I have used these group activities to increase psychological safety and increase safety awareness for many years.
How can a team leader, safety professional, or GM contribute to the level of psychological safety on their team or in their facility? Much has been published on how psychological safety is important to organizational innovation, trust and collaboration, but not so much on how to create it. This article focuses on how to promote these states through the use of personal story telling and connection. The methods described to create psychological safety are simple and direct.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990). On psychologically safe teams, team members feel acceptance, mutual respect and trust.
Amy Edmonson, through psychology, and David Rock,through neuroscience, have popularized the role of psychological safety in raising the level of individual and team performance. The bottom line is that when an individual’s sense of belonging is threatened fear reduces the brain’s faculties. This leads to decreased awareness, emotional intelligence, and diminished decision-making capability.
It appears that the level of psychological safety is tied to the level of emotional intelligence to support and create it. These skills allow colleagues to be heard and encouraged and often bring out people’s best work. Exclusion or fear of exclusion is what most frequently creates team breakdowns in trust, conflict and accountability. The resulting low trust levels translate into team members being unable to fully express opposing points of view, and to fear of speaking up or asking questions that might reveal ignorance.
It is helpful to acquire emotional intelligence skills to build psychological safety in your conversations, but creating a sense of belonging on a team requires group activities that help people feel accepted and included. Exercises that reveal emotions and feelings typically undisclosed in meetings decrease many of the defensive behaviors that typically reduce learning and mutual understanding. Conflict management and personal feedback training are helpful, but when they fail it can usually be traced back to the lack of establishing relationships with a sense of belonging among participants.
Jody Gittell’s research in the healthcare and airlines industry uncovered seven dimensions of communication that support high performance and could help explain why personal story and connection are so powerful. She discovered four interpersonal dimensions for communication on high performance teams: 1) mutual respect; 2) shared goals; 3) shared knowledge; and 4) a non-blame approach to problem solving. She also identified three other dimensions that deal specifically with the quality of information exchanged in the workplace. Is it timely, at the correct frequency, and accurate? It may be that psychological safety is impacted by the way information is delivered.
Sharing your personal story reproduces Gittell’s first four interpersonal dimensions. When people share their knowledge, personal struggles and victories, others connect through respect for their persistence or courage. People discover they aren’t so different in their goals, and the way opens up to listening to their perspectives. The blaming lessens with the degree of mutual respect and understanding because empathy arises—that person is like me, perhaps I could have made the same mistake.
Personal Story Telling as Connectivity
Telling your story can be as short as “Telling what are you worried or excited about today,” or as long as “Telling the high and low points of your life experience until now.”
The power behind storytelling is its ability to stir empathy, to breakdown the barriers that typically can cause people to feel isolated and alone. When we hear someone’s story, how they felt, what they are going through now we realize what we have in common, and this sense of connection ends our isolation at least temporarily. The magic can be as simple as a feeling of cordiality replacing anxiety, all the way to the discovery of an inner strength made possible by learning from the suffering and courage of others.
Levels of Sharing
The time and depth of sharing increases with each of these three levels.
Level 1: The Connector (Icebreaker). (10 minutes) I know a lot of people who hate icebreakers because they seem silly and superficial. They can be when they have little to do with the purpose of the meeting or conversation. Effectiveness also depends on the individual level of belief in the importance and purpose of connecting.
Changing the concept from icebreaker to connector changes the purpose and meaning of the activity. A useful one for executive meetings to focus participants in the present and on the agenda is to have each person share what urgent task they had to leave to attend the meeting. They could also share an accomplishment. The result is that participants have a deeper understanding of one another’s work, which contributes to trust and mutual respect.
Level 2: Appreciative Inquiry. (1-2 hours) The power of empathy to create belonging was demonstrated in a workshop by Linda Quarles asking a simple question: tell me about a moment (personal or professional) when you felt a sense of belonging; what did you value about yourself in the process; what is the core value of belonging; if you had three wishes to create a sense of belonging for everyone in the workplace what would they be? In the end, participants were asked to write down their personal commitment to enable a sense of belonging for others in their personal and professional lives. New friendships were forged, contact information was exchanged, and commitments to be more present and listen with empathy were made.
Level 3: Tell Your Story. (4 hours) This activity focuses on personal revelation of feelings and emotions—sharing the events that formed your perspective on the world. It is important to set the ground rule that each person has the right to control how much is revealed and how deep to go. However, it has never failed to amaze me how much people reveal.
One example is the lifeline exercise first developed in the 1960’s. It is extremely effective in helping a team establish connections that open the way for open communication. Each person individually prepares a timeline marking their highs and lows. Then they share it with the group. This works with a group of up to 12 people. Click here for the guidelines.
It is frequently used in executive retreats and I have begun using it in new employee onboarding sessions to create relationships across functional and hierarchical lines.
People share more than one might imagine and at the end of the experience express a sense of belonging and understanding that allows for conversation far above where they started. Why might this happen, and why do we tend to avoid these types of activities?
Why and How Telling Your Story Contributes to Team Growth and Personal Development
Telling your story can be transformational when there is appropriate follow up and support. It derives historically from 12-Step programs where the sharing of emotions, feelings, struggles and victories takes place in a non-judgmental environment. This experience promotes feelings of physical safety and emotional security, of being understood and unconditionally accepted.
The historical reference should not concern those who worry about bringing personal problems into the workplace. The same dynamic improves levels of trust and communication in the workplace without having to reveal one’s deepest secrets or the worst things we’ve ever done. The thoughts and feelings that go unshared for fear of being judged can be the illness of a loved one, hardships, or an unfulfilled dream. Mistakes and problems can also go unspoken depriving the organization of valuable learning opportunities. Most cultures drive hiding them to ensure greater acceptance and belonging. Some people don’t share accomplishments either, which means others can’t see or recognize their talents fully.
Carl Rogers, the founder of Client-Centered Therapy, referred to this experience as “unconditional positive regard.” It is the absolute, unequivocal respect for and appreciation of others, encompassing acceptance, compassion, empathy, and love. Being on the receiving end of unconditional positive regard, of feeling accepted for who one truly is, is transformational for the individual and for the organization.
A True Story: Sharing or not Sharing Feelings and Emotions Impacts Safety and Productivity
Bob, a deep-sea drilling platform supervisor was at the end of his wits at work and at home. His boss was on his case because his crew’s accident rate was too high. At home his son was kicked out of school for drinking and selling drugs. All efforts to talk to him led to a slamming of the door and dead silence.
Desperate about the situation with his son he began to participate in a therapy group where people were asked to share their stories and their pain. It was the only place where he didn’t have to pretend that he had it all together. Others around him even cried. He didn’t because he had to hold it together for his wife and his guys at work. Keeping his emotions hidden and not talking about his problems had earned him a lot of respect in a grueling environment where freezing temperatures, constant danger and long shifts were the norm.
Yet the therapist kept insisting that Bob reveal his feelings and emotions, and eventually he was able to talk about his disappointment in his son, and how he wished they could talk again. The therapist suggested that he bring his son—maybe he would talk in the safety of the group. When his son came what Bob heard shocked him. His son told him that watching him talk openly in the group made him realize how much he wished his dad had shared who he was at home. Why had his dad been so closed off?
Fortunately they were able to reopen communication, sharing their feelings and perspectives, and the young man’s life got back on track. As a result Bob began to think about applying the principle sharing your story with his crew.
So he invited the therapist to conduct some sessions with them. They got together several times over a year and the sole purpose was for team members to share what was going on with them at every level. One particularly emotional story involved witnessing the horrible death of a young co-worker that had been decapitated. At the time the man who watched it had been given a 15-minute break to recover, and get back to work. No one thought anything different should happen at the time.
Bob did the sessions to help his team members relieve stress and have a better quality of life. He didn’t know that the accidents would also stop, and that the crew’s production stats would soar through the roof.
Why? One crewmember described his experience. “At first we all hated it. Why would we participate in all that touchy feely stuff? After a while we began to notice that hearing each other’s stories and talking about difficult experiences in our lives began to make a difference in the way things felt at work and how we worked together. One guy’s father had cancer, another one had a missing daughter, and none of us knew about it.”
“I think the accident rate went down because we started feeling like we could talk to each other and ask questions. There was a gauge that I didn’t understand, but I never wanted to let anyone know, so I never asked any questions. Stuff like that where we could tell someone we thought it might be unsafe without being afraid that we would be considered a wimp.”
So I’ve shared a true story with you to communicate the power of story telling. That might be enough to help you buy into the importance of providing opportunities for your team to get to know each other. There is a lot of research validating the business case for creating opportunities for members of your team to truly get to know each other. According to Uri Hasson from Princeton our brains synchronize when listening to others express emotion. So, when we tell how a story that shaped our thinking and way of life, we can have a profound effect on others.
In the last storytelling session I facilitated one person said, “I can’t trust anyone I don’t know. Now I feel like I know people on my team and can begin to build trust.” Word of warning: once is not enough. Time for meaningful conversation where people have time to reveal what they are feeling and thinking must happen on a continuous basis. Time is always an obstacle, but when we evaluate how much time we lose when communication breaks down and people stop collaborating, is the time we invest in true communication truly optional?
Letting people get to know each other is one of the secrets of building trust and open communication. It is direct and simple. I know there are supervisors and managers that will grab this and find a time to do it in short bursts at the beginning of meetings or at their next team building session. They will experience huge improvements in collaboration. Others will say to themselves that it is fluff and too personal. It will be and can be successful to the level that you believe in it and are willing to be vulnerable yourself.
Revealing vulnerabilities in story exchanges creates intimacy. We may find it a bit puzzling to understand how acknowledging our imperfections can increase trust and collaboration on teams. Many of the imperfections we don’t want revealed are tied to our emotions and feelings.
The idea that success comes from acknowledging our imperfections is a radical one. Most cultures drive hiding them to ensure greater acceptance and belonging. Leveraging our imperfections for success is even more radical, however that is exactly what I have experienced.
What can you do as a leader?
Tell your own story to strengthen your connection to others. Plan short conversations to let people share what is going on with them. If you are kicking off a project plan a longer event where team members can share more about who they are and what they know that could impact the project.
The primary role of the leader in creating psychological safety is to lead by example and set the tone for the whole team. This includes being the first one to show their humanness and imperfections. Ask questions, show interest in the work and knowledge of others. Ask for feedback and acknowledge criticism when appropriate.
Email me if you want more tips or you need help facilitating a story telling session with your team. firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the neuro science see my last post.
 Rock, D. 2009. Your brain at work: Strategies for overcoming distraction, regaining focus, and working smarter all day long. 1st edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Edmondson AC, Mogelof JP. 2005. Explaining psychological safety in innovation teams. In Creativity and