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Diversity and Inclusion

Session guide: Build psychological safety in your team

📌 What do we mean by trust & psychological safety?

Trust is the essential starting point for true inclusion in your team.

By trust, we mean more than just the essential faith in a person’s abilities or a familiarity that comes from knowing someone for many years.

We really mean a vulnerability trust sometimes called psychological safety where people feel comfortable to take interpersonal risks, like speaking up against a popular idea or giving feedback they know will be tough to hear.

It’s both a climate and a shared belief which lays the foundation for every member of your team to bring their whole selves to work.

👉 You can’t say, “Just do it”

Chances are you’re thoroughly sold on the idea of working somewhere where everyone A) brings their entire selves to work and B) wants to and can speak up.

But the realist in each of you knows, of course, that it isn’t as simple as telling your teammates to just do A and B. If you’ve ever received the inconsequential advice, “just be yourself”, you’ll know first-hand why that isn’t practical.

Instead, read on for the three biggest elements of psychologically safe environments, named and gamed.

Be honest. Is there a sense that failure is an embarrassment or an ending in your team?

For psychological safety, failure needs to be reframed as an inevitable bump in the road towards success. Better yet, transform this “bump” into a learning opportunity. Here’s how.

  • Talk openly about past failures and what good things came out of them. These might be personal, things that happened in the team or external examples that inspire you.
  • Point out your own failures big and small, in real-time. “My fail of last week was [sheepish story, extra points for comic effect]. But now I know to…”
  • When a teammate is suffering to process a failure, turn it into a conversation. Ask what they think went wrong and what you can do to fix it or avoid it in the future.
  • Make quick, post-mortem style debriefs part of finishing up projects.
    Ask what could have gone better, celebrate your new insights and then move on. Easy.
    💡 We love this post-mortem meeting guide from Backlog’s blog.

The bottom line? Feed failure into learning, getting better and trying again.

Feedback is feared, weaponized or not given at all in psychologically unsafe workplaces.

The tiny actions below will set in motion a — pardon the sleight of phrase — a positive feedback loop.

  • Regularly ask for it. Is it on your 1:1 agendas? Do you ask for it after every presentation? Introduce these little habits and watch what you and others learn.
  • Work out loud. Share your work when it’s in process, warts and all, and ask others to do the same.
  • Frequently refer to the guidelines your team uses for feedback to keep it top of mind for everybody.e.g. “Woo, Jane just modeled our feedback guidelines perfectly!”
    or
    “Thanks for sharing that feedback, but how could it have better adhered to our feedback model?” (calibrate use of the norms)

The bottom line? The more we see feedback being used for good around us, the more we will ask for it and receive it (in better quality, too!)

If there’s one thing that is necessary for someone to speak up it is a belief that they will be heard.

Body language

Show you are actively listening with cues in your body language and facial expressions. Point your body towards the speaker, maintain as much eye contact as is comfortable, respond with sincere expressions that fit what they are saying and nod.

Promote it

Publicly praise others for being candid or going against the grain. Endorse discussion techniques that hear from everyone and always give credit to someone if their idea gets picked up by the group.

Act

Still, the very best way to make speaking up worth it is to act on suggestions.

📈 Data from Glint

Research from people-success platform Glint shows that following up on employee suggestions is the number one way to keep them engaged.

Maybe that stat doesn’t rock your world. But get this: the most common mistake that leaders and managers make is not connecting the action to more communication and further avenues for speaking up.

The answer? Close the loop.

🎯 Listen, do something, then come back and explicitly say “you said this, so I did that, please speak up again!”.

🏗️ Build your team’s psychological safety

Try one of the two practices to build on your team’s level of safety.

Option 1: ask your team to open up to each other about their childhoods

Difficulty level: 😀 Easy (5-10 mins)

Spark a conversation about our childhoods at the beginning of your next team meeting. Don’t worry, this isn’t about asking anyone to reveal their soul. These three questions are unobtrusive but show that everyone is human. Crucially, they offer up some vulnerability.

  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. How many siblings do you have and where do you fall in that order?
  3. Describe a unique or interesting challenge or experience from your childhood.

To debrief, ask each team member to share what they learned about one another that they didn’t already know.

Option 2: use a personality profile tool as a team, and discuss the results

Difficulty level: 😐 Medium (20-30 mins)

Take a personality profile tool or psychometrics test as a team, such as Myers BriggsBig Five or DISC (👈 we’ve linked free versions).

It’s the conversations your team has about what they have learned from a personality profile that is significant. Host a dedicated session or carve out at least 15 minutes to cover in your next team meeting. Some questions to ask:

  • What has the profile exercise taught you about another member of the team that you didn’t know?
  • What changes will you make to how you interact with the team?

🌡️ Bonus practice: measure it!

Difficulty level: 😬Hard (A few days – a few weeks, but so worth it!)

If you want to get real data on how safe your team is, measure it using Amy Edmondson’s own assessment. Build a quick survey with the questions below, and ask people to rate the extent to which they agree with the following statements, on a four-point scale (i.e. strongly agree, slightly agree, slightly disagree, strongly disagree).

We recommend making this survey anonymous to allow for candid responses.

Psychological safety assessment

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

The bottom line?

The raw building blocks for a psychologically safe environment are framing failure, feedback, and encouraging speaking. A common theme? Close a virtuous, feed-forward cycle for each so that, next time, everyone can feel a little bit more psychologically safe and performance results can be a little bit better.

We’ve provided three suggestions with varying degrees of difficulty to put psychological safety into practice in your team. Why not try discussing your childhoods, taking a personality test, or even measuring psychological safety?

Session guide: Build psychological safety in your team

Do you know of any other effective ways to cultivate strong relationships and build up psychological safety on your team? Let us know here.

💬 What do you think

Fiona Young (she/her)

Having previously led Learning and Development for 3,000 people at Europe’s leading venture builder, Blenheim Chalcot, Fiona knows a thing or two about how to build high performance culture. As Content Director at Hive Learning, Fiona pioneered the organisation's leading guided content programmes which are designed to turn learning into action. Most recently, Fiona led the inception, development and delivery of Inclusion Works by Hive Learning - the world’s first diversity and inclusion programme focused on turning unconscious bias into conscious action - created from over 1,000 leading sources.