A curated list of activities to promote courageous conversations at the workplace
Promoting Psychological Safety in the workplace has never been as important as now. 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. Organizations 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 to do so, even if they’re 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 into play.
The problem is that most articles offer vague advice, but fail to provide concrete methods and tools to put into practice right away. In this article, you’ll find 9 actionable exercises to start promoting psychological safety in your organization (additional resources at the end).
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 and increase self and team awareness. A facilitator invites each member to share what (mindset) they’re bringing to the table before the work conversation starts — one at a time.
Checking-in is about addressing the status of your mind, not that of a project. This practice allows people to be fully present and feel listened to. It reinforces collective trust, gives everyone a voice, and reminds us that we’re 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?
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.
Read this post to learn more about how to facilitate a check-in round.
2. Conversational Turn-Taking
In most organizations, 80% of the conversations are dominated by only 20% of the participants. Psychological Safety is not just about helping people feel safe, but encouraging 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 analyzing different companies, the organizational 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.
Australian tech unicorn Atlassian practices conversational turn-taking to ensure even participation among all team members. When participants speak one-at-a-time in alternating turns, you can avoid interruptions and groupthink.
Senior executives get to talk last, so they don’t influence or intimidate others. As Simon Sinek said, “Leader always eat last.”
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.
Atlassian encourages employees to call out someone who is being silenced inadvertently in a meeting. People should be firm but fair. Aubrey Blanche, Atlassian’s Global Head of Diversity & Belonging, suggests using a phrase such as, “Hold on, Bob – I want to make sure I understand Jessica’s point before moving on.”
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 behavior in future meetings.
4. Uncover the Stinky Fish (Before it Rots)
The stinky fish canvas is a metaphor for issues that we don’t want to talk about. The longer we avoid a problem, the stinker it gets.
The “Uncover the Stinky Fish” 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 stinky fishes, 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 third round inviting everyone to share another post-it from their Stinky Fish. Usually, people begin to feel more comfortable and address more sensitive topics.
Another way to build psychological safety while facilitating the Stinky Fish Canvas is by using the 1-2-4-All approach (I explain that below).
To download the Uncover the Stinky Fish Canvas and read the full-facilitation guide, visit this post.
5. Host an Anxiety Party (An Effective Exercise to Promote Psychological Safety)
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 realized 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 (you can use the Uncover the Stinky Fish Canvas for this). Then, people are given two minutes to rank issues–from most to least worrying.
Next, 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 whether it requires an individual or collective behavioral changes.
The Google Venture have turned Anxiety Parties into a regular event; they host them twice a year.
I’ve facilitated many with my clients and can tell you they are a great way to promote psychological safety in a team. Realizing 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. Gradually Open the Conversation: 1-2-4-All
People feel more comfortable talking to strangers or one single person than to a larger group. Brainstorming sessions or large meetings can be intimidating for most; people don’t feel psychologically safe to speak up and share their ideas in the open.
The 1-2-4-All method is part of Liberating Structures, a compilation of over 30 microstructures for facilitating meetings and conversations developed by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz.
This method is ideal for encouraging participation in problem-solving or feedback sessions. It helps with open and candid conversation by making people feel safe to share gradually.
People start working on their own and, then, gradually share their thoughts with more people until the whole group works together as one.
Though this tool was mainly designed for brainstorming, I use it as a much for team building and feedback sessions, too. For example, it works very well when facilitating the Stinky Fish Canvas or an Anxiety Party.
Follow this sequence. Allow people to work on their own (the duration depends on which exercise you are facilitating). Then, pair up people and give each duo 2 minutes to share individual ideas. Next, give them 2-3 minutes to discuss and find surprises, contradictions, and commonalities. They should also use this time to build on each other’s ideas.
Rinse and repeat. Duos pair up, forming foursomes, and each group of four has 4 minutes to share and continue building on each other’s ideas. Finally, each team shares their critical thoughts, which are consolidated. Depending on their nature, people can rank the most pressing issues or vote on the best ideas if it’s a brainstorming session.
The progression is what gives this Liberating Structure its name: 1-2-4-All. Read more about this exercise here.
Note: When working with large groups, I like to add an additional round. I practice 1-2-4-8-All.
7. Promote Psychological Safety to Address Silent Problems
We can only solve the problem that we talk about. Avoiding issues won’t make them go away; they will actually come back to hunt us. Freud referred to denial as “the state of knowing but not knowing.”
Denial is a cultural thing. When leaders avoid conflict, their team will adopt the same pattern. Silencing issues quickly becomes an unwritten company rule.
Hold a meeting and invite your team to address silent problems.
First, name the problem. Ask people to list all the issues that are being avoided, or people don’t want to talk about, or are taboo. Remind them that, as a team, they can only solve the problems that are made explicit.
Naming the problem turns it from silent to real.
Second, share accountability. Address the root cause of that problem. Rather than finding a single person who’s causing it or should fix it, turn the issue into a collective matter.
What are the things that we ARE doing to perpetuate this problem?
What are the things that we are NOT doing to perpetuate this problem?
What shall we start and stop doing to solve this issue?
Destigmatize problems: most organizations associate problems with weaknesses. However, denial is the real sign of being weak — it requires courage to address problems rather than avoid them. It requires us to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. As Brené Brown said, “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage
Have someone play the devil’s advocate role – groupthink and the desire for consensus blind people. It’s vital to have a team member who always challenges our perspective.
Promote a culture that addresses cultural tensions in a healthy and regular way. Positive friction creates energy that propels teams into the future.
8. 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 react to people when they share their ideas, concerns, and mistakes. We must learn to embrace the messenger, as Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization, 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 kill the messenger?
Organizations 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 demonize the people, accusing them of being the problem instead of solving the problem that is being raised.”
The Chinese doctor who tried to issue the first warning about the deadly coronavirus was fired. A US Navy Captain was let go for addressing the COVID-19 outbreak in his ship. Hospitals have put doctors on notice for speaking out about a lack of medical gear.
When someone steps forward with bad news, leaders must show appreciation and respect. Don’t kill the messenger because you don’t like the news; be thankful because they are bringing valuable information. As OpenTable former’s CEO, Christa Quarles, said, “No amount of ugly truth scares me. It’s just information to make a decision.”
The same way that some organizations have turned celebrating mistakes into a ritual, practice celebrating the messenger. Reward people who bear bad or not-so-good news to raise problems that need to be addressed right away.
Do you have an ongoing space to address bad news? How do you encourage people to raise difficult topics? How will you reward those who speak up?
Celebrate the messenger instead of demonizing those who bring issues forward.
9. Tell Your Story
Empathy is crucial to building trust. The more we get to know and understand our colleagues, the more we can trust each other.
Belonging – the idea that we are close – is one of the three characteristics of successful teams, altogether with Psychological Safety (We feel safe) and Alignment (We share a future).
Stories are the perfect way to increase a sense of belonging and start building psychological safety among teams. The purpose of this exercise is to get to know your colleagues at a deeper level, understand their feelings and emotions, and share the stories that shaped their lives.
It never fails to amaze me how much people don’t know about their colleagues and how sharing personal stories deepens relationships.
There are many ways you can do this.
One is to ask people to share personal stories with each other. Give them 5-10 minutes each and then switch. Once all the groups have finished, each person needs to tell the story they heard in the first person as if it was theirs. Not only does this reinforce belonging, but it deepens empathy, too.
You can also use the 36 Questions that turn strangers into friends. This requires more time; to go through all questions might take between one and two hours, but it’s worth the experience. For team retreats, I usually run shorter versions (each person answers 5 questions) which serves the purpose of revealing secrets and strengthening bonding.
Another more straightforward way is to ask people to “share a meaningful story; something that happened to you that you feel proud about, but very few people know.” The key lies in the words “feel proud” and “very few know”––they help trigger profound and revealing stories.
Increasing a sense of belonging strengthens not only interpersonal relationships, but also promotes psychological safety among teams. Encourage your team to have more personal conversations. Start by sharing meaningful stories.
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