Re-establishing Psychological Safety in Teams

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, trust and safety have taken a hit in our society. Things that we assumed we could rely on became uncertain. The invasion of Russia in Ukraine, rise of the energy prices, and developments in the financial world, have made things even worse. The recent layoffs in larger IT companies have also resulted in people feeling unsafe at work, mostly due to the way that these layoffs were done.

I would say that for everybody in the world, all of the above has had an impact, both in our personal and professional lives: we are now feeling less safe and secure compared to a few years ago. 

Hybrid and remote team working

Working in teams is the default mode in most software development organizations or projects. When the pandemic started, teams had no choice but to switch to working together virtually. Where in some organizations teams have fully returned to the office, hybrid or remote working has mostly become the norm throughout the software industry.

Overnight losing the physical connection of being in one place most of the time severely impacted the way people could collaborate in teams. Relationships have been challenged, and over time trust and safety eroded in teams. 

When you start a new team, it takes time to build up trust and for people to feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks. Working virtually together makes it even more important for people to feel safe in their team. At the same time, establishing safety in virtual teams is hard, and it’s something that is new to many people who don’t have the knowledge or skills to facilitate it. 

Summing up where we are now: we have lower psychological safety in existing teams and many challenges establishing psychological safety in new hybrid/distributed teams.

Psychological safety

For teams to have good dynamics and be effective, trust and psychological safety are essential. Psychological safety is defined as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It increases personal engagement, and makes it easier for people to speak up at work, take risks, admit mistakes, share ideas, experiment, discuss conflicts, and ask for feedback.

Working with teams as a trainer, consultant, coach, and facilitator, psychological safety is a key aspect of what I do and how I do things. Over the years I’ve practiced many techniques and helped people develop their skills for cultivating psychological safety. 

Here are some of the activities that you can do to re-establish and foster psychological safety in teams:

  • Organize activities where team members get to know each other. When you have a hybrid or distributed team, plan time for people to meet each other online and/or in person. Use exercises like Two Truths and a Lie, Manual of Me, Personal Qualities Cards, or One Word.
  • Organize working sessions on team values, ways of collaboration, ground rules, etc. In these sessions, team members can bring up what’s important for them and set up a culture with structures to effectively work together. 
  • Fostering discussions about psychological safety in teams. You can for instance play with the Psychological Safety Cards; gamification is a way for making people feel safe enough to talk about aspects of safety. 
  • Regularly do agile retrospectives where you reflect on how things are going and what the team would like to improve. Where retrospectives do require safety, there are techniques that you can use to create a micro-culture of safety for the workshop such as a Safety check,  the Prime Directive, the Vegas rule, and Warm-up exercises.
  • Share knowledge and experiences on psychological safety within your project(s) and organization. Ways to do this are communities of practice, brown bag sessions, lean coffee, or internal conferences. 

Neutral facilitation

For the activities mentioned above, it helps to have neutral facilitators or coaches who are knowledgeable about psychological safety. Such a person can create fruitful conditions, guide teams on their journey, and help professionals to further improve psychological safety. 

Bringing back psychological safety isn’t easy, but it can and should be done. 

Doing the activities described in this article helps to surface any issues that might cause people to feel unsafe, and supports teams to collaboratively develop a productive and healthy team culture.

Psychological Safety Cards

Discussions about the values, behavior, opinions, and beliefs that underlie psychological safety are essential to foster healthy collaboration and effective teamwork. Low psychological safety blocks change. If you want people to take initiative and improve things, you need to work on establishing conditions where people feel psychologically safe to take the first steps.

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.

These cards are an Agile Coaching Tool for facilitators, Agile coaches, consultants, trainers, Scrum masters, leaders, and managers; basically anyone who is involved in helping people and organizations perform better. They can be used by teams for self-assessments and reflections and in retrospectives. Agile coaches and managers can use these cards to facilitate valuable discussions on topics related to psychological safety.

The packages that you can download for a nominal fee consist of PDF and jpeg files with 62 numbered cards and examples and ideas for playing with the cards. Both online (remote coaching) and onsite usage is supported. There’s also an add-on package of Culture Cards that can be used to help people to discover their existing culture or define a wanted or required culture.

Mastering Solution Delivery

This article was originally written by me for the collaboration challenge project Mastering Solution Delivery by Obi Omoregie and is one of the chapters of the book Practical insights and lessons from thought leaders in a post-pandemic era.

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.

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