How to make Challenger Safety a thing in your team

In the book ‘The Four Stages of Psychological Safety’, Timothy R Clark unpacks how to develop a team that feels safe to challenge the norms. Challenger safety is the fourth and final rung on the ladder. With inclusion safety, learner safety and contributor safety being the first three.  

Inclusion safety is about how well the team includes outsiders and how they are integrated into the team. Leaner safety is how much growth, development and learning are encouraged and adopted. And contributor safety relates to how safe people feel to contribute and to do their best work. And to be creative and innovative. To think outside the box. To try new things. 

Challenger safety is about how safe team members feel to speak up. How safe they feel to offer ideas, opinions, and views. And to be creative and innovative. To think outside the box. To try new things. Without the fear of resentment, ridicule, or rejections.  

So, how does a leader achieve that in their team? 

  1. Make it expected 

This is an important first step. Leaders need to be able to state clearly that they would like to be challenged. That they hold the expectation that their team should feel safe to come up with creative solutions to problems. Leader languaging should be around expecting input and expecting their team to challenge the norms. 

Creating the expectation of input is providing a license to innovate. That license might include incremental innovation, or it might be innovation at a disruption level. It might take the Google approach that gives team members thinking time as part of their work, to come up with great ideas and then to present them. Gmail is one idea that came from thinking time, and Google being willing to be challenged on their business norms. 

  1. Make it acceptable 

And I get that this one seems counter intuitive, given that as a leader, you have made challenger safety an expectation. Here is the challenge for leaders, as I hear during coaching sessions – team members that have a license to innovate take that license and innovate. They do come up with ideas. They do challenge the norms, and they do offer solutions to problems that may not have been thought of previously. 

And that can be tough for a leader. Leaders can be inundated with improvement ideas. This really can be overwhelming. Seriously. At some stage during the development of challenger safety, leaders think that ‘you need to be careful what you ask for’. Which is cool. It means your team is committed, not just interested, and they feel safe enough to be part of the future growth of the team.  

The way to think about this one is to consider the Tuckman model of team development, from forming to storming to norming to performing. Here is the thing about that model – it shows that during the storming stage, the team culture deteriorates (drops) for a period, until the team can come out the other side, and make challenger safety the norm (Google that model, if you are not aware of it). What that model is really saying is that during the storming phase, there are issues at a team level, due to everyone wanting to raise their ideas and opinions. This stage should be called brainstorming because that’s what it is. It is a phase where leaders need to have an open mind and an open heart.  

And leaders need to not react with negative emotions when they are overwhelmed with the ideas and opinions offered by their team. This is where emotional intelligence comes into it. 

  1. Make it radical 

Making challenger safety real is to do it with radical candour (from the book of the same name by Kim Scott). In that book, Scott unpacks the most important thing about psychological safety, and that is about having conversations with radical candour. Which means challenging directly but challenging with high care factor.  

For the leader, the biggest challenge (so to speak) with challenger safety is sharing with team members that some ideas won’t fly, and why. This is an important part of the challenge safety process, as there will be ideas that aren’t right for the team or that aren’t right at the time. It is how these conversations are handled that will determine whether the team members continue to challenge or if they go into an ‘it’s all too hard to say anything’ mode. If these conversations are not handled well, it will feel like rejection, ridicule or resentment. 

The opposite of radical candour is manipulative insincerity. That is, to not challenge and to not care about the team member. These conversations have a lack of sincerity and a lack of specificity about them, and the team member leaves the conversation with more questions than answers about their idea or opinion. This happens when a leader beats around the bush when sharing that the idea or innovation isn’t/won’t be implemented for whatever reason. 

Want to learn more about how to implement challenger safety in your team? 

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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