Build Team Collaboration-Make it Safe

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Have you ever worked on a team where things just did not feel quite right?  Each time you spoke up, someone glared at you or dismissed what you said.  There is a concept called psychological safety which impacts team innovation.  I have blogged about it fairly frequently.  Today, I want to talk about practical ways to improve psychological safety on teams.


A psychologically safe climate means that teams listen to one another, learn from their mistakes, have a high level of engagement, and have an atmosphere of constructive conflict management.  All of these elements have a positive impact on creativity and innovation.  Think about it, if you do not feel safe, you don’t communicate new ideas or provide constructive feedback.  Google identified psychological safety as the number one thing underpinning their most successful teams.

Best Practices:

How can you cultivate an environment of psychological safety on a team?  What can you start to do today to start to build this environment?

Build Rapport

As you start your team meetings, spend the first 5 minutes talking about something besides work.  Here in Massachusetts, the weather is always a great subject since it’s constantly changing.  Make a point to talk to each person in the room.  Building rapport helps reduce the stress of the meeting and also starts to build relationships between team members.

Ask Questions

Ensure that the environment encourages questions, not just statements.  When people give their opinion, chime in with “tell me more” or “great insight, have you also considered…”  Make everyone comfortable to ask questions.

 Do Not Talk Over People

We all have great ideas in our head, and we just can’t wait to talk about them. However, for a team to be productive, it’s critical that everyone can communicate and collaborate.  Don’t talk over people. Let them finish their thought and idea.  Consider pausing before you chime in to make sure the other person is finished with their idea.

Don’t Be the Alpha

There is nothing worse in a meeting than when someone who has power is not only present, but they physically fill up a huge amount of space in the room and make it clear they have the last word.  Not only does this create an environment of fear and intimidation, but it also thwarts conversation and idea generation.

Lift Others Up

There is extensive research on the power of positivity on teams.  Compliment people on good ideas, on asking great questions, on owning mistakes, and on being good innovators.  Be sincere.  Even during the meeting, compliment the value each person brings to the meeting.  Lift people up and make them comfortable. It’s only when team members start to relax and are comfortable that they will start to innovate and come up with unique ideas.

The Bad Apple

One nasty person on a team can impact the productivity of an entire group. They create negative energy. They are power hungry.  They push people down.  This one is simple, remove them from the team.  I don’t care how much knowledge they bring to the team. The negative attitude and its impact on the team far outweigh the knowledge they bring to the group.

Admit To Your Mistakes

To create a safe environment for others to make mistakes, we need to accept and own the fact that we are wrong.  The challenge is that we have been taught that if we are wrong, we will make poor impressions on others.  Therefore, we hold back on those crazy ideas, one of which may be brilliant.

Admitting your mistakes will help get people comfortable admitting their mistakes. You need to be a good role model for employees to let them know it’s safe to talk about mistakes. Once you start to talk about  mistakes, you can start to learn and the ideas will grow.

Appoint a Devil’s Advocate to Your Team

This one is something you can start doing today.  By intentionally allowing team members to take turns being the devil’s advocate empowers them to disagree and debate from the safety of playing a role.  Take turns having team members play this role.  By always having a devil’s advocate, the environment of the meeting starts to become safer for asking difficult questions.

Listen to the Outliers

One of the challenges in teams is we spent most of the time together talking about common knowledge. In other words, the knowledge we already know.  The people who voice the most common information tend to have the most influence on the discussion, largely because group members prefer to hear information that confirms their view.  What we need to focus on are the pieces of information that are not held by everyone.  Make sure to focus on information that is unique versus what everyone already knows.

Silent Brainstorming

One of the challenges with traditional brainstorming is the person with the most power and influence tends to control the idea generation.  There are a few things you can do to resolve this.  First, when you are in idea generation mode, start with silent brainstorming. Have everyone write their ideas on post-it notes, anonymously, and then go through them as a group.  Second, look at the body language of people on the team. If someone is being quiet or have a visual look that they disagree, engage them in the conversation.  If someone starts to shut them down, then ask that person to please let the other person finish speaking.

Have “Anxiety Parties”

This one is from an article from Google Ventures about how they had “anxiety parties” – group discussions that talk about project concerns.

From the article:

In a quiet meeting room, we spent 10 minutes individually writing down our biggest anxieties on a private sheet of paper. For the next 2 minutes, we ranked them in order of severity — which anxieties worried each of us the most? Then we began.

For about an hour and a half we went around in a circle and in turn asked an anxiety question out loud. Then our colleagues would spend a few seconds scoring how much the issue troubled 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”).

Stay Thank You

It’s important we are all held accountable for results and behaviors.  However, this can turn into the blame game when the finger pointing and humiliation start and some may even be thrown overboard.

The problem with this environment is if you are scared you may be thrown overboard, you are not going to bring your whole self to the team.  In the name of self-protection, you will lay low and work to maintain team harmony at all costs.

To build a safe environment, you need to embrace mistakes and treat failure as learning.  To do this, let’s not play the blame game.  Let’s say thank you and show gratitude for others, even when there is a mistake made.  It’s when there is a mistake that the team needs to be supported and learning can occur.  The support will lay the foundation for the team to look at mistakes as learning opportunities.

Give Autonomy and Do Not Micromanage

As a leader, you set the direction.  But when you start to dictate how teams meet their objectives and what they should do not a daily basis, you start to become controlling.  When this happens to teams, not only do they become disengaged, but they are not motivated to come up with new ideas.

Give you team freedom.  Give the team guidelines, but allow them to decide how the work gets done.

Let the Ideas Flow

There are times when you may disagree with the direction of the team. However, there are times when you have to postpone your judgment to make an idea grow, to look at an issue from another angle, to have people finish what they want to say. That does not mean that you are not allowed to have an opinion. It means that you need to give the other some space.  Space to let them tell their story and to take some time yourself to reflect on others ideas.

Argue with Respect

Contrasting ideas are the greatest source of creativity.  It is important for team members to learn to be tolerant of other viewpoints. Disagreeing is okay. But do not make it personal and always provide respect for everyone on the team.

Psychological safety is something you can easily observe when working on a team.  It’s so important in today’s competitive environment that people are comfortable sharing ideas and bringing their best self to work each and every day.