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Psychological safety

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Effective Teams: Fostering Psychological Safety

Team of Fellows at SVM 2018.jpg

Research done by Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson has identified psychological safety as a key contributor to effectiveness in teams (watch her share her research in this TEDx talk). Teams in which members can trust one another, and which allow for questioning, risk taking, and mistakes, perform better. Google has conducted their own research and found similar results (read more about Google's Project Aristotle, along with case studies and tools, here). 

Put it in practice

A fairly simple activity you can do when you form new teams (or with existing teams) is to give them a set of prompts that guides team members in sharing progressively more personal stories with the team. Doing so fosters a sense of psychological safety.

Here are the instructions:

Set up

  1. Make teams of about 4-5 people (or whatever team size make sense for your planned activity, but keep in mind that larger teams may lead to decreased participation by some members, and are more difficult to manage)
  2. Ask for one volunteer per team
  3. Prompt: "I'll give you a series of incomplete sentences and each of you will complete them, sharing with your team, one at a time; when all have done so, the volunteer will raise and keep their hand up (and the team can continue sharing more)"
  4. Once you see all (or most) hands up, move to the next prompt.

{An alternative way of facilitating this activity is to print cards with one numbered prompt per card, and hand the cards to one person on the team, instructing them to reveal one card at a time and take turns completing the sentence. Some teams will finish earlier than others. You can include a final card that says "Come up with your own prompt here", or finish the activity whne most teams have progressed past a certain point.}

Questions (*):

  1. If I could only eat one food for a year it would be...
  2. When I’m new to a group I tend to…
  3. Something that you probably wouldn’t guess about me is...
  4. The best advice I’ve ever received is…
  5. That nagging voice inside my head causes me the most suffering by saying…
  6. A recent situation when I felt I belonged was…
  7. I'm happiest when…
  8. Right now I’m feeling…
  9. What I’m appreciating most about all of you right now is…


Suggested debrief of the activity:

  1. How did it go? Any insights from the activity?
  2. You can share the concept of psychological safety and mention the research behind it.
  3. In teams: discuss situations where the 5 variables that correlate with team effectiveness come into play (in a positive or negative way) in teams you have been.
  4. In teams: create your team norms (to remind yourselves as you work on the project).
  5. Have each team share one of their norms.


(*) Other questions to substitute (Note that these are NOT in order - think about when in the sequence they would be most appropriate):

  • What one word describes how you’re feeling right now?
  • What is your personal motto?
  • What talent would you most like to possess?
  • What’s something you always travel with?
  • What’s something people would least expect about you?
  • What makes you feel like a hero?
  • What is your go-to comfort food?
  • What’s your least favorite word?
  • What person—living, dead, or fictional—would you want to bring to dinner?
  • What’s a piece of advice or feedback you’ve heard more than once?
  • What superstition do you take seriously?
  • What are you thankful for?
  • What’s your guiltiest TV pleasure?
  • What were you doing in high school?
  • What is your idea of bliss?
  • What quality do you most admire in a person?
  • What makes you feel guilty?
  • Who is your celebrity doppelganger?
  • What resolution are you trying to keep right now?
  • What is something you’ve borrowed but never returned?
  • What was your childhood obsession?