Three Simple Psychological Safety Exercises

It’s a long and worthwhile journey to build high levels of psychological safety in your team, 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. See below for four effective exercises and practices to build psychological safety, cohesion and performance.

1 – Run a Values and Behaviours Workshop

Workshop with your team to establish and refine the main values that all members of your team endorse. 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.”

Sharing common expectations of behaviour is fundamental for psychological safety in a team.

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.

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 or flip chart, create three columns – one for “Fear”, one for “Mitigations” and one for “Target State”.

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.

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 State” – 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 are essential to building 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.

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.

For more detailed guides in the above workshops, along with templates and examples, download the psychological safety Action Pack.

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