Of Course Psychological Safety…But How?

A while back I asked the following question on Twitter (and Medium):

Briefly describe a concrete method/tool/practice you have used to maximize the level of psychological safety in your organization

I’m sorry it took so long to pull this together.

A huge thanks to Andrea Chiou, Jason Wolf (@jasonguywolf), Toby Maxwell-Lyte, Shahina Patel, Damien Ryan, Cory, @lmckeogh, Stacey Vetzal @svetzal, Ardita, Martin Aziz, Lynoure Braakman, Carl Tashian, Nick Brown (@nbrown02), Jon M Quigley, Paul Brown (@brownpf), Greg Hart, David Frahm. Rita Gunther McGrath, Keerthi Surapaneni, @dlawrence … and the many others who didn’t leave contact info.

  1. Pre-mortem exercises. It seems to make talking about failure and fear a bit easier for the team.
  2. The Core Protocols
  3. Tool fiveteenfive or officevibe. Pulse tools followed by conversations on the results.
  4. Blameless postmortems. Not a tool in the sense of software, more of a culture tool. From Code As Craft: https://t.co/A6UUJ0pFvo
  5. Respectful code reviews, avoiding ticket culture, supportive annual perf. reviews.
  6. Training in Non-Violent Communication (NVC)
  7. Perhaps too vague, but modeling psychologically safe behavior among leaders
  8. Asking for feedback in front of other members of the team and then showing a supportive reaction and thanking them. Leading by example and giving every team member a legitimate voice even when potentially unfavorable/uncomfortable is important. Huge correlation with shared understanding, but I am not sure trust is built over night, especially in new teams.
  9. Avoid cliques/crony circles. Low safety if you’re worried that not being in clique can jeopardize you.
  10. Celebrate non-feature work. If you only celebrate feature work, you fail to respect the work of the people “behind the scenes”. So, concretely, call out non-feature work wins in town halls, slack, etc.
  11. Slow down. When people are tired, stressed, and loaded, it is very hard for them to listen, acknowledge, and respect. If we’re pushed to the limit, we get snappy. Perhaps, in concrete terms, you can promote sane working hours and have regular unstructured time.
  12. In a 1:1 meeting I couldn’t avoid the fact that a team member was taking a lot of time off. I emphasized that her health takes precedence, sympathized with her discomfort by relating my own (indirect) experiences, and celebrated the reason for her discomfort: morning sickness. :)
  13. Facilitate a session with the team where each team member draws a graph representing the highs and lows during their life. E.g. high, graduated from uni. Low, straight after graduating couldn’t get a job. High got married, low parent died, high had first child. Etc.
  14. If people feel comfortable enough to really open up about some of the lows it can really help. Go first and set the trend by being really open and honest.”
  15. Beef hour — modelled on a habit of a group on the show ‘The Island’. On that show a group of men and a group of women, all strangers, were on separate islands and had to learn to work together, basically. One of the groups initiated a daily session in which all group members could vent and share their frustrations of the past 24 hours with each other. The aim was to prevent internalised negativity building up because that prevented them making progress. Sharing was accompanied by listening and taking action to address and reduce frustrations. The individuals therefore worked better, beef didn’t build and they understood and trusted each other. So, we took that idea, introduced it as a weekly session and I loved it. It was cringe and awkward the first time but we got comfy pretty quick.
  16. No work email on phones or personal devices.
  17. Always asking people to explain acronyms/domain terms even when I know them, so others in room don’t worry about asking a ‘stupid question’
  18. Saying “oh, let’s try it!”
  19. Always being self-deprecating and admitting failure first.
  20. Give new members on the team the benefit of the doubt when they propose idea.
  21. Ideally, intelligent failure would not be punished. When people fear punishment innovation is not incentivized.
  22. Retrospectives with no people managers allowed. Encouraging people to raise issues and swarm problems until resolved.
  23. Accept silence. Don’t jump into a conversation just to fill up space.
  24. Try to steer 1:1 conversations away from gripe sessions. If an issue involves another person, try to facilitate a discussion between everyone involved.
  25. Individual brainstorming before a discussion. Then individual sharing. Prevents one person from taking over the conversation
  26. Fund team retreats for both remote and co-located teams
  27. May seem too simple, but we create Spotify playlists for the team to check out. There’s something about music that shares a bit of yourself.
  28. I think the best thing I’ve done for results, is to be vulnerable myself, show a mistake and own it. Talk about it openly. Encourage others to do it as well.
  29. When there’s a failure or error, don’t blame a person. Ask how can we prevent that in the future, what did we learn. Repeat. Often. For at least 6–12 months. Then change can occur.
  30. Occasionally let teams embark on likely to fail efforts. Let’s say 80% chance. Socialize that the effort is likely to fail, but you trust people to take a shot. Either way you are good. If they fail — accept that, and talk about learning , and move on. If the don’t then celebrate. We strive to do certain things too often IMHO.
  31. Senior leaders need to acknowledge wins and failures. John you used the saying “success theater” before, and that is what you have to avoid. In my experience, success theater makes people feel unsafe. I’m really not sure why.
  32. Ensure we have sufficient “safety nets” (code repo, db backup, lint tools, processes to minimize human error, shared knowledge and more)
  33. Honest, open, and direct communication from leadership on down is the key… Takes a village.
  34. People collaboratively build what in counselling circles we’d call a “safe space agreement” (what being safe looks like to us, what are our shared values). The servant leader champions it. They iterate on it in retros when necessary. It’s published in the room. Team is encouraged to hold each other accountable to it. I’ve heard comments from people saying “That’s the person I want to be.” when they look at it after constructing it. Invariably it includes the required ingredients of forgiveness, trust, patience, communication, tolerance. Team unites behind it, and servant leader management respects it.
  35. Meet people where they are : meaning understand their past, their experiences , what are they asked to do , how are they measured, their personal motivations, what are they masters at and the context where they are set. Once I understand this, I use appreciate inquiry to work on areas that need improvement or change.
  36. Understand the baseline self-identity (professional, personal, organizational), cultural cohesion and equilibrium that exists in an org/team etc. Requires direct observation. Keep changes/improvements relatively close to those baselines. Larger ones will result in deep/long j curves and the resulting breakdown of psychological safety.
  37. Letting people talk and not allowing any immediate comments or responses. Usually this resulted in calm discussion on the topic later, instead of immediate knee-jerk reactions. Similarly, anyone being of finally allowed and encouraged. to add anything to the team meeting agenda. It seems to slowly add both courage and tolerance.
  38. Be the one to start the conversation. Don’t expect your team members to always bring safety concerns up to you. You have to ask and listen. Listen to what they say, cultivate a human relationship with them by leading with vulnerability — setting a standard of vulnerability. Listen and respond to the emotional and socal weather in meetings. Safety is a practice; it’s not an end state.
  39. I’ve used Personal Maps to help introduce all aspects of a person, so you get an appreciation for their career, personal life, values, etc. This has lead to building bonds with people who I never thought I would have something in common with (I distinctly remember someone anti-Agile having a much more open mindset once it was revealed we liked the same author) which in turn made working in a team great…there was something about sharing the full “you” that helped people get away from the mindset of “someone i work with”
  40. For retrospectives I start the session with a story about my own failures (past projects/products) that I’ve been a part of and ask the team for what I could have done differently.
  41. When someone offers a suggestion I always say “treat it as an experiment” rather than it being an “action”…typical we then stick up an ‘experiments’ board to go back to in 2 weeks time and have a Friday brown bag lunch discussion over”
  42. Model the behavior that is expected from the team even in difficult times.
  43. Set ground rules for team interpersonal behavior — not slogan ware but what the team defines as acceptable behavior with the ability to call team members out that violate.
  44. Anonymous channel to talk to HR, also allowing a reply without the anonymity being lost. This allows corners to be aired with less actual risk until trust is established
  45. I have found that Lego and the Johari Window exercise to be a wonderful addition to my toolkit; I often use it with new teams
  46. A series of transparent and apolitical processes that give structure to the organization. These processes must be used by everyone or by no one (apolitical) and should be continually open to ‘best fit’ revision by anyone (apolitical). They are a way of connecting the work of all people in a way that does not use formal authority while building on what works and shedding what doesn’t. Authorizes ‘best fit’ work by everyone and builds collective expectations into a non-political, non-coercive-power-based structure
  47. Having a team session where you establish working agreements. Do this anytime the team changes. This is the first ceremony for a new team, and sets the tone for many (possibly all) important things, including psychological safety. Not by saying “it’s safe” but by allowing and even requiring brainstorming and real debate about what everyone wants and needs from the team as a whole.
  48. Use the nominal group technique pioneered by Andy Van de Ven in which a leader gathers input from each member individually before going into discussion, then have the discussion. I also have a team effectiveness survey which can be used to assess the level of psychological safety and make interventions.
  49. Built heavy transparency running polls for immediate feedback on then internal social network using yammer during the discussions (all minor and major). and only stuck to topics and addressing them rather than using team names / member names.
  50. Asked each person to share how they personally like to receive and share feedback and attune team meetings to accomodate these aspects. Provided physical space (rant room) with toys/other items members could bring in and feel comfortable using the space with members or alone.
  51. Transparency of all projects being worked on in a single visual wall, allowing team members and team to self select during a quarterly event for projects/work they are interested in
  52. Remove perf reviews. Judge no one. Ignorance and failure point to flaws in the system, things that need fixing even if you have a new set of employees. All information is good information, but needs to be processed correctly before it can be useful.
  53. I, a manager, held private one-on-one meetings with my reports regularly. I intentionally modeled candor and vulnerability in those meetings, which in turn encouraged my reports to feel safe to express themselves with candor. I then encouraged the same candor between members of the team.
  54. Interview and candidate selection methods to ensure suitable selection of employees, those employees that are likely to thrive in our organization.
  55. The leadership should model the taking of risks and the response within the range of social acceptance of the company
  56. Some companies are using Hogan Assessments, typically more at Exec level, but they have shared some useful materials: http://www.hoganassessments.com/thought-leadership/ Their assessments measure normal personality characteristics, career derailment risks, core value drivers, cognitive style, and decision-making.”