By Anton Vanhoucke

Psychological Safety tips: 5 ideas to help people open up

woman in red shirt beside woman in white shirt

Many people wish for more transparency. They want to know what others have been doing or what they are up to. Transparency, however, is not something you can demand. Increasing pressure will only lead to obfuscated facts. So for transparency, you must build a relationship in which people feel safe and open up. Here are 5 ideas from my book ‘Progress with Results’ (Sturen op Resultaat). I’m working on the English translation and sharing psychological safety tips from the manuscript in this blog.

Why transparency? And what is it really?

I value transparency in my energy supplier. Is their pricing fair? Do they really only buy clean energy? I also value transparency in my colleagues. Do they run into issues? Can I help them? Do we understand each other? So transparency is simply the amount to which people and organizations open up. It’s how safe they feel to share facts. These psychological safety tips will help others open up.

5 practical ideas to increase psychological safety and transparency

Progress with results is a practical book, and I share five practical suggestions to improve psychological safety. When you put them into practice, carefully monitor how people respond. You should see them relax and contribute more.

Tip 1: Show involvement

Be present and focus on conversations in your team. Show that you’re listening. Close your laptop, put your phone away and take your time. Trying to multitask in a conversation hurts psychological safety. The quality of the conversation will suffer. 

Presence and focus do not mean you let others ramble on. Instead, you refocus the conversation when necessary. Honesty and clarity are better than secretly multitasking during boring conversations.

In a larger group, it is more challenging to show genuine involvement with everyone. So, for touchy subjects, reduce the group size.

Tip 2: Show understanding

Most people act with positive intentions. Remember the last time you tried to do good, but you caused a problem instead? You probably felt ashamed, stressed, frustrated, or regretful. And you didn’t need someone to point out your mistake. What you needed was understanding. 

That goes for almost everyone. So if someone makes a mistake, you don’t ask: “Why did you do this?” Asking “why” comes across as accusing, and the answer is seldomly honest.

So what’s the alternative? Focus on understanding and solutions. It’s more psychologically safe to say something like: “You look unhappy. How can we make sure this goes better next time?”

You can show understanding by acknowledging the unpleasant feeling. For example, “Am I right that you’re frustrated with how that turned out?” You can show more understanding by praising the effort. “I’m glad you worked hard trying to fix it.”

Tip 3: Be inclusive

Appreciate people that are different. Do not just tolerate the differences, but value the differences: that’s inclusivity. More diversity in your team will improve your decision-making. The more perspectives you have before making a choice, the better that choice will be. 

Appreciating differences is tricky, however. It can take quite some mental energy to work with the idiosyncracies of others. Before you know it, you will exhibit disapproving body language. Or worse: you share your discomfort by making a ‘joke’ about their behavior. Jokes like that quickly turn into sarcastic, stereotyping remarks. A half-joke like “I should have expected that from a woman” can be very painful.

Inclusivity means no sarcasm, no sneering, or personal attacks. And above all: don’t gossip, no matter how tempting. If you are critical of someone, without that person being present, it creates an unsafe environment for everyone. People who hear this will expect to be secretly criticized too. So they will pretend to be better than they are, and that reduces transparency.

Do not only avoid gossip yourself but also avert it around you. If you hear team members gossiping about another team member, speak up. Point out to them that they wouldn’t like it if people talked behind their backs.  

Tip 4: Make everyone co-owner of decisions

When you make a decision, ask for input, opinions, and feedback from everyone affected. The choice won’t always be unanimous. If a minority disagrees, ask: “What do you need to go with this decision?”

With their answer, you can tweak the implementation of the decision. Usually, some contingency measures or safeguards will get people on board. Including the minority in the decision does not only increase support but also creates better implementations.

Tip 5: Show trust and dedication

Who is the first person you should convince of the objectives of your team and your organization? It’s yourself! When you don’t feel committed, it’s tough to get others on board.

You can build personal commitment by talking to your superiors until you feel convinced of the objectives. Unless you do, people won’t believe they can rely on you for worthwhile goals.

When you onboard others, discussing an expiry date on the objectives is good practice. New facts and insights might emerge. Having objectives with an expiry date – say in three months – helps you remain agile. Furthermore, it shows that you are open to new perspectives. 

Actively increase transparency with these psychological safety tips

Transparency is a verb. When people lie or twist facts, it’s rarely because they are evil, pathetic liars. Most people have the best intentions but don’t feel safe sharing the truth about themselves. So when you want to hear the truth, judging people or criticizing them rarely helps. It’s much more effective to build their self-confidence in a safe relationship.

If you’re working with a team, you may like the Scrum Academy psychological safety survey. It’s a tool you can use to measure psychological safety in the team anonymously. The results will kickstart the conversation in the team.

Did you like this blog? Connect with me on LinkedIn. I’d love to hear about your successes in this area.

Leave a Reply