Psychological Safety Team Exercise

Training, Workshops, Exercises and Tools

Psychological Safety Team Exercise

psychological safety workshop

The Psychological Safety Quadrant Workshop

This is an example of a really powerful exercise to qualitatively measure psychological safety, team performance, and work collaboratively to increase both, via a workshop that can be carried out remotely or in-person.

This is really effective for short-lived teams, who haven’t had, or won’t have, time to build and establish common norms and behaviours. For long lived teams, try using the psychological safety survey.

There is sometimes a misconception made that psychological safety is a “fluffy” concept, about being “soft”, or about accepting lower standards. This is definitely not the case. In fact, a culture of psychological safety necessitates and enables higher standards of performance, delivery, and quality.

The diagram below, from Dr Amy Edmondson’s “Fearless Organisation” illustrates one way of modelling your team’s culture, by plotting psychological safety against “drive to perform”. In the book, Dr Edmonson uses the term “accountability“, but depending on the language of your team, you may wish to substitute a different term such as “motivation”, or “drive” – utilising Daniel Pink’s “Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose” trifecta.

psychological safety exercise

Here’s what each of the quadrants mean:

  • Apathy – A team with neither psychological safety nor a drive to perform will be unhappy and reluctant to work. This team will not achieve anything meaningful, and may demonstrate a relatively high turnover of team members, from people leaving to find greener grass and better results in other teams.
  • Comfort Zone – A team with high psychological safety but without a drive to succeed will feel safe, but will not reach their potential for performance. This team may be long lasting, because there is low incentive to change, and will achieve at least some of their goals. They may even consider themselves a high performing team.
  • Anxiety – If a team has low psychological safety but is highly driven, the result can often be high levels of anxiety. This can often be seen in highly pressurised sales teams where team members are pitted against each other for results. These teams are often characterised by high turnover of team members, high burnout, high stress levels and conflict.
  • High Performance – The optimum team resides in this zone. They feel a great deal of psychological safety and demonstrate a strong drive to deliver results. This is also known as the “learning zone”, because team members are empowered to innovate, experiment and learn from mistakes. This team will deliver on their goals, and will show typically low turnover of team members, though team members may leave to pursue career goals due to the high levels of personal development achieved whilst on this team. The team may set their own stretch goals, and may be confident in communicating their success outside the team.

I recently used this quadrant exercise with a team at Red Hat Open Innovation Labs, using Miro.

The exercise has three main steps:

  1. Discussion of psychological safety and what it’s like to be in a team in each quadrant. For this, facilitate a discussion and introduce psychological safety as a concept to everyone present or reaffirm if the team already understand it.
  2. Starting as the bottom left, in the “Apathy” zone, ask everyone to contribute post-its or virtual stickies with words that describe that zone. Time box contributions and then discuss the words that have been put on the board. Move through each zone, and end with the top-right, the high performance or “learning” zone.
  3. Using different colour notes (blank, so they’re anonymous) for each stage, ask people to first put a note on the board to show where they felt they were a year ago. Your context may suit a different time period of 6 months, two years, or whatever works: essentially you’re looking for “past state”. Discuss any clusters, any reasons why, and what that was like. Then move on to put a note where each person feels they are at present in their team, on average (given that we move around this matrix all the time, hour by hour). Discuss the present state, and ask for contributions about what it’s like on the team. Finally, move to a different colour for the future state – “where do we want to be?“. This will likely be somewhere in the performance zone, but might be towards the comfort zone, and that’s ok. Use this stage to discuss what everyone can do on the team to help everyone get to that place.
Miro psychological safety exercise

To facilitate the last discussion, about the behaviours and practices that will enable the team to build psychological safety, try using the IN/OUT exercise as described here. It’s a great way to facilitate a discussion about practices and behaviours that build (and avoid ones that damage) psychological safety.

This is a really powerful exercise, and can be run remotely via a tool such as Miro, Mural, or Google Jamboard or using a whiteboard if everyone is colocated.

A template for this exercise is in the Psychological Safety Action Pack.

Please use this with your teams to increase psychological safety and performance, and let me know how it goes!

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