6 Easy Ways to Promote Psychological Safety In Your Workplace Culture

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A curated list of activities to promote courageous conversations at the workplace

The line between work and personal life has blurred. Social issues such as a global pandemic, racism, and economic turmoil are taking a heavy psychological toll on us. More than 80% of people believe the future is a significant source of stress. Organisations must support employees and help them cope in times of crisis.

But how can you promote courageous conversations?

Research shows that even those who are naturally more inclined to share ideas and offer suggestions may not do so if they fear being put down or punished. On the flip side, encouraging and rewarding speaking up can help more people do so, even if they are more risk-averse.

The practice of establishing ground rules for conversations is crucial to promote diversity of thought and collaboration. Speaking up, being candid, challenging other people’s ideas while being respectful and constructive are foundational for innovation and growth.

That’s where Psychological Safety comes to play.

The problem is that most articles offer vague advice, but fail to provide concrete methods and tools to put in practice right away. In this article, you’ll find 9 actionable exercises to start promoting psychological safety in your organization. 

1.   Facilitate a Check-In Round to Build Trust

The mindset that a team brings to a meeting will shape the outcome. You can’t expect people to put their emotions aside; addressing them will help people feel safe and focused. As meetings expert, Emily Axelrod, wrote, “How you enter a space and how you leave a space is as important as what happens in the space.”

A check-in round is more than a warm-up exercise; it’s an intentional practice to open a session to increase self and team awareness. A facilitator invites each member to share what (mindset) they are bringing to the table before the work conversation starts — one at a time.

      Checking-in about addressing the status of your mind, not that of a project. This practice allows people to be fully present, to feel listened, reinforces collective trust, gives everyone a voice, and reminds us that we are human.

There are as many check-in questions as teams on earth. Here are a few that are simple and effective:

What has got your attention?

What mindset are you bringing to this meeting?

What kind of a day have you had so far today? 

Facilitating a check-in round is an easy way to start building psychological safety. However, doing it right requires time and practice. At first, people might find it childish or a waste of time; most people will share something just to get out of the spotlight. In time, people will start opening up and realize the power of sharing.

2.   Conversational Turn-Taking

In most organisations, 80% of the conversations are dominated by only 20% of the participants. Psychological Safety is not just about helping people feel safe, but encourage participation – all voices must be heard.

Women, minority groups, and introverts who choose to stay silent at work rather than run the risk of unfair criticism and judgment aren’t just being afraid. They’re being silenced by louder people.

Research by Adam Grant shows that it is much more difficult for women to earn recognition than it is for men. By analysing different companies, the organisational psychologist found that when male employees introduce an idea to increase revenue, they get significantly higher performance reviews than women who contributed equally valuable insights.

Conversational turn-taking is a useful practice to ensure that everyone gets their air time. Most importantly, you want to give more room to the quiet voices over the louder ones.

3.   The No-Interruptions Rule

What’s the point of inviting someone to a meeting only to have every idea silenced by someone more extroverted?

Making space for different kinds of people, voices, and ideas is crucial for the success of any business. For a person who’s continually being interrupted, meetings quickly become a painful experience. The lack of psychological safety makes people feel anxious and choose to stay silent.

The “No-Interruptions Rules” is self-explanatory: when someone is talking, the rest should actively listen. Sharing an opinion, reacting to what the person is saying, or trying to impose one’s ideas over others is not allowed. Make room for people to speak freely and feel valued.

Interrupt people when they interrupt others.

The no-interruptions rule quickly improves the quality of the meeting experience. People feel safe and protected by a system that ensures every voice is welcome and valued.

Talk to repeat offenders to ensure they can adjust their behaviour in future meetings.

4.   Uncover the Elephant in the room

The Elephant in the room is a metaphor for issues that we don’t want to talk about. The longer we avoid a problem, the worse it gets.

The “Uncover the Elephant” canvas is a visual tool for people to expose what makes them feel anxious and afraid. It helps people address past issues they can’t get over and, most importantly, talk about what everybody’s thinking, but no one is saying.

Facilitating this exercise is simple but challenging, too. People feel encouraged to fill the canvas with all the issues that keep them awake at night. However, sharing those issues in the open requires building a psychologically safe space to address all elephants, not just the easy ones.

When facilitating this exercise virtually, I like to ask each participant to share one post-it; it doesn’t matter from which of the four quadrants or if they decide to choose an easy topic or a hard issue.

For me, the most crucial factor is to get people talking, to get the conversation started. You can then have a second, or a third round, inviting everyone to share another post-it from their elephant. Usually, people begin to feel more comfortable and address more sensitive topics.

5.   Host an Anxiety Party (Really!)

Don’t get caught up with the name; anxiety parties are an excellent way to promote psychological safety – they make teams more vulnerable and effective.

A design team at Google Ventures first came up with this idea. They maintained a relatively flat structure, enjoyed the benefits of freedom and autonomy, yet missed getting critical feedback. Something was missing.

Exploring different options, Daniel Burka realised that what they really needed was “a structured time where we could be vulnerable and get our anxieties out in the open.” So, they decided to throw an Anxiety Party.

First, everyone spends 10 minutes individually writing down their biggest anxieties. Then, people are given two minutes to rank issues–from most to least worrying.

Then, each person gets to share the anxiety that worries them the most. Colleagues score the issue based on how much it troubles them from a zero (“It never even occurred to me that this was an issue”) to five (“I strongly believe you need to improve in this area”).

After reviewing all fundamental anxieties, it turns out that most are baseless–we usually worry about pointless things. Getting people’s feedback in the form of a score makes the anxiety go away.

Many anxieties can be well-founded, though. Start by addressing the issues that get a 4 or a 5. Discuss with the team what needs to happen and if it requires an individual or collective behavioural changes.

The Google Venture have turned Anxiety Parties in a regular event; they host them twice a year.

I’ve facilitated many with my clients, and I can tell you they are a great way to promote psychological safety in a team. Realising that one might worry about something that means nothing for the team is really liberating. On the other hand, it makes people comfortable with getting feedback and fixing well-founded anxieties.

6. Celebrate the Messenger

Creating a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves is just one side of the Psychological Safety coin. The other side is how managers respond to people when they and share their ideas, concerns, and mistakes. We must learn to embrace the messenger, as Amy Edmondson recommends.

Being candid is not just about speaking the truth; it also involves delivering bad news. So, how do we overcome a culture that immediately wants to shoot the messenger?

Organisations need to increase their bad news tolerance. Divergent, dissident voices are crucial to driving innovation and growth. However, as the authors of this HBR piece wrote, “Yet some leaders demonise the people, accusing them of being the problem instead of solving the problem that is being raised.”

A classic example being the Chinese doctor who tried to issue the first warning about the deadly coronavirus got fired.

In short, celebrate the messenger instead of demonising those who bring issues forward.

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