What to do when safety is low in a retrospective

unsafety in agile retrospectiveAt the start of an agile retrospective you can do a safety check by asking people to write down how safe they feel in the retrospective. If the score indicates that people feel unsafe, then that will have serious impact on the retrospective. Here are some suggestions how you can deal with psychological safety when facilitating retrospectives.

Doing a safety check

In a safety check people can use a score from 1 to 5. The scoring is done anonymously. A score of 5 means that they feel that they will be fully open and honest in the meeting and are willing to talk about anything,where a 1 means that they don’t feel safe at all and don’t want to speak up:

5: No problem, I’ll talk about anything.
4: I’ll talk about almost anything; a few things might be hard.
3: I’ll talk about some things, but others will be hard to say.
2: I’m not going to say much; I’ll let others bring up issues.
1: I’m not going to talk at all, I don’t feel safe.

Opinions vary between facilitators in how to deal with the safety scores. Some facilitators don’t reveal what people scored, for them it’s information that helps them to run the retrospective. This respects anonymity of everybody in the retrospective, but the drawback is that if there’s a safety problem that only the facilitator is aware of this, and thus has to find a way to deal with it solely.

I prefer to write the scores down on a whiteboard or flip over, showing how many people gave which score. For an online meetup, I use sli.do to collect and visualize the scores (again anonymously)

What if people don’t feel safe?

If there are multiple low scores then I’ll check with the team on how to proceed, since there’s a big chance that people won’t speak up. Often that becomes the topic of the retrospective, as having low psychological safety in the team is something that can seriously hamper collaboration and team results.

If safety is low then it can be helpful to (re-)explain the purpose of the retrospective and make clear to the team members that whatever is discussed in the meeting stays within the team. I also recommend to use the prime directive to make people aware that the purpose of the retrospective is to learn, so we start from the assumption that everyone did the best they could do given what they knew at that point in time and the situation at hand.

If there’s only one low score then I will tell the team that there is one person that doesn’t feel safe. Usually there is not much what you can do as facilitator than respecting the score and stay aware and focused on any signals of unsafety (since it anonymous you don’t know who feels unsafe).

You can do a new voting after talking about safety with the team, to see if that will change the scores. I usually ask people if they would like to revise their score, if not then I don’t do a new voting as it might make the situation only worse.

Adjustng the retrospective

If the level of safety is low then you can consider to change the exercise planned for the retrospective. A constellation (described in the book Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives) can be a suitable exercise, since initially people don’t need to speak. Another exercises would be teams kudos where you ask people to speak up about how they received help from other team members – completely different from from what people are used to and something that most people will feel safe to do.

Never ever ignore signals of unsafety, regardless if they become clear at the start of the retrospective or during the meeting. If you somebody becoming silent, try to involve them into the meeting. If you get the feeling that somebody isn’t open or honest, state your feelings and check them with the person that ism giving you those feelings. If they say that they feel safe, then it’s ok, so you can continue with the retrospective. If not, then can check what is making him/her feel unsafe, and what the group or you as a facilitator can do to make him/her feel safe again.

How do you deal with safety in retrospectives?

Exploring psychological safety

If you want to explore psychological saferty in your team, the Psychological Safety Cards can be used.  The deck provides a profound and extensive set of phrases that cover many aspects of psychological safety from an individual, team, and organizational perspective.

The Psychological Safety Cards can be used to visualize, discuss, self-assess, and improve psychological safety inside teams and increase team morale. They enable exploring factors that influence psychological safety in an engaged and safe way and can help to create a shared understanding of safety.

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Deborah Hartmann Preuss

    Thanks for writing this up, Ben.

    How do I do it? I too write the results on a flipchart, as a histogram. When it’s at the start of (for example) a whole-day meeting, or a planned long engagement with a group, and if safety shows to be problematic, I will then immediately have small groups brainstorm working agreements to increase safety. They return and present them to the whole group, and I help the group formulate agreements for working together better. Then we quickly re-take the safety poll and I post the result. Some will feel safer. Others perhaps not. But having made it “discussable” is helpful regardless; now the group can watch for this themselves, not just the facilitator. And then we move on with the plan for the day (unless, as you point out, Safety becomes a more important focus, and then we follow that thread).

    Another exercise I use is ESVP. (See here http://www.akashb.com/blog/2012/05/28/agile-retrospectives-the-safety-check/ ) This might be helpful when culture seems to be an issue: it makes engagement visible. I usually invite “P”risoners to consider leaving to do something they consider more valuable (Shock! Horror!) and sometimes they do. It can be an important culture hack, a way into offering “the law of two feet” as a potential new (disruptive, in a good way) working agreement.

    And I noticed someone recently doing both, and displaying results in a grid rather than a histogram.


    1. Ben Linders

      Thanks Deb for sharing your experience!

      I like it how you you have the group explore how to increase safety and make it discussable. Awareness is a first step, and it matters!

      Preferably you don’t want to have someone in the retrospective who really doesn’t want to be there. Offering the option to leave might trigger them to look for ways to contribute to and get value out of the retrospective. Or the can decide to leave, which is also ok.

  2. Deborah Hartmann Preuss

    Agreed, Ben. It is shocking (at first, even to me who says it) to say: “please feel free to spend this time somewhere else if that is more valuable to you.” But it aligns my actions with my beliefs (humans are smart and motivated, encourage them to follow that, and trust them to choose what is needed), and it sends a very important message: let us be frank with one another, and civil, even when our priorities diverge.

    1. Ben Linders

      Couldn’t have said it better Deb! Thanks for your reaction.

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