Workshop activities for building stronger teams
Studies have shown that psychological safety is the most important factor in building effective teams. A team that has a high level of psychological safety is one in which team members feel safe to speak up, to admit their mistakes, or take a risk.
One of the biggest challenges most teams face is having trust in each other and their leaders. Trust allows for open communication and creates an environment where team members have confidence that they will be supported by their colleagues. If the trust foundation is lacking, it’s very hard to get people to listen to each other let alone collaborate effectively.
If you want to work on psychological safety with your team, here are some practical activities you can undertake. The activities vary in length and can be adapted to both one-off and regular meetings as well as team offsite meetings, retreats, and other events designed specifically for improving team dynamics.
Introducing the topic of psychological safety with an icebreaker is one way you can get people talking.
What makes them feel safe to speak up?
Put team members into small groups and ask them to discuss in what circumstances they feel safe to speak up. If groups have difficulty getting started, you can prompt them by asking them to consider times when they haven’t felt comfortable speaking up. Elicit stories including where they were and what it was that made them uncomfortable. From here, encourage them to brainstorm factors that make it more likely for them to feel safe sharing their opinions and addressing potentially contentious topics.
Allow groups 5-10 minutes for their discussion. You can then bring the group back together and table some answers or go right into presenting the concept of psychological safety to the group. Consult our earlier article on psychological safety and why it’s important. Circulate the definition of psychological safety among team members so that everyone understands the concept before going on to further activities.
Arthur Aron’s empathy questions
To build relationships, an effective icebreaker or activity that can be used midway through a team day or even to wrap up is to use Arthur Aron’s 36 questions.
Arthur Aron is a psychologist who developed questions designed to turn strangers into friends. He tested a range of questions repeatedly and after decades of research developed a set of 36 questions. Since building empathy between colleagues is a quick way to boost psychological safety, these questions can be used successfully in the workplace to promote empathy and bonding between teammates.
To use them as part of a workshop activity, group the team into pairs and give them 3-5 questions to work through. For example:
- Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
- Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
- If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
- Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
- Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
Depending on the amount of time you have available, you can repeat this step in the process over and over by getting the team to partner up again with someone different and go through another 3-5 questions.
Make it clear that each person should answer the question before moving on to the next one. Ideally, the person who answered last on the previous will answer first on the next. The questions are designed to get increasingly personal and should not be addressed in a group setting - it’s not a public exercise, but an opportunity for team members to build bonds one-on-one.
As such, the best course of action is for your team to continue this work on an ongoing basis so team members get a chance to talk to more people and build greater empathy across the team as a whole.
When you have time set aside specifically for growing team health you can spend longer on these exercises, allowing pairs to talk through a longer set of questions. You could also send them offsite to discuss over a walk or cup of coffee.
Working with scenarios
When starting to work on psychological safety with your team, it might be easier to start out by addressing fictional scenarios before talking about actual situations facing your team. It’s often easier for people to talk about something that isn’t real as a way to gradually go deeper and get more vulnerable with one another. You as the leader can set the tone for this by going first and being willing to show what it looks like to take risks. If there are communication issues in your team, addressing scenarios is an effective way to start thinking through constructive behaviors and alternative reactions without it being too confrontational for anyone.
Here are some scenarios you could pose for your team. Take each scenario one at a time and put the team into small groups. Ask them to discuss ways they could deal with the issue and make interactions as psychologically safe as possible. Remember, a team that has a high level of psychological safety is one in which team members feel safe to speak up, to admit their mistakes, or take a risk without fear that they will be chastised publicly or get in trouble for it later.
- Bob and Frank are in disagreement about how to tackle a task. Bob disagrees with Frank by insulting his intelligence.
- Annie, a team leader, provides feedback to Penny on a task. She does so in front of other team members. Penny feels the feedback is harsh and uncalled for. The other team members present feel uncomfortable.
- Michael and Louise have been working on a project together. In discussing their work with colleagues, Michael takes credit for Louise’s work.
- A client is upset and confronts Allan. Allan’s team has been working with this client and Allan is not directly responsible for the client’s dissatisfaction but is the only one in the office at the time of the confrontation.
- Steve, a team leader, upholds high standards, is intolerant of mistakes, and has strong opinions on how things should be done. At a team meeting, Warren, an experienced team member suggested an idea that was shot down by Steve. Everyone else thought it was an idea worth exploring. Steve spoke negatively about Warren behind his back afterward.
After the small groups discuss the scenarios, have a whole team discussion and allow the various groups to share their ideas. Some things you might want to point out are;
- Where there is a difference of opinion, stick to the issue rather than getting personal
- Leaders need to have the skills and know-how to offer constructive feedback
- If someone is discussing a project and taking ownership, ask them who else contributed to give them an opportunity to be inclusive
- If you don’t have the authority to solve a client’s complaint, learn how to de-escalate the conflict and follow up the issue with the rest of the team/team leader
Note that creating more psychologically safe situations and reactions can also involve processes, training, and procedures. You might like to address this as a follow-up discussion. If team members find it difficult to come up with suggestions for these scenarios, what kind of training or company procedures could be useful in helping them deal with these kinds of situations?
Intention vs Perception
In this exercise, participants are encouraged to become more self-aware and consider how their behavior might be perceived by others.
- Firstly, ask team members to suggest different ways in which people can react or behavior they may exhibit if they are feeling frustrated. Create a list. Comments may include, intimidating, harassing, isolating, ignoring, bullying, dismissing.
- Secondly, discuss how certain behavior might be perceived. Pose a couple of examples and encourage team members to come up with their own scenarios. For example, a frustrated colleague goes into their office and shuts the door. Possible reactions could be that the rest of the team feel shunned. It could also be they feel that person is not only shutting them out but plotting against them.
- Thirdly, discuss how perception is subjective and independent of intention. Return to the examples you have discussed and propose different intentions. For example, where someone goes into their office and shuts the door, it might be that they are overwhelmed and need some space. Discuss the impact this behavior has on the team and what team norms should be for giving people the space they need to calm down.
Lastly, discuss a common example - raising your voice. Discuss the following questions:
- What causes people to raise their voice?
- Are there any situations where it may be necessary to raise your voice at work?
- What perceptions might be formed about someone that raises their voice?
- How can someone raising their voice trigger a co-worker?
In relation to the last question, in addition to possible perceptions of intimidation and bullying, highlight that yelling can trigger subjective reactions like childhood trauma or sensitivity to noise. Assuming the team leader is not the one who is doing the yelling, it is he or she who needs to be the one to ensure people are held accountable for negative, disruptive behaviors that decrease safety for the group.
Amy Edmondson, the organizational behavioral psychologist who first introduced the concept of team psychological safety, suggests surveying your team. Ask team members to anonymously rate the extent to which they agree or disagree with these propositions.
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
- It is safe to take a risk on this team.
- It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
Collating these results will give your team a roadmap of specific issues to work on.
Working on psychological safety will take time. Once you start introducing activities to promote psychological safety, team members will begin to feel increasingly confident in sharing, and the safer they begin to feel, the more you can start openly addressing team anxieties and tackling any contentious issues.
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