Our 3-step process to building psychological safety in teams

28th October 2022

Building psychological safety in teams is difficult and even more so if your team is remote. But once you have a team who feels truly psychologically safe, the magic starts to happen and you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it.

Psychological safety happens when you feel safe to share your thoughts, opinions and ideas freely, and when you feel safe to ask questions without fear of being judged or shamed. In Google’s 2-year study looking for the traits of high performing teams, psychological safety was found to be the most important factor.

This short blog post summarises the 3-step process we took to build this safety into all of our teams, and whilst it took months of work, it transformed our business. Building true psychological safety is not easy, but it is definitely worth the effort.

Once your company is on board, once psychological safety has been agreed upon as a priority, once you have buy-in from all the stakeholders and you’ve set it as an OKR, this is what you need to do:

Step 1 – Educate

Teach every member of your team what psychological safety is, how to build it and, most importantly, why it is important. Psychological Safety is the responsibility of everyone in the company so your team needs to not only feel safe themselves, they also need to know how to make other members feel safe, and this takes education. In our case, our education program trained our team to become more empathetic with emphasis on developing their listening skills. 

Step 2 – Build relationships

We believe that people feel safer when they have a close personal relationship with their co-workers. We’re not saying everyone needs to be best buddies (although this helps); but when people feel a personal connection to each other, developing the feeling of safety within the team is easier.

You cannot force people to socialise and “get on”, but you can provide the infrastructure that facilitates personal interactions which in-turn builds relationships. 

Like many companies post-covid, we’ve become a hybrid-team: Some work at the office while others work remotely and a growing number are doing both. Hence, we had to develop strategies of relationship building that incorporated both our physical and telepresent environments. 

We designed our office so that people could socialise easily. Our eating area was designed with big communal tables, and our open plan office has many breakout areas that encourage our team to spend time together. In addition, we organised an optional team breakfast every week which allows our team to step out of work-mode for an hour with their colleagues. 

For our team members that typically prefer to work remotely, we encourage them to meet up with their colleagues in person as often as possible and it’s no surprise that our highest office attendance day of the week is FREE BREAKFAST Thursday.  Additionally, we’ll fund other activities like Scrum team lunches, dinners and monthly after work mixers. We also pay for flights and accommodation so our overseas team members can attend our regular, whole team, in-person get-togethers. Of course, we are well aware that socialising can be difficult for some, perhaps because a particularly quirky activity takes them out of their comfort zone, so while we try to keep these types of activities to a minimum, we never oblige them to partake. We just provide the opportunities to allow relationships to build naturally.

For those that work mostly remotely, they have regular Zoom meetings so they can meet face-to-face multiple times a week. Equally important, in all Zoom meetings, we encourage time to be spent on non-work banter, just as you would do, had you been working in the office. The long term benefits of having a team that feels safe outweighs the time lost discussing the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Beside Zoom, we’ve also set up multiple slack channels where our teams can post and chat about non-work stuff freely.

Step 3 – Make psychological safety part of everything you do

Once we’d recognised the importance of psychological safety and set up our environment for relationships to flourish, we then looked at all our processes to make sure we were considering the safety of our team at every opportunity. We looked at everything from  the training we do with our interns to all the scrum ceremonies. Everywhere our staff members were expected to participate as a group of two or more, we checked to see if we could do better in helping them feel more at ease. 

This introspective exercise resulted in a number of initiatives. We started “Coffee with Rachel”, a complete open discussion format, where our CEO spent scheduled time with every member of the team. We improved our one-to-one meetings by giving our line managers the tools to help build safety with every interaction, providing them training, ample questions and sample formats to help them build trust and a feeling of safety. With our remote team members, we became conscious that some of them weren’t comfortable speaking in a group environment, so we started using different types of communication to make them feel more inclusive, such as adding text chats within our Zoom calls, and allowing staff to add sound reactions like clapping and heckling to our Zoom calls (using the truly annoying but amazing bwamp ). We reviewed the everyday language we used so it was easier for people to communicate; for example, we replaced our weekly happiness check-in from “How are you feeling? Good / OK / bad” to “How are you feeling? Green / Orange / Red”, a seemingly small change that had a huge impact as people felt safer saying they were orange rather than OK.

Psychological safety awareness and training is now an integral part of all our communication processes, especially onboarding new staff. Consequently, psychological safety has become part of the daily language we use. If you ask any member of our team what it is, they can tell you, they can tell you why it’s important and what they do to make their team feel safe.

Helping your team feel psychologically safe is more than just a couple of workshops and a nice poster on the wall, it’s a company movement, a culture shift from top to bottom. Everyone in the company needs to know what it is, how to do it, and, most importantly, why it’s key. Once your team really understands psychological safety, once they start practising it and living it everyday, you’ll look back and wonder how you ever prospered before.

This blog post is just a taster, if you’re interested in Psychological Safety in your teams (and you should be), there are many great books on the subject in addition to hundreds of high quality articles that are well worth reading. This New York Times piece  is a good article about the original research, and there are many good articles on HBR.

If you’re interested in how we’ve built our happiness-first culture as well as how we’re continually challenging ourselves to make a happier company, please follow us on LinkedIn to get regular updates on our progress.