Challenging Safely requires a positive intent and care in the delivery.


Challenger safety, the final and most complex stage in the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Framework by Timothy R. Clark,  always assumes a positive intent and care in the delivery.

When we talk about being able to challenge the status quo, we are not giving licence for people to fire verbal rockets at each other, or pull the rug from under people’s feet.  

But we are also not talking about feeling comfortable or having every one of our suggestions agreed with either. 

This stage is complex because there are multiple perspectives.  You could be the challenger, or the challengee (the person being challenged).

To be challenged can be uncomfortable.  
To challenge can be an act of vulnerability.  

Whether you are the challenger or challengee two crucial elements will ensure this is constructive and not destructive. 

Let’s explore. 
Psychological Safety is defined as an environment of rewarded vulnerability.  Environments where it is safe to speak up, to learn, to share ideas and thoughts, to admit mistakes and to challenge the status quo.  

Essentially environments which enable people to grow and bring their best self to the team which equates to high performance, innovation and better organisational and customer outcomes. (Yes, all of that, which is why it’s a super power!)

Psychological Safety & Psychological Health & Safety is Not A Shield
As human beings, we have a natural inclination to over correct, and there’s a theme emerging where psychological safety, and psychological health and safety (not the same thing, but there’s a thread) are being used as a shield for moments that make us uncomfortable. 

Late last year I shared a post on LinkedIn that addressed the particular theme of discomfort in an effort to clarify and highlight the risk of overplaying the shield. I provide that and additional content below for clarity on this important point.

“I feel uncomfortable when I’m challenged, does that mean my team is not psychologically safe?”

So, if someone on your team, or your leader – disagrees with you, thinks there’s a better way, or challenges your thinking on a point – does that mean that it’s compromising your psychological safety?

There’s a whole lot of nuances to that point (which I unpack below), but one of the quickest ways to check in during these moments is to ask yourself:

Am I feeling comfortably uncomfortable (because I’m having my thinking respectfully challenged or being asked to see another perspective or I feel a little embarrassed because I’m usually perfect and someone is now questioning me) or am I feeling unsafe (I’ve just been humiliated, verbally punished, excluded, personally attacked or hung out to dry.)?

To the nuances – HOW we are challenged and the INTENT of the challenge are crucial.

If we challenge someone rudely, brashly, harshly, or to make them look foolish, to get “one up” on them, or to rattle them during a meeting or presentation – well that’s not challenging with care or respect.  And according to Adam Grant’s recent share on this topic – “that just makes you an a**hole.”

To Challenge Safely:

1.  Check that your intent is to genuinely, sincerely, help someone or something improve; and
2:  That the way you challenge is respectful and careful and shows that you care personally.

Kim Scott in her book Radical Candor says that we need to care personally and challenge directly. 

Caring Personally
What if you really don’t like your co-worker/leader/subordinate? How can you ‘care personally’? 

It’s ok, you don’t have to love everyone you work with – but you do have to care about the words you use and the principles of humanity and that you are not humiliating, embarrassing or punishing them.

And, absolutely check in with your intent.  It’s a little more challenging if you don’t like the person personally, so this step will ensure you swallow the bitter pill and do the right thing.

Review your delivery and communication style and what you know of this person’s own style?  I spent years in my early married life reminding my beloved Dutchy “it’s not the message it’s the delivery”.  As I err on the warm and fluffy side my jaw would drop at times as I heard horrifyingly brutal honesty. Yet, some people loved it. Some not so.  So read your audience and adapt your style accordingly – others may not appreciate the same style you do and you ARE in a workplace, not at a private gathering so check yourself and meet the expectations of workplace behaviour. 

Challenge Directly
Challenge Directly means talking to a person not about them. 
It means having the courage to step into a conversation with respect and a positive intent, to provide feedback that will genuinely help that individual or the organisation. 
It means being uncomfortable if delivering this message is not your favourite thing or if you are the challengee. 

Uncomfortable V Unsafe
Sitting with discomfort is an important part of individual growth and there will be times in the workplace when our level of comfort is stretched… as it should be.

If we’re too comfortable we stagnate.

But there’s a difference between being comfortably uncomfortable and being unsafe.

So next time you’re feeling uneasy about a team or leader moment stop and ask yourself: “Am I feeling comfortably uncomfortable – or am I feeling unsafe.”

You should talk it through regardless, but identifying what you’re feeling will help you ensure your language is appropriate and you aren’t using psychological safety as a shield. 

Sitting With Discomfort
Dr Adam Fraser in his book Strive – Embracing the Gift of Struggle tells us we need to learn to sit with discomfort, and that this struggle is actually a gift. 

So instead of fighting the feelings – identify and learn to sit with the discomfort of them. 

And celebrate your growth as a result.

Challenger Safety and The Art of Respectful Disagreement is covered in depth in my Advanced Psychological Safety workshop and as part of the Safe and Effective Leaders Development Program.  

Intro to Psychological Safety – Tanya Heaney-Voogt (

Advanced Psychological Safety – Tanya Heaney-Voogt (

Safe and Effective Leadership – Tanya Heaney-Voogt (

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Tanya Heaney-Voogt

Director & Principal Consultant
MBA, ICFACC, MAHRI, Dip Mgt, Dip Coaching, Prosci® Certified Change Practitioner

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