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Foster psychological safety in your retrospectives with these 4 tips

Photo of Alison Robins
By Alison Robins
Published on January 13, 2022
4 tips to foster psychological safety  in your retrospectives

The best retrospective meetings are honest ones, where each team member can share what’s on their mind freely and openly. Whether it’s about projects underway or team dynamics, retrospectives are moments intentionally made to “let it all out”.

Having these candid conversations is time well spent with your team. Still, if discussions are surfaced and “fake” - for the sake of not ruffling any feathers or fear of speaking up - your retrospective meetings will lose their meaning, and your team will lose their interest in them.

That’s where psychological safety comes in. Consider it the golden ticket to retrospective meeting success.

In this article, we will explore:

  1. What is psychological safety, and what does it really look like on teams?

  2. How measuring psychological safety on your team looks like

  3. 4 tips for fostering psychological safety in your next retrospective

What is psychological safety, and what does it really look like on teams?

But, what exactly is psychological safety? Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson coined the term to mean “the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” And c’mon, what feels riskier than telling your colleagues how you really feel, or admitting to the mistakes you made? Choosing the right retrospective activity for your team’s needs is essential, but a foundation of psychological safety is what brings them to life. 

When teams feel safe to share with one another, they have the important (and sometimes tricky) discussions needed to overcome conflict, bring mistakes to the forefront, and find ways of working better together. 

Ultimately, psychological safety is the driver of great teamwork. 

Picture this: A developer on your team made a mistake that cost your application some leads. The link in the confirmation email was broken. It happens, and it’s ok, but how do they feel about making that mistake? Do they feel safe to talk about what went wrong and what their challenges were? Or do they feel ashamed and afraid that fingers will be pointed? Having that sense of dread to discuss these occurrences together is what stops teams from progressing. But when psychological safety is present, you can push the awkwardness aside, and dig into the mistakes to uncover the gold of learnings, and the ability to move on and be stronger as a team.

Measuring psychological safety on your team - what it does (and doesn’t) look like:

Before building it, do a mental health check of your team’s levels of psychological safety using this chart to guide you.

Psychologically safe teams 👇

✅ See mistakes as collective learnings

✅ Share thoughts and ideas without fear of judgment

✅ Challenge one another respectfully

✅ Take risks that lead to innovation

Teams lacking psychological safety 👇

❌ Point fingers and perpetuate a culture of blame

❌ Think twice before speaking up, in fear they will be judged

❌ Fear being punished for going against the grain

❌ Fear the humiliation of failure, so they play it safe

4 tips to foster psychological safety in your next retrospective

1. Encourage (real) active listening

Of course, you’ve heard this before, but are you putting it into practice? When people feel they are being heard, they’re more likely to share what’s on their mind, for real. You can start the meeting by listing the below “ground rules” or best practices when it comes to active listening, and of course, emulate the behavior you want to see.

  • Check your cellphones at the (virtual) door and turn off distracting notifications

  • Paraphrase what your colleagues share, so they know that they were heard

  • Ensure that everyone had the chance to speak

  • Listen with an open mind to understand a perspective, not to respond with your own

  • Seek to understand someone’s point of view before challenging

  • Do not interrupt one another

Of course, you can come up with additional rules. Make it your own!

2. Start with a trust-building icebreaker

Going from a day of meetings into a retrospective sometimes calls for a “pause” before diving into real talk. Icebreaker questions are a great way to get people in a collaborative and open mindset, ready to share and receive. Here are some great icebreaker questions to set the tone for trust and psychological safety:

  • What is something that you have learned about yourself in the past 6 months?

  • How do you recognize when you are feeling stressed at work? What question do you wish people would ask you?

  • If you could describe how you are feeling today in one word, what would it be?

  • What would improve your day today?

  • Finish this sentence “If you really knew me, right now you’d know that….”

  • What color would best describe how you’re feeling this week and why?

  • What have you been nostalgic about recently?

Want more questions of this kind? Check out our Top 100 Icebreaker Questions for your next meeting.

3. Don’t be afraid to use the “F” word

Calling out failures, challenges, and mistakes openly will make it easier to speak about them. As the facilitator, lead by example with a dialogue that brings failure to the forefront in a collaborative rather than shameful way. Leaning into failure together will build trust, bring your team closer and nourish a psychologically safe environment.

Here are some simple ways you can start a collaborative dialogue on failure:

  • Acknowledge your own mistakes, shortcomings, and challenges honestly

  • Ask for feedback on how you can improve

  • Do not name individuals, instead speak in the collective “we”

  • After addressing mistakes and challenges, focus on potential solutions

4. Use a retrospective tool to facilitate psychological safety

Whether your team is working from home or in the office, there are simple tools you can use to facilitate stellar retrospective meetings. At Neatro, we built our retrospective tool on the belief that a feeling of safety amongst your colleagues is at the foundation of effective and meaningful retrospective meetings.

Here’s how you can use Neatro to build a psychologically sound environment:

  • Try the Question Game, our Icebreaker questions activity, at the beginning of your retro to get human and encourage vulnerability

  • Prevent groupthink with features that allow each team member to comment and vote on ideas at the same time, so no one is influenced by their colleagues’ answers

  • Keep things confidential by creating different Neatro teams, ensuring no one else can access your team’s sensitive content

  • Turn the settings to anonymous should your team feel more comfortable sharing ideas this way

Now that you understand the importance of psychological safety and collected the tips you need to implement it, go get started! And if you’re looking for more tips to make your next retrospective a great success, make sure to read our guide on remote retrospectives.

We wish you a successful and meaningful retro!

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