Organisations around the globe are turning their eyes toward ‘Psychological Safety’.  This is partly due to increasing focus on psychosocial risks still ever present in workplaces around the globe, and partly due to the impact of changing the way organisations have had to work due to managing to Covid-19. As a Psychologist, not only do I believe that this focus is absolutely necessary but it is the foundation of sustainable high performance in teams and organisations.

While achieving Psychological Safety is no easy task, Psychological Safety is in itself not enough to achieve sustainable high performance.  A high performing team or organisation can only occur when we cultivate both a culture of Constructive Accountability and a culture of Psychological Safety.  Accountability without Psychological Safety typically results in toxic fear driven organisational culture resulting in the presence of significant psychosocial risks. Unfortunately, these types of teams and organisations, while toxic and fear driven can actually deliver high performance for a short period of time.  But to reach a sustainable level of high performance we need both Psychological Safety and Constructive Accountability.

But let’s be clear, this is no easy achievement and is essentially the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.  Like climbing Mount Everest the journey to the pinnacle of Psychological Safety and Constructive Accountability is extremely challenging, fraught with potential risk and catastrophe, and requires significant investment of time and money. However, the resulting outcome is extraordinary and will transform any team and organisation to a higher level of functioning and performance.

We have developed a pathway to achieve both Psychological Safety as well as Constructive Accountability (The Summit of Everest) which I share below and hopefully provides clarity on the possible route to take.

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

Sir Edmund Percival Hillary (July 20, 1919 – January 11, 2008)

Let Us Be Your Sherpa

In the following document we will describe the most direct route to the summit but acknowledge that this is not the only route and many organisations and teams have a different starting point and take a different route.  However, the core levels ultimately remain the same, in other words to get to the summit one still is required to pass through the various altitude levels. 

The image below refers to four levels and typical camps on the route to the summit.  We will examine each level in more detail below and outline practical strategies to implement at each level.  Each level corresponds to a sequential step in both Psychological Safety as well as Accountability. Let’s first define each of the sequential steps.

The Four Levels of Moving to the Highest State of Psychological Safety and Constructive Accountability


Levels of Psychological Safety

Psychological Safety is defined as an environment where people can speak up, raise concerns, share personal challenges and say “no” without fear of negative consequences or negative judgement. Psychological Safety is NOT about feeling comfortable (i.e. discomfort = ‘not psychologically safe’).  This is a very unhelpful definition of Psychological Safety.  Instead, we need to see discomfort as part and parcel of shifting Psychological Safety and developing the self-efficacy to speak up.  Psychological Safety is essentially a multifaceted experience of the environment.  Timothy Clark describes four levels of Psychological Safety that we have adapted to the above framework.

Inclusion & Diversity Safety: This level is the foundation of Psychological Safety and is fundamentally about acceptance.  Do team members feel accepted regardless of gender, age, cultural background, experience, attributes, accent etc. Many organisations provide diversity and inclusion training and development for the purpose of facilitating Inclusion & Diversity Safety.  The primary measure of success at this level is ‘absolute acceptance’.

Learner & Feedback Safety: This level builds on acceptance and is essentially where there is an environment that encourages learning, that views mistakes as part and parcel of improvement, and where feedback is expected and sought out to facilitate self-awareness. The primary measure of success at this level is ‘accurate self-awareness’.

Contributor & Sharing Safety: This level of safety is where team members are able to share openly their views, perspectives and opinions with no fear of negative judgement or negative consequences.  Team members seek to understand others with genuine curiosity and care.  The primary measure of success at this level is ‘deep connection’.

Challenger & Debate Safety: This level is where conflict and disagreement is perceived as an essential element of making better decisions and reaching the best outcomes for all. Team members invite dialogue and embrace disagreement.  At times this may even result in rigorous and emotional debate but with the intention of working through the conflict to reach an agreed outcome.  The primary measure of success at this level is ‘outstanding decisions’.

Levels of Constructive Accountability

Compliant Accountability: Compliant Accountability is a state where individuals follow the rules because they are expected to follow the rules and do so to avoid negative consequences.  A possible outcome of a compliant accountability culture is individuals not being compliant when they are not observed or where no negative consequences implemented.  The primary measure of success is high levels of compliance.

Personal Accountability: This level of accountability is a state where individuals take pride in their work, they hold themselves to account to delivering to the standard and quality required and will do the right thing because they personally want to do the right thing. Individuals do not yet hold others accountable.  A possible outcome is organisations rely on personal accountability to deliver results, and don’t necessarily hold under-performers to account to the extent actually required. The primary measure of success is high levels of individual performance.

Team Accountability: This level of accountability is a state where team members hold both themselves and others to account in their team and seek to be held to account by others in their team. Team members are given permission to hold each other to account to the agreed way of working, agreed standards, agreed behaviours and expectations.  The likely outcome of this state is a significant shift in ‘feeling accountable’ within the team and should see a visible and measurable improvement in standards, behaviours and quality. The primary measure of success will be a higher performing state of the team.

Organisational Accountability: This level of accountability is the highest level of accountability where every person in the organisation has clarity on what is expected of them and is comfortable being held to account to the standard expected regardless of positional power, level or role in the organisation.  There is a tangible and experienced feeling of accountability across every level in the organisation where every person holds themselves to account, team members hold each other to account, and every person is able to hold any other person accountable to the standard expected.  The primary measure of success is high levels of efficiency, effectiveness and delivery to the quality required.

From Base Camp to the Summit

Level One: Acclimatisation (Base Camp 5400m)

Level One (Acclimatisation) refers to a base level of both Psychological Safety and Accountability i.e. Inclusion & Diversity Safety and Compliant Accountability.  Like base camp on the way to Everest this level is necessary requirement before moving to the next levels. Furthermore, there is a need to acclimatise to the conditions and the environment before progressing further up the mountain.  Similarly, this state of ‘Absolute Acceptance’ of each other’s differences needs to be embedded and visibly practiced.  Level One interventions and actions include:

Level One: Acclimatisation

(Inclusion & Diversity Safety and Compliant Accountability)

Employee Interventions

Leader Interventions

Team Interventions

  • Self-awareness & boundaries
  • Understanding self and others
  • Personal coaching / support on developing strategies for resilience
  • Clarity of expectations (behaviours, quality & standards)
  • Clarity of the vision and purpose of the team
  • Team profiling tools e.g. iEQ9; HBDI; Print etc.
  • Develop a Team Charter with shared expectations
  • Embedding ‘curiosity’ as a team practice


Level Two: Critical Verification (Lhotse Wall 6400m)

Level Two (Critical Verification) refers to a state where the team needs to test out the level of acceptance by experimenting with attempts to provide feedback to each other and hold one-self accountable for good decisions.  Lhotse Wall is essentially a second base camp where the climbers can now really test whether their preparation on all levels has been sufficient to progress further.  This level is essential to verify that the team is ready to engage in and embed a learning and feedback culture. Level Two interventions include:

Level Two: Critical Verification

(Learning & Feedback Safety and Personal Accountability)

Employee Interventions

Leader Interventions

Team Interventions

  • Active Bystander Intervention Training
  • Regular feedback and coaching sessions with the leader
  • Comprehensive development plan with clear stretch goals and objectives
  • Regularly request feedback from the leader
  • Emotional Intelligence development
  • Clarity of decision rights and accountabilities across team
  • Providing regular positive and negative feedback to both individuals and team
  • Activation of Failure i.e. expect failure
  • Hold team members to account to the agreed expectations
  • Regularly request feedback from the team
  • Embed continuous improvement practices at the end of every week
  • Regular lessons learnt activities and mapping up of failures and mistakes
  • Agree on ‘language’ and response to errors
  • Quarterly error audits to understand errors occurring (James Reason)


Level Three: Crucial Decisions (Death Zone 8000m)

Level Three (Crucial Decisions) is a fundamental shift from personal accountability to team accountability.  This requires both clarity on the agreed ways of working and permission to hold each other to account, as well as the ability to speak up without fear of negative consequences of judgement.  The Death Zone on Everest is the final stop before the attempt at the summit (only another 850m in altitude).  At this altitude the climbers need to make very good decisions about what they do next because bad decisions very often lead to death.  Similarly, at level three the actions of individuals can cause significant negative impact on the work done to get to this level. The Level Three environment is now seeking contribution and sharing in the context of each and every team member having express permission to hold each and every other member of the team to account on the agreed way of working and agreed standards.  Level Three interventions include:

Level Three: Crucial Decisions 

(Contributor & Sharing Safety and Team Accountability)

Employee Interventions

Leader Interventions

Team Interventions

  • Cultivating personal confidence through development programs or personal coaching
  • Learning to have difficult conversations and upskilling in the necessary skills and strategies
  • Demonstrate curiosity & care
  • Holding themselves to account to above the line behaviours
  • Establish agreed ways of working and expectations of the team for the team
  • Develop agreed ways to hold each other to account in a respectful and caring way with clarity
  • Clarity on decision methodology i.e. when seeking input and when not
  • Coaching individuals on how to hold others to account
  • Seek contributions and input at every opportunity
  • Share openly and seek to be held to account
  • Agree on how to demonstrate ‘curiosity’ and agreed team questions
  • Establish ‘space’ both physically and in the calendar for conversations and sharing
  • Reward and encourage the holding of others to account
  • Celebrate constructive accountability and authentic sharing


Level Four: Disciplined Performance (The Summit 8850m)

Level Four (Disciplined Performance) is the final state and extends on both the level of Psychological Safety and Accountability.  In terms of Psychological Safety, the sharing and contribution now allows for differing views and disagreements but has enough Psychological safety to not take the disagreement personally but instead work through the disagreement to an agreed outcome.  This final state of Psychological Safety generates better decisions and ultimately leads to higher performance.  This level of Psychological Safety also completely accepts and allows people to set and manage personal boundaries.  In terms of accountability, the primary difference between team accountability and organisational accountability is the agreement and permission to hold each other to account, regardless of level or positional power, now extends to the entire organisation. Level Four interventions include:

Level Four: Disciplined Performance 

(Challenger & Debate Safety and Organisational Accountability)

Employee Interventions

Leader Interventions

Team Interventions

  • Developing skills in constructive dialogue and debate
  • Develop confidence and skills in negotiation and conflict resolution
  • Holding themselves to account to above the line behaviours
  • Visible behavioural discipline at all levels
  • Clarity of methodology for assessing errors and consistent application of consequences at all levels
  • Embed a mindset of experimentation
  • Visible demonstration of effective conflict resolution through debate and dialogue
  • Disciplined communications, meetings and behaviours
  • An established practice of constructive challenge
  • Regular ‘Red team’ activities to challenge decisions
  • Regular constructive dialogue & debate encouraged in team settings
  • Visible practice of holding self and others to account


What are the First Steps?

Gaining clarity on where your team and/or organisation is on the Psychological Safety-Constructive Accountability Framework is a very good starting point. We can provide your team and/or your organisation with the tools and methodology to assess current state.

In our experience, most organisations are between Level One and Level Two.  Very few organisations are truly at Level Three, but may have pockets of teams at Level Three.

Your organisation may already have current evidence that could be utilised to draw conclusions as to the current state.  We recommend that teams and/or organisations seek to reach an agreed assessment of current state. 

Once the current state has been determined, then the next step is to define the interventions required to either embed the current state or start the transition to the next level.

Interventions typically need to occur at the individual level, leader level, team level and organisational level (i.e. systems, processes and policies). The third step is to implement the interventions followed by assessing and measuring impact and outcomes.

To summarise the recommended first steps:

  1. Assess and agree on current state.
  2. Identify critical interventions across individual, leader, team and organisation.
  3. Implement interventions and assess and measure success.
  4. Reassess current state to verify shift/change.

How can TLC Solutions be your Sherpa to the Summit?

Our team of experienced Psychologists have the expertise, the tools, and the experience to support the transformation of the Psychological Safety and Constructive Accountability in your team and/or organisation.

In particular we have three offerings will support your team and organisation transform. Firstly, we have an established Culture of Accountability Leadership Program that has proven to significantly shift organisational performance and equip leaders with the requisite knowledge and tools.

Secondly, our High Performing Team program (and HPET® Team Diagnostic Tool) provides leaders and teams with a well-defined and structured methodology to work through the levels of Psychological Safety and Constructive Accountability. 

Third, we have recently developed a comprehensive suite of Psychological Safety programs for leaders and teams to provide the knowledge, understanding and tools to transform Psychological Safety in their team.

Our team would welcome the opportunity to talk through how we can support your journey to the summit.

About the author

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.

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