How to build Psychological Safety within a team

Do you have any examples of rituals and artefacts you have used, or seen others use, to build psychological safety on teams?

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I’d be super interested to hear what good ways others have found, the thing I’ve found to work best so far has been example. For example, I publicly presented my own 360 feedback report and went through all my pains with hearing some of the things said about me, but also my thought process of how I accepted it and turned it into an actionable item to develop myself. The idea was to make everyone more aware and prepared for having to read feedback about themselves, but I also wanted to demonstrate that it really is ok to talk about difficult things etc. I hope my short explanation makes any sense… :smiley:

This is from my personal and professional life equally, but I always try to talk about my anxiety disorder and experience with almost burning myself out as openly as I can. But only when it’s actually relevant to not throw it at people’s faces every chance I have. In HR/PeopleOps/what-ever-you-call-it, I’ve found this to be helpful as it makes it easier for others to talk about these kinds of sensitive issues, because to me it’s not a big deal, it’s part of life etc.

My point is that the best thing I’ve come up with has been making sure I always react as positively (or at least neutrally) to mistakes and problems and all things that may be difficult for people to bring up and talk about. And try to also encourage and remind everyone else to do so also. I wish I had a more interesting answer, but sorry, I don’t :sweat_smile:

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@Minna_Lantto this is such a thoughtful and helpful response! Thank you for sharing your experience so openly in this forum. Your description of having the courage to be vulnerable and openly share feedback you have received in your 360 really rings true for me. When I reflect on the teams I have been on that were most effective, they prioritised openness and celebrated learning.

Sharing your 360 feedback with the team and actions you might try is very brave and also a reflection of the trust you had already built on that team. I love this approach though I know not everyone is at that point. Another ritual I have seen work is something we call the 4x4. Each team meeting, one person gets four minutes and four slides to share something about their personal life. It is amazing how much it brings people together, creates understanding and empathy and just takes 4-5 minutes in the meeting.

Side note, I noticed that meetings started to begin on time when we did this consistently because others didn’t want to miss out on the 4x4. :wink:

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@Josh oh my thank you for sharing that! 4x4 sounds so cool, something innovative like this is exactly something I wanted to hear. “Here are the 4 cutest pictures I took of my dog in the past week” :laughing: I will definitely try to implement something like that for at least some of our meetings :muscle:

I’m so interested in this as it’s coming up all the time at the moment. We are currently driving for a culture of inclusion at my work and so psychological safety is fundamental to that. I don’t really have any great tips at the moment but we are starting with educating our leaders on inclusive leadership. I’m interested in what others think and love the 4x4 idea Josh! Totally going to steal that one

My personal belief is that the best way to build psychological safety is to create a level of vulnerability and authenticity amongst people. And your 4x4 idea is genius!!! Love it.
One of the things we have used with our clients is getting everyone to fill in a “working with me” manual. It is a set of questions people answer like: What really motivates me? What drives me batty? What do I look like when I am stressed? And what help do I need when I am like that? What feedback have I received in the past that has stung? etc.

It really brings the conversation to a whole other level of depth and there are so many “aha” moments around people’s behaviour that it works really well.

Great question by the way!!!

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I love all of these responses!

I agree with your initial point, I think leading with vulnerability (and empathy) is key, I’m always happy to share my anxieties and (sometimes painful) experiences in the hope that it inspires others to do the same.

@Minna_Lantto, glad the 4x4 idea is helpful. Wish I could say it was mine but I have stolen shamelessly off my brilliant colleague, @chloe. Have you done one with your four cutest dog pictures yet? I will be curious to hear what you learn and how you iterate on the idea.

@JVader it is definitely something I see coming up a lot more often as orgs become flatter and there is increased focus on enabling teams to execute effectively in a fast changing environment.

@MajaPaleka, I love the ‘Working with me manual’. We have experimented with that here as well. I think we call it a User Manual (we are a product company). :wink:

When I recently joined a new team, we all took 20 minutes to complete this ‘user manual’ and then shared a few highlights. It was actually really valuable in heading off some potential conflicts. It sounded cheesy to me at first but is definitely something I take the time to do on any new team now.

@CSJAY your description of walking the talk when it comes to being vulnerable is so spot on. When I think of some of the most inspiring leaders I have worked with or admire from afar, they have this attribute in spades. It takes real self confidence to be willing to share those painful or even embarrassing experiences but it is that openness that seems to draw me in and make me want to work with and follow those leaders.

Yes! Like @Josh and @MajaPaleka , we’ve used User Manuals in our team for a long time – we ask newcomers to fill them out as part of their team on-boarding, and then share them with the team once they feel ready to. It’s definitely a nice, safe way for people to share a little bit without having to demand the floor early in their tenure (a lot of people feel uncomfortable talking about themselves even at the vest of times), and I know that I look up our user manuals from time to time to remind myself of people’s snack preferences!

As a counterpoint, I found Camille Fournier’s article about this practice (specifically when users by managers with their direct reports) useful:

You are writing them presumably to shortcut problems that arise when people misunderstand your behavior or when they act in a way you don’t like or otherwise violate some expectations that you believe are within your rights to set.

and also

First of all, be real: you probably do not know yourself as well as you think you know yourself. It’s the Dunning-Kruger of self-awareness. If you’ve gone through any deep coaching, self-awareness practice, or therapy, what you learn over time is how hard it is to be 100% honest about yourself and your motivations.

I also know that for me, a user manual is a good way to communicate because I prefer to write than talk – but for others, writing is painful, particularly if they’re being asked to write in their non-dominant language.

In case it’s useful to others, here are of the questions on ours:

  • What does your perfect working day look like?
  • What’s your favourite method of communication?
  • What are your quirks?
  • What qualities do you particularly value in the people you work with?
  • What things do people sometimes misunderstand about you?
  • What stresses you out / frustrates you at work?
  • What weaknesses do you know you have that you’d like your team members to recognise and help you out with?
  • How do you take your meetings?
  • What makes you grumpy?
  • How will I know if you’re grumpy? How can other people help?
  • What makes you happy?
  • How do you like to receive feedback?
  • When do you like to receive feedback?
  • How do you like to be recognised for awesomeness?
  • What name should we use for you? What name should we never, ever use?
  • What’s your favourite snack or treat?
  • How do you take your coffee / tea / other hot beverage?
  • What about… cold beverages?
  • Any dietary needs or things we should consider if we’re planning a team lunch or event?
  • Please insert a picture of your cat / dog / child / lunch below.
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Love the Medium article you shared @virginia! I totally see her point and very much agree if it is a self serving, get out of jail free card, then misses the point. And yes, blind spots are a massive issue.

I heard at BCG that they actually get your team mates to write a user manual for you - and then that is shared with a new starter. So you get to see some of those blind spots and it is also much more useful as it is a much better description of your actual behaviour vs your inner perception of it.

I think both are good - and probably a different set of questions need to be on both. We definitely should be better at answering things like “what is my perfect day, What makes me happy etc?” and then the team to fill in a blank on things like " When I am stressed it looks like…"

Such a good conversation about this - thank you!

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Here’s a very simple technique that might help in group meetings such as retrospectives. I find the Prime Directive useful to reiterate at the beginning to set the tone and remind people that we are seeking to learn and not to blame:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

https://retrospectivewiki.org/index.php?title=The_Prime_Directive

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@virginia thanks for sharing the questions! That is super useful. I also really appreciate the counterpoint you present.

I reckon this is where 360 feedback could be useful in helping people become more self-aware and reduce blindspots. If only more organisations made that type of feedback accessible to their their employees. :wink:

@MajaPaleka that is a really interesting approach that you heard BCG was taking. I think that teams would have to have established a fairly strong sense of psychological safety before having individuals write each other’s user manuals. Otherwise, I could see it being quite confronting or inaccurate. That said, I love it as an iteration!

@Joanne thanks for sharing the Prime Directive approach for use in retros. How have you seen this done? Is it a leader just making this statement at the beginning or is there something else involved?

Hi Josh,

Definitely a really important question.

Given the theme of the responses has been about vulnerability, I thought it might be relevant to share (part 1) of a blog article I wrote just last week (part 2, the ‘how’ is coming out next week): https://www.theleadershipsphere.com.au/blog/2019/07/18/vulnerability-in-leadership-more-than-just-a-buzzword/

I also interviewed a colleague about psychological here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJLWgKYKUFo&t=63s

Hope that helps.

Phil

Thanks for sharing @virginia, I love this!