How 'safe' was that meeting or workshop you were just in?
Every time we're invited to a meeting or to participate in a workshop or conversation we're either a participant or the convener/leader/facilitator of the session.
Levels of engagement continue to drop across workplaces, yet we're increasingly needing to get people 'on board', 'aligned' or 'buying-in' to strategies, plans, directions and programs of work.
That workshop, meeting, planning session or conversation you most recently attended - or led - may not have been that 'safe'.
Safety - in this case, psychological safety - was less than it could have been.
It wasn't safe for people to take risks, to speak up and contribute their ideas or to challenge and discuss in ways that help solve problems, resolve conflict or progress a project to deliver great value.
At the intersections of engagement and outcomes
If you've ever felt steamrolled or stifled, shut down or stopped in a meeting or workshop, I call that a 'Hostage Situation'. It's where outcomes over engagement are the priority.
Just as awkward and uncomfortable can be the 'Yawn Fest' where it's low engagement, low outcomes.
Sure it's all fun and games at the 'High Priced Party' where we're having high engagement but getting zip zero done.
Ultimately we're aiming for the sweet spot of 'High Impact', high engagement, high outcomes.
It all looks like this...
...and I don't think you get there by accident or by default. It's achieved via great design, great facilitation, leadership and safety.
Work at it from both perspectives
I’ve been working with a couple of teams in organisations at two levels or ‘fronts’:
1. To help the team feel more comfortable to speak up and contribute their thoughts in meetings and workshops. They have great stuff to give but sometimes they feel shy, uncertain, worried, unsure about what they’re thinking and how best to express it... and how it will be received.
2. To help the leaders of teams and projects lead better, safer, more effective meetings, workshops and sessions.
You might think that the team just needs to ‘lean in’ or ‘toughen up’ or ‘speak up for goodness sake’ or ‘get over it and get into it’, but that’s not how they might see things. It's this impatience or lack of empathy that's got us here.
Additionally, you might believe that the leaders are doing the best they can or it’s not their fault, or there’s so much to do in so little time that of course, they just need to just ‘get on with it’. But there is a way where you can make great progress, and do it within the constraints of a well-designed and facilitated process.
Plus... it’s not a clean ‘us and them’ because you can be an ‘us’ in one meeting e.g. a participant, and then shuffle out of that meeting room and straight into another where you’re the ‘them’, the leader of the meeting.
We can adopt both of these roles at different times, even if we’re simply having a 1:1 or a 1:2 meeting or conversation about progress, status, problem-solving or planning.
Work at making it safer
The topic of psychological safety isn’t new, but the adoption and acknowledgment of it isn't widespread… enough. Amy Edmonson's TEDx Talk on the topic is a must watch.
There are meetings, workshops, conversations and interactions going on in workplaces all the time where people aren’t contributing or speaking up or giving their best; because it’s not safe (enough) for them (their level of safety) to do so.
In a leader’s efforts to ‘get shit done’ they might also be stomping on people, steamrolling or shutting things down - often without knowing it. Their only hint is 'people aren't engaged' or 'they're not contributing.'
Contrast that to a leader who’s been given the feedback that they are a little steam-rolly and then they may swing too far the other way; they become hesitant, uncertain, ambiguous, treading on eggshells and not providing enough direction or leadership or enough constraints for people to do great work.
In the workshops I lead with clients on both developing better Leader as Facilitator / facilitation skills and being a great participant / speaking up skills, I hear and see the challenges that each group feels and experiences.
Check with a tool
In planning your next workshop, meeting or conversation, check over how safe is it for people to do all of these things I've mapped out in the grid or matrix-ish thing below.
Or to not do them. Safe for people to not do them.
There can also be the expectation that 'you will speak up' or 'you will contribute' (when we do that dreadful 'go around the room' cliched technique - no please, stop it, don't do that anymore!) when in fact, people might not be ready. Some of that stuff simply shouldn't be forced and there are many other tools, techniques and processes that help get contributions rather than 'around the room' in order.
So do this...
Print or save and tick off, be aware of and make deliberate efforts on these.
Let the team know upfront that you're trying to make it safer to do some of these things. Let them know you'll be wanting to hear how it's going.
During or on conclusion of the session, ask the team how safe it was to do some of these things - depending on the type of meeting or workshop you held. You'll get instant and immediate feedback.
Plan and think about how you'll incorporate these into the design, the process, the agenda and the activities (yes, these are all different things: design, process, agenda, activities) of your workshops, meetings and sessions.
We all need to consider how we can make it safer for those who've been stomped on, interrupted or shut down w-a-y too many times in the past. We're all carrying scar tissue of times we weren't given the environment to give our best. Ouch... still hurts.
You can make the next interactions with the team more productive, creative, collaborative and effective... when they're safer.
And that will most certainly feel good, for everyone. Safe and good.