Encouraging psychological safety in meetings - how coaching can help

Posted On Jun 08, 2021 |

Writing about meetings seems never-ending☺. Answers from Nina Rogulja Jončić on a previous topic, and book “Fearless organization” by Amy Edmondson, inspired us to explore more – psychological safety in the business environment, especially in meetings. Besides Nina, we invited two more psychologists, coaches and experienced HR professionals – Nikolina Romakov and Jovana Dačković to dig deeper and provide some guidance in this field.

Jovana introduced the topic quoting above mentioned Amy, the creator of the term "psychological safety": "No one wakes up in the morning and jumps out of bed because they can't wait to get to work today to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative". However, research showed that the most efficient teams do just that - nurture a culture where they can try and test an idea, knowing they might fail; they feel ok to speak up and say they don't know something; they are feeling safe to say they have made a mistake, so that others can learn from it; they know they are ok to make decisions and that they will have their manager's support; and they know they are cared for as a whole being, even when they receive direct feedback. Psychological safety is exactly what helps them work that way”.

“Every meeting has a purpose of finding solutions or action steps that contribute to goal achievement. How can we expect to do so, if we don’t have psychological safety in meetings? Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. This climate can increase chances for everyone to feel comfortable to be active and involved, to be motivated and proud for being part of the initiative”, continues Nina.

Nikolina emphasized that psychological safety in teamwork became increasingly important, especially in remote setup. “This also applies to team meetings, where probably is most visible and needed. If you want to ensure that you have psychological safety in the meetings, according to my experience, you need to create the space where every single team member has the right and the opportunity to share his/her thoughts, ideas and suggestions without fear of being judged, misunderstood or having any negative consequences”, shares Nikolina.

“If you walk into a meeting room (or Zoom/MS Teams room☺), how can you tell if a team feels psychologically safe?”, asks Jovana, ”We can look at it as a dimension: those that don't feel psychologically safe will be talking in clichés, about weather or yesterday's game. Moving up the ladder, teams will start to share information, but still very much in their comfort zone, and from there, they will start to share opinions, leaning into conflict. Ultimately, teams that have high psychological safety will be open & vulnerable with each other and share opinions with intent to listen, understand, learn & help each other”.

If leaders want to create an environment like that they should lead by example, be the first to live it consistently and authentically, our three ladies agree. They shared several tips on what leaders can do to make enormous change to participant’s behaviours, emotions and involvement:

  • - Set the rules and agree over “what ifs”. Invest time in setting grounding working rules (hardcopy or virtual version) that everyone needs to respect. Take responsibility to set the first few rules that are most important for psychological safety, and then invite the group to add what is important to them as individuals. Agree with the group about some “consequence” of not respecting the established rules. It can be something funny - to sing a song in front of everyone, or to share the most embarrassing situation – all of this can also boost the laughter and team energy. Start normalizing that we're going to make mistakes and learn from them, by sharing a mistake of your own and acknowledging they don't have all the answers.
  • - Introduce menti.com for anonymous opinions collection. When you have a “tough” topic, have a brainwriting instead of brainstorming. And during this actions – walk the talk – show your respect and openness to diversity. 
  • - Feedback and flexibility. Invest time and schedule  monthly meeting to collect feedback using “Start/Stop/Continue” format. Analyze what worked well, and what needs to be dismissed, and be open and flexible about new ideas. 
    Also be sure to frame challenges as learning opportunities and not execution problems and focus on celebrating success & overcoming those challenges, rather than blame
  • - Stay calm in difficult situations - be a "safe harbor" for his/her team members & always communicate belief in their potential and signal availability for support.

“One of the great examples I have heard comes from Megan Reitz from Hult Ashridge: an example of a Chief Executive who has changed the team's culture & encouraged the team to speak up by using a card system and assigning a "devil's advocate" card to a different person in each meeting. This person would then have the role to ask questions & challenge things. Although at first it was uncomfortable for the people, over time, the situation has changed and voices that were silenced before were now heard”, shares Jovana.

How coaching can enable psychological safety in meetings

“Coaching can have a great contribution to establishing psychological safety in team meetings. There are different coaching tools that we can use to foster psychological safety”, says Nikolina.

“Let's say a team has hit an obstacle or has made a mistake. Just as a coach, first thing a leader should do is to create a calm, positive & supportive space and set up people to focus on learning, not to be defensive”, emphasizes Jovana.

Psychological safety is a process. Especially if you are the pioneer in your company. You need small steps to support people to open up ”, adds Nina.

All three of our coaches answer the question: How leader/meeting organizer should adopt coaching mindset and model some coaching competencies in order to enable psychological safety in meetings. These tips we extracted in following lines:

  • - Being present and sensitive to see, hear and feel a participant's state of mind, their mood or emotions will lead you towards demonstrating respect and open communication. Listening to other team members carefully and patiently - helping every participant to experience the full potential of their own thoughts without interrupting.
  • - Giving everyone in the team the right to speak and encouraging team members to share, Making sure that you get the best possible contribution from all individuals, paying attention to the team dynamics.
  • - Being curious by asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions to the team, with a lot of follow-up ones, allowing time for reflection by asking powerful questions to help your team members develop their own ideas, which promotes autonomy and creativity.
  • - Coaching also teaches us about the significance of direct communication. Direct and open expression of opinions and insights or expectations and needs can significantly support to move the meeting from a dead end position.
  • - Striking a good balance between focus on the positives & areas for learning, meaning instead of solely focusing the team on reflecting what went wrong, it is also about helping them think about what has also worked and what could help them in this new situation.
  • - The whole concept of coaching is based on trust in a client's potential. This trust is transferred to meetings as well. Using our communication mode and tone of voice we can show trust that our colleagues are capable of doing some great things. Because of that, leaders should be supportive. Great coach is always asking “what do you need from me” in order to go further.

This way, the team is learning from this challenge and feels valued, heard, safe & included.

And in the end, if you stayed with us and read all above that means you adopted coaching mindset - focus and fully presence, so now the Dead dog and Stinky fish are waiting for you :D
No, it is not a joke, those are two techniques we found which could be useful in meetings when you want to establish psychological safety while talking about some sensitive topic. It’s just a coincidence that both names of techniques are from animals ☺