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How to build psychological safety to improve performance in your team

Think back through your life. You’ve likely been part of many teams, either professionally or personally. Which one was best? Can you work out why? Was it because you felt safe enough to speak your mind? Did you feel supported? That the other team members had your back?  

This all boils down to psychological safety, and a growing body of research reinforces its importance. Every leader should be aware of it. To work at their best, every team member should feel able to express their creativity, talents and skills without fearing judgement. In too many business cultures, people hold back because they don’t want to risk being ridiculed, disregarded or even punished by a poor performance review. 

In our coaching, we work with leadership teams to foster psychologically safe environments. This is deliberate and takes focus. Only last week, we hosted the Heads of Department from one of our clients, who joined the Executive Team for the first time. There was already good rapport amongst the Execs, helped by the CEO, who encourages direct communication. We expanded this to include the departmental heads and worked through a few exercises. We aimed to get people to open up, speak their minds and get used to being honest. It was a great session.

So what are these exercises? How do you build psychological safety in your team?

    Ensure all voices are heard

    All too often, there are a few people who tend to dominate every discussion. You know the ones. The larger-than-life, extrovert characters who like the sound of their voice a little too much! Make it clear that everyone in the room can speak their mind and express their thoughts. 

    One way to do this is to start every meeting with a round of good news. It doesn’t have to be work-related. Go around the room and get everyone to tell you about something great that’s happened to them recently. This starts things off on a positive footing. 

    In the recent session with the departmental heads, we started with the ‘Brutal Truths’ exercise designed by Jim Collins. It was the company’s annual kick-off, and we were revisiting their three-year plan. My job as facilitator was to make sure every member of the team was included. 

    I got everyone to write on a Post-it note the facts or issues they thought were most critical to give context to the plan. There was then the opportunity to discuss and agree on the most important. If your team struggles with psychological safety, a similar exercise called ‘Stinky Fish’ might be more appropriate, as the feedback is anonymous. Both exercises encourage open and honest debate. 

    Encourage healthy conflict

    healthy conflict

    This is massive. I tell teams, ‘Let’s work hard to drive conflict‘. ‘Really?’ is a standard reply. ‘Is that a good idea? I thought conflict was bad?’ No! It comes back to radical candour. As a team, you want each individual to be as good as they can be. And if this means having difficult conversations about overcoming issues that might hold someone back, then so be it. No team can outperform its weakest link.   

    This is where it gets uncomfortable. When I hit this point with a team, I use ‘Stop, Start, Continue’ to navigate their discomfort. I ask them, ‘In the context of making this a high-performing team, what behaviours do you bring that the rest of the team want you to stop, start, and continue doing?’ 

    A behavioural charter can be helpful here. Work out what you believe in – your core values – and the behaviours that underpin these beliefs. Then get the whole team to agree on the negative behaviours you’re trying to eliminate. 

    Get comfortable with discomfort

    It’s not easy to create a psychologically safe environment. It’s going to involve some difficult moments. People have to be prepared to be vulnerable, which may make them feel uncomfortable. Instead of jumping in to help, let them sit in that discomfort.

    Only last week, I was chatting to a new client about his team. I asked him, ‘Does your team use humour to diffuse tension?’ He nodded. ‘Ah’, I said. ‘Not a good thing’. He was surprised as he thought banter was good. I explained that banter could sometimes be borderline bullying. And every time someone cracks a joke to try and lighten the mood, it distracts from the conflict that might be building at that moment. And that conflict is an opportunity to have a frank conversation. 

    I tell teams to stop the jokes. They’re not helping themselves. This behavioural trait is a push for mediocrity and not discomfort. 

    Build rapport

    Do you know each other on a personal level? When building psychological safety in the Executive Teams we coach, we often use a deck of cards to ask more intimate and searching questions. You’re inviting people to share stuff and open up to each other. 

    When I was MD of Peer 1, the Executive team would rent a house every quarter and spend three days living together. Each team member picked a meal they wanted to cook, and someone else would go to Costco to get supplies. We’d hang out together, and the whole experience was sensational. Our team had real cohesion. When things got tough, we could talk frankly, honestly and sincerely without fearing judgement.

    Widen trust

    Trust is the foundation of psychological safety. The two go hand in hand. It enables the mutual respect needed for people to be comfortable being themselves and speaking their minds. We have some valuable tools if we need to work on this in a team. The first is the Culture Canvas, with a particular emphasis on the psychological safety elements. The second works through Patrick Lencioni’s ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’. Get everyone to read the book first. Although it’s 20 years old, it’s as relevant now as it was on the day it was written. Once they understand the concepts, get your team to work through the survey. Without trust, there’s no conflict; without conflict, there’s no accountability.

    Often, these sessions can lead to intense emotion. When I think back to our off-sites at Peer 1, it was common for people to end up in tears. It happened so often that we used to call it ‘man-crying in the desert’! This wasn’t the intention, but when people show their vulnerabilities to this extent, emotion is a common by-product. 

    Create artefacts

    Invest time in creating some artefacts that will bake in psychological safety. The Culture Canvas is one of these, helping you clarify the team culture you want to build. Another is a team charter which will ensure everyone understands expectations and accountability.    

    A big part of your team charter agrees to rules around meetings. Make attendance optional. It sounds strange, but this will enable your team to judge whether there’s value in their attendance. During meetings, start with good news. Ensure everyone has the same airtime and there are defined roles such as timekeeper and note-taker. And introduce a system of rating each meeting at the end. If your meetings don’t score a nine or a 10 out of 10, take a moment to discuss what you could have done differently. It’s this kind of systematic approach that will encourage your team to speak up and take ownership. 

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    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘Mind Your F**king Business’ here.

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