4 Questions that Build Psychological Safety (Virtual Team Toolkit)

4 Questions that Build Psychological Safety Overview:

  • Objective = Psychological Safety has been proven to be a key component of high performing teams. These 4 questions will help build psychological safety within your team members.
  • Team Size = Any group size will work
  • Time = 60 mins
  • Difficulty = Medium
  • Materials Required = No
  • Preparation Required = Yes
  • Technology Required = Video/phone conferencing

Virtual Team Activities: Coat of Arms

Why this is an important activity for your team

Two of the biggest problems that teams have are that the colleagues don’t trust each other, and due to that lack of trust, they are unwilling to have a healthy debate of ideas. I mean, why would I listen to someone challenge my ‘great’ ideas if I don’t trust the person? So if you want a high performing team, the first thing you need to do is build a foundation of trust. And then from there you can start having a healthy conflict of ideas.

One way we suggest building this culture of trust and healthy conflict is to make sure your team members feel psychologically safe. The concept of psychological safety was first identified in the 90s by professor William Kahn. Psychological Safety is described at the ‘condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo- all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way.” In essence, you feel safe to be yourself and voice your opinions in your team.

For some of us, the feeling of safety is being challenged by COVID19, and our new working from home situation. We might feel incredibly stressed and unable to perform at our previous productivity levels. For example, I am personally struggling to accomplish my role responsibilities due to my 4 year old and 6 year old constantly demanding my attention. Having a psychologically safe team allows for people to share those struggles, thereby allowing the rest of the team to help. Discussing these 4 questions will help you build that safety.

4 Questions that Build Psychological Safety (Virtual Team Toolkit)

Preparation – Explain why psychological safety is important

Either in an email or in a meeting, explain to your team that you will be running some trust building exercises designed to build psychological safety. If some of your team is skeptical about building psycholiogical safety within the team, we recommend sharing this Google research with them.

In 2013-14, Google analyzed 180 different teams to truly understand what differentiated high performing teams and low performing teams. They looked at a myriad of factors, but ultimately the researchers found that what really mattered was less about who was on the team, and more about how the team worked together. Their analysis identified 5 traits were found in high performing teams but not in low performing teams.

The following are the 5 most important traits (from most to least critical):

  1. Psychological safety: In high performing teams, individuals share their opinions without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career
  2. Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite – shirking responsibilities).
  3. Structure and clarity: On high performing teams, each individual understands their job’s expectations, the process for fulfilling those expectations, and the consequences of their performance.
  4. Meaning: High performing teams have a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness.
  5. Impact: High performing teams believe that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals.

4 Questions that Build Psychological Safety (Virtual Team Toolkit)

How to discuss these 4 Psychological Safety questions

There are two different ways to utilize these 4 questions that build psychological safety. Some teams might want to set aside a full meeting and discuss all the questions in one go. If you have the time, this is a great option as it will keep everyone focused on the overall concept of psychological safety. What you want to avoid is having everyone distracted by other parts of the meeting agenda.

The other way you can run this exercise is to split up the questions across multiple meetings. We don’t want psychological safety to be something you just discuss once. So splitting it across multiple meetings is a great way to keep the concept alive in your team. But no matter which way you choose to discuss them, make sure you block enough time. We believe that 15 minutes per question is the minimum required time to discuss these concepts.

4 Questions that Build Psychological Safety (Virtual Team Toolkit)

Question 1 – What are your strengths that the team can count on you for?

Talking about our positives and our strengths is easier than sharing our weaknesses and our mistakes. That is why the first question is designed to highlight the strengths that we all bring to the team. This will help open up people to sharing.

As people start sharing their answers, push them to provide real life examples. It’s super easy to say something generic like “I’m very dependable”, but those kind of generic statements are not building psychological safety. Instead, people should share real examples from the team on how they demonstrated that dependability.

If the conversation is going well and you have the time, ask for people to share what they count on from other members of the team. Sometimes people can be self-critical and ignore the value that they bring to others. By getting the team to provide feedback on others, we help shine a light on some of these blindspots.

4 Questions that Build Psychological Safety (Virtual Team Toolkit)

Question 2 – What are some of your strengths that are currently underutilized by the team?

In addition to what we think we bring to the team, all of us have some untapped strengths. Some of these strengths might not really be applicable at work. For example, I used to have my own personal ceramics workshop. As much as I wish it would be, throwing ceramic vases is not something my team needs me to do.

But there are some strengths that we have that are currently being underutilized within our jobs. For example, I wrote my masters about using an advanced statistical technique on the impact of training and development. In my current role, I am not using a lot of my statistical abilities, but at the same time, I know these skills would probably be valuable to the team.

By having each member open up about their underutilized strengths, we not only learn more about one another, but we also see where the team can improve. This improves psychological safety, because your team members will be confident that the team knows and understands their contributions to the team.

4 Questions that Build Psychological Safety (Virtual Team Toolkit)

Question 3 – What is a recent mistake that you made, but that you learned a lot from?

Psychological safety is not just about being confident in your strengths and contributions to the team. It is also have the comfort in sharing our weakness or things that might embarrass us. In order to build this comfort, the team needs to shift its mindset on how it views mistakes and failures.

Too often, people think of failures and mistakes as something that should be avoided at all costs, but that mindset only causes us to hide our mistakes from others. We don’t want the reputation for being a failure. The more healthy way to look at failures and mistakes is to see them as learning opportunities.

While the team is discussing their mistakes, make sure the mood is positive. Don’t let people get critical of themselves or others. Remind them that it is ludicrous to think anyone can be perfect. We all make mistakes and all fail at some things. But if we are open about what we learned from them, then maybe other people might not make the same mistakes.

4 Questions that Build Psychological Safety (Virtual Team Toolkit)

Question 4 – What skills or areas of improvement are you trying to develop?

The final discussion question is designed to improve the team’s ability to ask for help. A psychologically safe team is one where people are willing to be vulnerable, and openly ask for help with things they are struggling with. The culture we want to avoid is the one where people suffer in silence.

Now you might think your team is one where people readily ask for help, and that might be true. But when I survey people at my work, the majority are reluctant to ask for help. Some don’t ask for help because they believe their colleagues are too busy, and they don’t want to bother them. Some don’t ask for help because they don’t want be seen as if they don’t know how to do their job. But no matter what excuse, we need to build a culture where teammates actively ask for support.

When discussing this question, I recommend the team leader shares their development areas first. By going first they are setting the tone that asking for help on development is good and ok.

4 Questions that Build Psychological Safety (Virtual Team Toolkit)

After the 4 questions – Debrief the team

The 4 questions are not meant to be the final action in building psychological safety. They are designed to start healthy conversations in the team. But ultimately, you need to do something with this new information. Just talking is not enough.

So after you answer these four questions as a team, discuss how you can use this new information in practical terms.

  • How can we design tasks and responsibilities so we take advantage of our strengths?
  • How can you tap into other people’s underutilized strengths?
  • What steps will you take to make sure you have a culture where everyone is asking for help?
  • How will the team discuss and learn from their mistakes?

In a weird way, I find these 4 application questions the most important part of the whole exercise. Without them, the psychological safety of the team remains an ill defined concept. But when you try and apply your learnings, the team can take practical steps in building a psychologically safe culture.

4 Questions that Build Psychological Safety (Virtual Team Toolkit)

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