I’ve delivered a number of presentations this year on the importance of building psychological safety within project teams and the role which project managers play. During these presentations I’m frequently asked the question “How do I go about creating it?“. While there are existing models such as Timothy R. Clark’s progressive four stage model, a simple three step approach which I support is to Plan It, Live It and Champion It. I will cover these steps within my upcoming articles.
Planning for safety starts even before the project formally kicks off. Once you have been assigned as the project manager, meet with the key stakeholders who will have frequent interactions with your team members and get their commitment to developing and sustaining a safe environment. It is quite likely that some of them may not be familiar with psychological safety and this will present you with an opportunity to educate them on its importance. At a minimum, this should include the customer, the project sponsor and the functional managers who will be supplying the team members for your project.
When you meet with your project sponsor to establish mutual expectations you have another opportunity to confirm that they will commit to acting as a champion by supporting you if you are encountering challenges with ridiculing or criticizing behavior of a senior stakeholder.
When team members are assigned to the project, it is a good practice for you to help them define the starting set of working agreements for how they will interact with one another. Highlight the importance of safety within this session and get their commitment towards building it within the team. Help them to discover specific actions, rituals or practices which will support safety and to identify behaviors which will hurt it. When new team members join midstream, review the topic of safety with them as part of their onboarding.
Psychological safety planning should also be part of your preparation for any event where key decisions will be made. One way to make it safe for your team members to voice concerns or dissenting opinions is by asking for a volunteer to act as devil’s advocate during the event. Communicate to everyone participating in the event that the role of this volunteer is to reduce delivery risk by raising concerns and that they are not just being difficult.
Kick-off meetings provide another opportunity to communicate the importance of safety. If the kick-off meeting is at the start of a new phase, share examples of those actions or behaviors which contributed to safety over the previous phase as well as those which hurt it.
Without planning for team psychological safety, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry