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Psychological safety - the key to helping teams thrive

Over the past year, we’ve been on a journey to transform the way we work — throughout this journey we’ve focused on team building and creating psychological safety among team members. Here, we discuss the methods we’ve used during this transformational journey to build togetherness, trust, and psychological safety.
Psychological safety — the key to helping teams thrive

What is psychological safety and why does it matter? 

Psychological safety, in the context of the workplace, basically means that a team feels safe for interpersonal risk-taking. In practice, this means that people in a team feel comfortable speaking up, asking questions, disagreeing and bringing up ideas.

When we feel safe, our ability to be creative, solve problems, and collaborate with others is much better. Collaboration is important because as the author, Ken Blanchard says “None of us is as smart as all of us.” So, if companies want their employees to thrive in solving problems and creating unique solutions, they simply must create an environment where everybody feels safe and secure.

So, let’s look at some inspiring examples of the activities that we’ve used to strengthen psychological safety. These activities take place during virtual workshops and focus on helping people within our organization get to know each other better on both a professional and personal level. We also demonstrate how we’ve built a feedback culture in our organization and share information on the team-building activities we’ve used to enhance social relations within each team. Finally, we share the tools and methods we’ve used along the way, which we hope can be beneficial for workplaces everywhere.

Connecting on a professional level

How can colleagues create stronger connections on a professional level? One method we’ve found to be successful is inviting colleagues to come together as a team and asking each individual to share the skills and expertise they have. We feel that it’s only by knowing each other’s strengths that we can make the most of working together.

During each workshop, we invite colleagues to share what they feel they can bring to the team. Each team member introduces themselves by: 

  • listing their current role within the organization, for example, developer, team coach, and so on
  • presenting what they feel their main skills are
  • listing any other skills they have that might benefit the team
  • sharing the skills that they would like to learn

These introductions are also documented in the team’s Microsoft Teams’ space, so they can be visited again at any stage — you never know when such information can come in handy! Later, the teams will be given some time to use this information to identify what their strengths are as a group and also where they have learning and training needs. The next step is to plan how they will fulfill the most important learning needs; for example, in a team where there is a need to have five experienced Java developers there are only three. In this case, the team would look at what kind of actions are necessary to achieve this goal.

Encouraging healthy personal relationships ​​​​

Just as children connect on the playground, many adults do so in the cafeteria. And getting to know your colleagues on a personal level has so many advantages. Let’s face it - the working day is far more enjoyable when you’re surrounded by people you get along with. It’s nice when you can have a chat about your weekend plans with your colleagues if you feel comfortable doing so. Also, when we get to know each other on a personal level, mutual respect grows. Knowing what makes someone tick and what their strengths are contributes to making team members feel safer and more motivated.

So, once colleagues have presented themselves on a professional level, they are then invited to get a bit more personal by talking about what they value in life and what motivates them to get up in the morning; for example, one colleague says that family is the most important thing to them, while another shares their vision for a more sustainable world. This activity helps create a foundation for collaboration and a culture where team members can support each other to reach their dreams. ​ 

We also ask team members to share a story about themselves by showing and talking about an object that represents them in some way. This object might be a sketchbook that demonstrates their love of drawing or a watch that belonged to their grandfather and shows how important family is to them. Through this activity, we’ve listened to many heartwarming and fascinating tales!

Curiosity is also encouraged by asking team members to come up with non-work-related questions on things they would like to know about each other. Do you have any hobbies? Do you have a pet? What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? Fun and relaxed questions tend to result in engaging conversations; for example, if someone reveals they have a pet snake, you can be sure that there will be some follow-up questions!

In addition, we also have a “wheel of fortune” type activity. Participants spin the wheel and land on a question such as “What do you love about your job?” or “How do you relax after a long day at work?” These activities help support teams’ feelings of togetherness by helping people learn more about each other and find the things they have in common.

The power of feedback

We strongly believe in promoting a feedback culture; it builds understanding and enables growth. It’s so important for individuals to be able to both give and receive feedback.  

In addition to helping motivate and make them feel valued, feedback also helps employees to develop their skills. All of this has a positive impact on individual, team, and organizational performance.  

Starting with positive feedback creates a path towards a feedback culture. This can be achieved by developing the ability to notice the good in others and see them with an “appreciative eye.” So, we want to continuously promote a feedback culture and start building a habit around it, making it a part of the team’s DNA. 

We boost positive feedback and create good vibes during the sessions by setting aside time to appreciate each individual team member and the team as a whole. One team member might be told they are always supportive in the workplace, while an entire team of five is praised for its can-do attitude.

Can you remember a time when you received positive feedback? How did that make you feel? It’s clear that positive feedback is highly motivating and facilitates the growth of a healthier, more supportive and unified team! 

Team-building activities that inspire

Team-building activities are a popular tool in many workplaces. The goal of such activities is to strengthen connections, encourage communication and increase motivation. They help us build a firm foundation of purpose, trust, and togetherness. In other words, they create a foundation for psychological safety. 

During workshops, all team members create their own team alliance. The function of the alliance is to give team members a space to discuss how they would like the culture and atmosphere at work to be.

At the beginning of the relevant session, each team member shares their personal expectations towards the team. As a result, employees find out which expectations they share and which ones they don’t!

In the next phase, team members answer some specific questions; for example, they are asked what atmosphere they want to create within the team and how they envision this in practice. Then, it’s time to consider how they would like people to behave when things get difficult; for example, when the whole team is under a tight deadline or when one team member feels stressed.  

We then ask each team member to decide on one thing they’ll commit to individually that will help to ensure the team alliance functions; for example, if the team decides they want a friendly and inclusive culture, one team member may commit to organizing a monthly virtual games event for the whole team. Making these commitments is important as everyone in the team needs to share the responsibility for ensuring that the team alliance is kept alive. 

The team members always decide together who has which role in the team. Agreeing on roles together is an important activity in any self-organizing team. During the discussions, everyone in the team also gets a better understanding of the purpose of different roles and how they’re connected to the outside organization. 

Goal setting is also an important team-building activity as they give us a clear focus and direction. Setting team goals ensures everyone is on the same page and is moving in the same direction. Therefore, the team members create common goals for the team, which are also known as objectives and key results (OKRs). The team level OKRs are based on strategic, high level OKRs, (top-down cascading OKRs). But teams also have the possibility to propose bottom up OKRs.

Tools and methods that work

All the activities mentioned take place over Microsoft Teams. We’ve, therefore, done our best to find the tools and methods that help teams collaborate more efficiently and make team building more effective. The good news is we believe we’ve found some winners!

We’ve found that, using breakout rooms in Microsoft Teams meetings, for example, allows more engagement, as people can be split into smaller groups to ideate or reflect on something together. People seem to feel more comfortable speaking up in smaller groups. The current functionality in Microsoft Teams offering the possibility to send people to breakout rooms during the main meeting and invite them back when required is useful! 

Active usage of the Microsoft Teams meeting chat is also helpful, as it can act as an electronic flip chart that we all fill in together; for example, attendees can note down any important points that arise during the meeting, paste the agenda there or even create a quick “thumbs up” poll if they want to.

We have found the Microsoft Teams’ app “Tasks by Planner and To Do” extremely helpful. This acts as an electronic whiteboard with post-it-type notes, dot voting options, and more. The interactive and fun element of the app makes it a very effective and engaging way to work together! Also, the post-it notes stay as part of your documentation and are useful for follow-ups and further usage.

Figure 1: Using the Microsoft Teams’ app “Tasks by Planner and To Do” as an electronical whiteboard

Figure 1: Using the Microsoft Teams’ app “Tasks by Planner and To Do” as an electronical whiteboard

We actively encourage employees to have their cameras turned on during the meetings so that people can get to know the faces behind the names. But turning on cameras is also not mandatory, as we don’t want people to feel obliged to have their cameras on. There can be reasons why someone prefers to have their camera off (for example, lower bandwidth in different parts of the world, family members in the same room) and we always respect that.

Using anonymous polls is also important for us. We use them before the workshops to collect input and during workshops to help, for example, with decision-making. We also use them to collect feedback after each workshop day to understand what people are thinking and feeling. Knowing whether a session was too long or not engaging enough helps us as facilitators to learn and modify the sessions!  

Lastly, to ensure that the sessions really are a meeting of minds, we often use the ME-WE-US facilitation technique for activities. This technique allows everyone to think first individually on their own (ME). If more time is needed for individual reflection, then the ME part can also be done as homework between the different sessions. Then team members collaborate with a smaller group (WE), and finally, we come together as a team to share and align (US).  

An essential part of our journey moving forward will continue to be building togetherness, trust, and psychological safety by letting people get to know each other better both on a professional and personal level; however, it’s important to understand that ensuring teams feel safe requires every team member’s contribution. Although people outside of the team support the process, psychological safety can only grow from within.

Learn more

Read Outi’s previous blog post, How to set up service excellence teams as part of a DevOps transformation

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