Have you ever wanted to say something in a team meeting but didn’t because you were worried about looking stupid or being judged or losing your job? If so, you might have experienced what we call a “psychological safety deficit” – a key barrier to the kind of robust discussion that is needed in today’s complex environment.
In Part One of this series we examined why cognitive diversity is essential to effective decision-making but can lead to conflict. We need to create a safe container within which to roster healthy and robust discussion and avoid “groupthink”. In Part Two we consider how to diagnose a psychological safety deficit and what to do about it.
How do you know if your team has a psychological safety deficit? Here are some things to look for:
- Team participants are too “nice” (too much on guard)
- One person dominates conversations “taking all the oxygen from the room”
- The team agrees too often and too quickly
- The team moves to solutions too quickly without robust discussion
- “Real” conversations happen in the parking lot after the meeting
- There is lots of gossip and backtalk outside of team meetings
- The team experiences high turnover and low morale
- Team members advise (in person or in surveys) that they feel disempowered, not heard, not respected by the team (or the leader)
If you suspect there may be a problem, here are some suggestions for how to build a stronger container for dialogue and improve psychological safety:
- Take regular opportunities to build team rapport and skills
Facilitate conversations early on and then regularly throughout the team’s life to check in with people, build trust, acknowledge things that are going well and things that can be improved, and reiterate expectations.
- Demonstrate leadership by walking the talk
The leader: [Note 3]
- Models behaviours that invite / welcome contrary views
- Examines ideas with curiosity and without judgment
- Shows understanding and refrains from blaming
- Is willing to admit when he/she is wrong
- Is willing to take personal risks
- In inclusive in decision-making
- Does not use favoritism – or create “in” and “out” team members
- Does not tolerate abusive, controlling or harassing behaviour and draws clear lines based on “climate goals” [Note 4]
- Monitors and celebrates ongoing learning (successes and failures)
The leader also uses individual personal coaching before, during and after meetings to encourage individuals to share their views which will be valuable to the group; models welcoming behaviour when they do so; provides positive feedback afterwards.
- Use creative facilitation tools and processes for meeting together:
- Break up into smaller groups and report out (this may feel safer for some people than the larger group)
- Use storytelling to illustrate ideas
- Consult other sources for creative process ideas [Note 1]
- Use other methods of meeting together including Circle, Open Space, World Café [Note 2]
- Try the Six thinking hats approach to encourage members to see the problem from a different perspective
- Use provocative questions to deal with the “elephant in the room” such as “what is an idea that will get you fired?”
- Invite quieter individuals to offer their views
- Use team meeting minutes/notes to reflect all views in positive way
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility.
- Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.
It will take time to build the kind of trust that is needed for team members to feel safe and to participate fully, but it is a worthwhile investment if you want engaged people and better problem-solving.
Note 3: Google has worked hard on this issue. A helpful list of tips here: https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/understanding-team-effectiveness/steps/foster-psychological-safety/
Note 4: “Climate Goals” are collaboratively designed goals of behaviour that affect everyday work life. An example is: https://www.bcnu.org/AboutBcnu/Documents/bcnu-climate-goals.pdf