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Creating psychological safety

Length: 1 hour as a team

A culture of psychological safety is the cornerstone of successful team dynamics. But what does that mean?

Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard has identified the following factors. She says that great teams: 

  • Openly discuss mistakes that have been made (and we all make them!)

  • Ask about things they don’t understand.

  • Challenge ideas that most other team members seem to accept.

  • Discuss competing and conflicting ideas without individuals feeling criticised personally.

  • Raise issues that are bubbling under the surface but no individual really wants to raise for fear of unsettling the team. 


How many of them do you experience in your team? Work your way through the following exercises to reflect, and identify improvements: 

If you are doing this exercise by yourself:

  1. Reflect on the factors or behaviours in a team that you think make people feel uncomfortable about speaking up in a team meeting. What makes you feel uncomfortable? Write your thoughts down.

  2. Then note down the factors in a team that have made you feel more comfortable in having those difficult discussions. Or perhaps factors that you have seen make others more comfortable talking about something that is difficult for them to talk about.

  3. What can you learn from your reflections? Are there some things teams can do to encourage more open discussion? Are there things you can do personally to help others feel more comfortable? Are there actions you can take to empower yourself to be more open in team discussions? 

  4. Write down a couple of actions to take in the next few days to help yourself or the team feel more comfortable with open discussions.


If you are doing this exercise as a team:

  1. Each team member is asked to spend 5 minutes on their own noting down on post-its all the factors or behaviours they can think of that are likely in general to make others feel uncomfortable about speaking up in a team. This is not a 'name and shame' exercise - it should be kept anonymous, and the factors and behaviours do not need to be apparent in this particular group.

  2. Everyone then does the same thing about factors that make people feel more comfortable taking part in a full and open discussion.

  3. Put all the 'people feel uncomfortable' post-its on one wall and group them into clusters, and then do the same on another wall with the 'people feel comfortable' post-its. (You might want to use a digital solution like Slide or Pentameter for this process and use wordclouds rather than post-it clusters).

  4. Discuss all the ideas in the whole group. What can your team do to reduce the 'uncomfortable' factors in your team and encourage the behaviours that increase the psychological safety of the team?

  5. Develop and agree a set of groundrules for your team that will enhance the team's psychological safety.

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