Safety and effectiveness in groups

One of the things Viv and I will be exploring in our residential is the idea of psychological safety. Put simply, this is the quality of groups where people feel able to share views, including challenging ones, without fear of being (or feeling) attacked.

It’s much easier said than done. Nancy Dixon wrote a good post a few years ago pulling together much of the research on the subject.

Two things in particular stand out for me from this article. First, we often talk about organisation culture as if it’s a monolithic thing. Thus we are tempted to make sweeping statements about what is and isn’t possible in such an organisation. Nancy argues that “culture is localised” which means that whatever the whole organisation is up to, individual teams within it can set their own terms of engagement. It’s encouraging, because we can hope for change where we work now without having to pull big levers to change the whole business. Equally, your organisation’s stated values might be brilliant but this offers no easy guarantee of what can happen among the folks you work with. It’s more up to you.

Second, one of the biggest ways to increase psychological safety is to mitigate the power differences in the group. To put it crudely, the more bossy the boss, the less safety you create, and the stupider your group becomes. The challenge here for anyone aspiring to leadership is to risk some vulnerability.

The trouble with any remotely academic writing about this stuff is it tempts us to set up ideal situations. Thus we’re tempted to ask groups to agree “ground rules”, which I’ve sometimes found ineffective in supporting the actual practices that create lively engagement in groups.

In practice, the kind of safety and creativity we want to see in groups may need people to take risks. To feel unsafe in order to open the space for others to take risks. This is why Viv and I talk about a performance mindset for facilitation, borrowing ideas from improv theatre to build a kind of resilience for risk-taking.

We’re going to have plenty of opportunities to play with these ideas and practices in the workshop. It runs from 31 August to 2 September. Can’t wait. Booking details here.

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