To understand psychological safety go where people feel vulnerable

Fifteen people gather in a church hall one evening. They are all there for the same reason, and it’s quite a personal, emotionally vulnerable thing that they are there to do, and yet they all seem to feel at ease. There are lots of smiles as they joke with each other.

These people are at a Slimming World meeting. And everything they all do is designed to tackle people’s worries, make them feel part of the group, feel that they won’t be judged, just feel safe. From member-only Facebook Groups to not talking about their weight, to the quite strict rules and expectations that the leader is very practiced in reinforcing in positive and supportive ways, all of these things foster a psychological safety for the members that keeps them coming back.

All of this is interesting if like me, you’re interested in how psychological safety is created and maintained in groups of people with common goals. Most work teams I’ve seen don’t have psychological safety anywhere near the level of these people. But why, what is it about work teams that means they can’t achieve an environment and atmosphere anywhere near as supportive as this group? Is it to do with the external pressures that are applied to a team from outside themselves and perhaps they don’t feel any control over, is it that they don’t have a common ‘enemy’ (for want of a better word) to rally against, or leadership that has a clear and consistent approach to providing boundaries and expectations.

Clearly, creating psychological safety within a team is a complicated and difficult thing, but lessons in how to do it and why its important can be found in unlikely places.

What can we do about Workshop Remorse?

Workshop remorse

A workshop is arranged with the goal of solving a particular problem. Let’s say the problem is that the pages in a section of a website have become messy and need to be reorganised to improve the usability for visitors. The workshop uses a card sorting exercise to rearrange the existing pages and create a new structure. Everyone in the workshop accepts it and agrees the next steps.

Then… a few days after the workshop, some worries start to creep in. Things like, what if the changes affect our page search rankings, what if the changes make it harder for my customers to do what I want them to do, what if my manager doesn’t like the changes I agreed to.

That’s workshop remorse.

So then the emails start, emails that communicate those doubts and create little speed bumps. Shared among the group those worries multiply, and quickly people start to think of reasons why not to do what was they agreed at the workshop. The speed bumps grow into road blocks and everyone agrees that it would be better to wait some for seemingly connected thing to happen before we go back to solving this problem.

That’s the impact of workshop remorse.

How can we tackle it?

Every workshop should be about creating a space that has psychological safety for those involved. They should feel safe to say things they wouldn’t normally allow themselves to.

Maybe a part of a workshop should be spent talking about fears, concerns, barriers, internal agendas and organisational politics to bring this remorse to the forefront before it happens. Talk about it and tackle it.

Let’s see if by making the organisational politics visible we can challenge it. There’s no blame, we are all victims of our organisational culture and all implicit in creating it, so let’s be open about it.

Let’s see if by admitting our fears and worries we can overcome them and take control of them rather than allowing them to impact the work we want to do. It’s fine to have fears, we’re all human.

Let’s see if by talking about internal agendas we can reach some shared objectives that help everyone achieve. It’s not a zero sum game. One person doesn’t have to lose in order for another to win. We can all win if we work together.

What could we do?

We could hold a ‘Confessions time’ as part of the workshop. Maybe people would feel like it’s ok to open up.

Someone who has been workshops like this before might say: “I’m concerned that we’ll do this exercise but it’ll take so long for us to make any positive changes that we’ll all lose our enthusiasm and it’ll feel like wasted effort.”

The person running the workshop might say: “My worry is that you all won’t trust in the process and will want to feel in control of what we produce rather than allowing what users want to guide us.”

One of the less confident people in the group might say: “I’m worried that my part of business will be under-represented and I won’t achieve what I’m supposed to.”

And so everyone starts to understand how everyone else is feeling.

Then we can get on with the card sorting, because actually the workshop isn’t really about organising pages on a website, it’s really about having a safe and inspiring place to work, it’s about how we can improve the organisation one step at a time, its’ about people working together to create something awesome.