Three Simple Exercises to Build Psychological Safety at Work

Psychological Safety & High Performing Teams

Three Simple Exercises to Build Psychological Safety at Work

The Three Fundamentals of Psychological Safety

It’s a long and worthwhile journey to build high levels of psychological safety in your organisation, and much of the hard work involves excellent leadership, clarity of direction, effective support, vulnerability, curiosity and much more.

However there are some simple exercises that you can carry out with your teams that directly build psychological safety in the workplace. See below for four effective exercises and practices to build psychological safety, cohesion and performance.

1 – Run a Values and Behaviours Workshop

Possessing a common set of values and behaviours provides team members with a great deal of safety and security, and enables them to deliver and make decisions without worrying about whether they’re “allowed to” or if it’s the “right” thing to do.

Carry out this workshop with your team to establish and refine the main values that all members of your team endorse. It’s important that the team work together to define these values, as they need to be “owned” by the team, not imposed from above.

From these values, extrapolate the behaviours, with your team members, that reflect these values and help the team work together to achieve their goals.

For example, “blamelessness” could be one of your team values, and a behaviour that reflects this could be “Taking collective responsibility for mistakes.”

Creating the behaviours that reflect the values creates actionable, understandable, real things that team members can do in order to contribute to the team’s culture.

Sharing common expectations of behaviour is fundamental for psychological safety in a team, because team members will know what is expected of themselves, and what is expected of each other.

As a result of carrying out this Values and Behaviours workshop:

  • Team members understand what is expected of them and others.
  • Team cohesion and performance improves.
  • The team are aligned to the values of the organisation.
  • Boundaries regarding acceptable behaviours are agreed.
  • The degree of psychological safety of team members increases.

values and behaviours to build psychological safety

2 – Hold a “Fear Conversation”

Whilst psychological safety is not about existential or external threats, it is very much about being able to show vulnerability and emotion. This exercise encourages that behaviour and builds psychological safety by making openness a norm for the team. It also provides some actionable outcomes to deal with real-world risks and threats.

On a white board, flip chart or jamboard, create three columns – one for “Fear”, one for “Mitigations” and one for “Target Norm”.

In the fear column, write down some of the fears that you and team members possess in the team, such as “missing deadlines” or “making mistakes”. Ask everyone to contribute, but make sure that as the team leader, you go first. Demonstrating your own fears and being explicit about them will enable your team members to do so.

Then, as a team, come up mitigations to these fears, which consist of practical things team members can do to reduce the risk of the fears becoming real. Or, in case those fears are inevitable, instead write down ways that the impact can be reduced.

Finally, discuss and write down your “Target Norm” – this is your team’s utopia, where “everyone can make mistakes without fear of repercussions” or “we never miss a deadline”. This helps the team cohere around common goals and aspirations, which is essential to building psychological safety.

The fear conversation is a great way to build psychological safety

3 – Run Retrospectives

Carrying out regular retrospectives to find the systemic root cause of failures, problems or mistakes is one of the most valuable things you can do as a leader in your journey to building psychological safety. Even if someone has made a mistake, it’s important to find out how and why the mistake was made, without apportioning blame or embarassment.

It’s also important to carry out retrospectives for success too – they’re not just for when things go wrong! Celebrating success as a team is as important as facing failure as a team.

Ensure that any retrospective is given enough time and is carried out in an appropriate setting. Team members need to feel able to be honest and as vulnerable as possible, so carry it out in a non-public area and certainly don’t record it if you’re carrying out over a video call.

Highlight, discuss, and deep dive into the things that went well, the things you need to change as a team, any lessons learned or anything still to be discovered.

Identifying root causes of failure without apportioning blame is crucial to psychological safety, because team members need to know that they can take intelligent risks without fear of repercussions, humiliation or punishment.

Retrospective template

These exercises, and many more, are contained within the psychological safety Action Pack along with more detailed guidance, templates and resources to use with your teams and organisations. Download it now to supercharge your leadership.

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