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The Psychological Safety Ladder Canvas

Most companies struggle with psychological safety as the concept feels too abstract. Check out this framework to have more actionable conversation to create a safe and strong team culture.

By Gustavo Razzetti

May 26, 2021

A visual tool to create a safe team culture – one step at a time

It’s no secret that psychological safety makes or breaks teams. As more and more organizations get familiarized with the research and concepts, the idea of safety is taking on a new meaning. Leaders have realized that psychological safety is the secret sauce to high-performing teams. Safety is no longer perceived as the opposite of risk-taking, but as an enabler of experimentation.

The big question still lies in how to actually increase psychological safety. That’s where most organizations and teams struggle. Executives get the principles, but the recommendations usually feel too abstract. So how can you move from concept to execution?

I’ve written numerous articles with exercises to increase psychological safety in your team, the workplace, and virtual teams. Although it has provided people with actionable tools and practices, they kept asking for a tool to help them tackle the topic in a more visual and organized way. So I decided to share the Psychological Safety Ladder – a canvas I’ve been applying with my clients.

In this post, I will share the principles behind this tool, introduce the canvas, and explain how to facilitate it with your team.  

The Three Levels of Psychological Safety

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as the “ belief that one won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

Unlike trust, which happens between two people, psychological safety is provided by the entire team. Most importantly, it’s not about being nice, but respectful. Psychological safety provides the right environment for receiving candid feedback, admitting mistakes, and learning from your colleagues.

People tend to approach it in binary terms – either you have psychological safety or you don’t. However, in my experience consulting organizations, people experience it at different levels. We have to approach psychological safety as a spectrum from low to high rather than something that is either present or not.

This idea of psychological safety as something dynamic inspired the metaphor of the ladder.  It helps visualize the aspiration to climb to higher levels. It’s also a reminder that what comes up can come down. In the same way that you can increase psychological safety, bad behaviors can make you go down the ladder – or even fall from it.  

Another important aspect of this progression is the different levels. Inspired by Timothy R. Clark’s 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, I came up with three levels: Belonging, Diversity of Thought, and Innovation. Each level is comprised of various ‘steps.’

Belonging is a critical element for building high-performing teams. It’s about feeling safe to build strong interpersonal relationships, bring your whole self to work, address wellbeing issues, and actively participate in meetings or conversations. This is the foundation of Psychological Safety or Level 1.

Many people confuse “feeling safe” with risk-aversity. That’s because they get stuck in level 1. The purpose of developing an environment of high psychological safety is to promote diverse thinking and innovation. It’s an invitation to continue climbing the ladder.

Diversity of Thought is critical for teams to perform at their best. Cognitive diversity and cognitive friction neutralize groupthink, integrating different perspectives. It’s about feeling safe to contribute with your unique skills and talents, speak up about tough issues, disagree or think differently, and ask for help. Level 2 invites team members to constantly reexamine facts and remain objective. It also encourages greater scrutiny of everyone’s actions, improving information processing and decision-making.

The paradox of psychological safety is that the higher you climb the ladder, the safer you feel to take risks.

Level 3 addresses the end result of high-performing teams: innovation. I’m not talking just about just developing new products or services, but also coming up with new solutions to help people work better. Level 3 is about feeling safe to challenge the status quo, using questions to explore what’s possible, making mistakes, and experimenting.

The Psychological Safety Ladder Canvas

Psychological safety has become a crucial component of my work helping organizations build strong workplace cultures. Not only is it one of the building blocks of the Culture Design Canvas, but it’s also a key module of our Build a Fearless Culture program. Lately, one-third of my client engagements – including consulting, talks, and workshops – have involved psychological safety, especially in remote and hybrid teams.

It’s no surprise that I continue to experiment with new tools and exercises to help teams build a safer workplace culture.

As part of that process, I developed the Psychological Safety Ladder Canvas to help organizations map and understand how they are faring, identify areas of opportunities, and prioritize action. Basically it’s to map how safe the culture feels for you and your team to bring your whole selves to work, speak your mind, be curious, try new things, and not be penalized for making mistakes or taking risks.

The Ladder Canvas has three sections:

  1. Face the ladder
  2. Assess each level
  3. Repair the steps

Let's address one by one.

1. Face the ladder:

Using a set of statements, team members assess each step of the ladder.

List of Statements Per Each Psychological Safety Level

Level 3 - INNOVATION

Experimentation: "I feel safe to take risks in this team"

Mistake tolerance: "We openly share and learn from our mistakes"

Challenging others: "It’s okay to challenge the status quo"

Exploration: "Questions are always welcome on our team"

Level 2 - COGNITIVE DIVERSITY

Disagreement: "The team encourages me to disagree or think differently"

Ask for help: "It’s easy to ask my colleagues for help"

Speak up: "We can bring up problems and tough issues"

Unique contributions: "My unique skills and talents are valued and utilized"

Level 1 - BELONGING

Relationships: "We know one another personally, not just professionally"

Wellbeing: "It’s okay to talk about health issues and burnout

Participation: "I’m not afraid to ask questions and share my thoughts"

Inclusion: "I feel welcomed by my team"

2. Assess each level

As a result of the previous assessment, you can identify how well your team is doing level by level.

By consolidating the assessment results, you can determine which levels are strong, weak, or broken. This analysis will help you prioritize where to focus. Logic shows that you can’t do well at level 2 if you have issues at level 1. You have to improve the lower levels before going up the ladder.

3. Repair the steps

It doesn’t matter how many steps are broken. Focusing is critical. Fix one at a time. Start with one crucial step or an area where you can achieve a quick win and build momentum.

Do you want to increase participation in meetings? Do your team members need to know each other better? Do you need to make it okay for people to ask for help?

How to Facilitate the Psychological Safety Canvas

Before you get started, download the template in PDF format or virtual template for MURAL.

Set up the right environment by preparing the team ahead of the session. Have everyone read this article to familiarize themselves with the Psychological Safety Ladder. Make sure there will be no interruptions so everyone can focus on the task at hand. Most importantly, share the purpose of the session: to assess how safe the culture of the team is and identify specific areas to tackle.

1. Face the ladder

Have each member assess the level of psychological safety within the team. They should evaluate each of the statements using the following color code:

Yes = ✅ Green

Maybe =  ⚠️ Yellow

No = 🔴 Red

There are many ways to complete this part of the activity. If you are doing it in-person, people can ‘vote’ with color post-its. If you are running the session virtually, the MURAL template has sticky notes in yellow. Participants can keep them in yellow or turn their color to red or green, depending on their assessment.

Another option that works both for in-person and virtual sessions is to use Mentimer or Slido, where people can vote anonymously and the final results are captured live so everyone can see the final assessment.

Regardless of which approach you choose, always provide time for individual reflection before sharing it with the entire team.

Before moving to the second step, discuss the following:

- What steps are green, yellow, or red?

- Green steps: What success stories do we have? What can we learn?

- Red steps: What’s preventing us from doing better?

- Yellow steps: What will it take to make these green?

- How can each team member contribute?

2. Assess each level

Use the results of the initial activity to assess each level: Belonging, Diversity of Thought, and Innovation. Which one is strong, weak, or broken?

As a rule of thumb, considering the face the ladder activity results, 75+% is strong, 50-75% is weak, and <50% is broken.

Facilitate a group discussion.

What are the observations? What are the surprises and contradictions? What doesn’t make sense? What do the results say about the team? How do people feel about it? What makes them feel excited to help improve psychological safety? What makes them feel demotivated to tackle the issues at hand?

It’s important to avoid finger-pointing or feeling guilty. The purpose of this conversation is not to rehash what’s broken, but to identify areas for building a stronger team culture.

3. Repair the steps

It’s impossible to fix everything at once. Choose one step and focus the conversation on how to repair it.

Taking risks requires knowing that your team will be there for you. Imagine that they provide a safety net so you can take the leap without the fear of getting hurt. To create that feeling, team members need to agree on which behaviors they want in and which ones they want to get rid of.

Introduce this activity by setting the scene. Psychological safety is promoted by every team member; everyone plays a part in building the culture. This is an opportunity to reflect on both individual and collective behaviors – which ones do we want to start, stop, and continue doing?

First, allow time for self-reflection. Have each individual write what behavior they think they and others should have inside the safety net. And then ask them to capture which ones they don’t want.

Once everyone has finished, invite all team members to put the “behaviors we want” inside the safety net – what you want ‘in.’ Then they should put the “behaviors we don’t want” outside the safety net – what everyone wants ‘out’ of the culture.

Behaviors we want in and out to increase psychological safety

Facilitate a group discussion. Ensure the team is aligned in what they want ‘in’ and ‘out.’ This is a moment for everyone to be honest and sign a team contract.

Define specific ways, psychological safety exercises, or activities to help the team achieve the desired behaviors and get rid of unhealthy ones. Monitor progress and once one step is repaired, move on to fix the next one.

Mapping Psychological Safety – Key Watchouts

Promoting psychological safety is a two-way street. The same way that you can climb it, you can also move down – or fall.

Mapping your team culture is a crucial step to understanding what levels are strong, weak, or broken. I hope this framework helps you address psychological safety in a more structured, actionable manner.

Facilitating the Canvas is not difficult; the problem is creating a psychologically safe space to address fundamental issues affecting the team. Having a professional facilitator can make or break the conversation.

Think about the worst meeting or workshop your team had. What went wrong? What was missing? Maybe the team leader dominated the conversation, or someone got defensive when you tried to address a hot button topic. Did you solve the problem? Or did the team avoid having a candid conversation?

Creating a psychologically safe space is critical to address the ladder, especially if you have level 1 issues. An expert facilitator can make a huge difference. Hire an external one, tap into trained facilitators within your organization, or equip your team members to lead difficult conversations.

Reach out with any questions about the Psychological Safety Ladder or if you need help to facilitate candid, effective conversations using the canvas.

Download And Licensing Terms

The Psychological Safety Ladder Canvas was created by Gustavo Razzetti (©2021) it's licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

You are free to use, copy, and distribute it but have the obligation to give appropriate credit (author name, branding, website url, and link to the original material/ license – this article) and must indicate if any change was made.

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