address these challenges. Each stage—Belonging, Shared Path, Space to Learn, Increasing Voice and Responsibility, Freedom to Explore, and Freedom to Challenge and Grow—takes on new meaning in a dispersed and digital world.

1. Belonging: Leaders must create a sense of inclusion that transcends physical boundaries, ensuring team members feel connected and valued irrespective of location.

6 stages of Psychological safety
6 stages of Psychological safety

2. Shared Path: Building a shared vision is more critical than ever, as teams need a common purpose that aligns their diverse experiences and locations.

3. Space to Learn: With AI’s rise, learning becomes a continuous necessity. Cultivating an environment where team members can develop new skills is essential for both adaptation and innovation.

4. Increasing Voice and Responsibility: In an uncertain world, empowering team members to speak up and take ownership can lead to better, more diverse solutions to complex problems.

5. Freedom to Explore: Encouraging exploration within AI and global contexts can lead to breakthrough innovations and a competitive edge.

6. Freedom to Challenge: Finally, fostering an environment where questioning and pushing boundaries are safe, even celebrated, can drive growth in times of change.

Leading in Uncertainty

Leaders must respond to the challenges of proximity and the acceleration of AI by fostering a culture where psychological safety is not just preserved but strengthened. This involves creating virtual spaces where open communication and collaboration are as natural and effective as they are in person. It requires transparency, adaptability, and a commitment to nurturing the human connections that underpin strong teams, even when face-to-face interaction is limited. 

Belonging and Shared Path are Foundational.

In the intricate dance of leading through uncertainty, the allure of the more dynamic activities characteristic of stages three to six in the 6 Stages of Psychological Safety model often captures our attention. We yearn to see our teams actively learning, voicing their opinions boldly, exploring uncharted territories, and challenging the status quo to foster growth. However, this forward-looking focus can sometimes lead us to overlook the foundational significance of stages one and two—Belonging and Shared Path—which are crucial for establishing the bedrock of psychological safety. 

Belonging and Shared Path are not just preliminary steps; they are the very pillars that uphold the structure of a psychologically safe environment, particularly vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of relationships and situational changes.

In a world brimming with uncertainty, where global work and AI are reshaping the landscape, the connections and sense of collective direction that these stages provide become even more critical. When physical proximity is compromised, and AI alters the fabric of our interactions, the sense of belonging can wane, and the clarity of the shared path can become obscured.

It’s paramount for leaders to recognize that without a deep sense of connection and a clear, communal vision—elements fostered in the first two stages—efforts to engage in the higher-level activities can be undermined. Nurturing strong relationships and a shared sense of purpose is essential, especially when teams are dispersed or when AI shifts the dynamics of collaboration. The stability provided by these stages allows individuals to feel secure as they venture into the learning, voice, exploration, and challenge that characterize the later stages.

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

In essence, stages one and two are not merely stepping stones but the very foundation of psychological safety that supports the higher-level activities. They require continuous attention and reinforcement, especially when navigating the complexities of an uncertain, globally connected, and AI-integrated world. By anchoring our teams in a strong sense of belonging and a shared purpose, we create an environment where the activities of learning, innovation, and growth are not just possible but can truly thrive.

In conclusion, as organizations navigate the complexities of uncertainty, global work, and AI, the principles of psychological safety and the 6 Stages model remain vital. Yet, they must be reinterpreted and creatively applied to ensure that teams not only maintain their sense of safety and belonging but also leverage these challenges as catalysts for growth and innovation.

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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