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10 psychological safety exercises for building a stronger team

Simple psychological safety exercises to help your team connect on a more personal level

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Three tried-and-tested psychological safety exercises from SpillMore exercises to build psychological safety in teamsTools and technologies for psychological safety

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  • Research shows that trust is even more important than competence when it comes to not only first impressions but also in building a psychologically safe, high-performing team.
  • Company-wide psychological safety exercises can help your team connect on a deeper level and as that personal connection develops, your team will evolve into a strong, psychologically safe (and, ultimately, high-performing) group of people.
  • There are plenty of psychological safety exercises to try: at Spill, we love personal histories, stop, start, continue, and Desert Island Discs.
  • Team psychological safety exercises are just one part of the solution: use them in conjunction with other key activities like regular 121s, clear goals, transparent leadership communication and feedback frameworks.

When it comes to psychological safety — the mutual feeling within a team that it's safe to speak up without judgement — there’s a lot out there about how you can create that feeling within your team. We’ve even written about it ourselves

These articles (ours included) tend to focus on the things you can do as a leader to build psychological safety in your company: after all, a psychologically safe team stems from its leaders.

But beyond taking actions as a leader, what other ways can you help your team feel safe enough to bring their full selves to work?

What is a psychological safety exercise?

Psychological safety exercises are activities or practices designed to create and support an environment of psychological safety within a team. These exercises aim to build trust, encourage open communication, and promote collaboration within a group.

Common types of psychological safety exercises usually include:

  • Team-building activities such as icebreaker games or trust-building activities.
  • Active listening exercises (where one person shares a personal experience while the other person listens attentively without interruption).
  • Reflection sessions to provide feedback in a constructive and supportive manner.
  • Norm-setting discussions to establish ground rules and norms for communication.
  • Conflict resolution exercises to help team members effectively manage and resolve conflicts and promote open dialogue.

Why are psychological safety exercises important?

At Spill, we’re huge advocates for using team-wide psychological safety exercises to connect on a deeper level. Research shows that trust is even more important than competence when it comes to first impressions in professional relationships: it’s thought that competence is only evaluated after trust has been established. Meanwhile, Google’s Project Aristotle has shown us that trust is also more important than competence when it comes building high-performing teams (a.k.a psychologically safe teams).

Clearly, trust is key when it comes to building psychological safety. And while it’s something fairly easy to talk about and understand, it takes time to practise and grow within a group of people. With that in mind, we thought we’d share a few of our favourite trust-building exercises to help you develop a strong, psychologically safe, and high-performing team. Expect a mix of exercises used and loved by the Spill team, a few others we’re yet to try (but want to), plus some tools and tech that can support psychological safety in your company.

Three tried-and-tested psychological safety exercises from Spill

At Spill, we think psychological safety is one the most important employee metrics you can measure. After all, psychologically safe teams feel accepted, respected, and confident. And together, they form an effective team that’s engaged, motivated, and better able to solve problems.

As with any fast-growing start-up, we’ve had our fair share of challenges (a global pandemic and economic downturn will do that) but throughout the past five years, we’ve worked hard to create a team that trusts each other, feels safe, and has a high level of interpersonal respect. And one way we’ve done that is by regularly (note to self: it’s time to do this again) taking part in exercises that build team trust, openness, and interpersonal understanding.

If you want to introduce exercises for psychological safety into your team, here are three that come tried, tested, and highly recommended from all of us here at Spill.

👪 1. Personal histories exercise

Taken from one of our favourite books, The five dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni, we first did this remotely during a planning week: at the time, there were 15 members of staff on the Spill team.

Deemed low-risk by Lencioni, this exercise takes around 30 minutes and involves team members sharing their answers to a list of short questions about themselves. Questions don’t have to be overly personal and could include:

  • Where did you grow up?
  • What was your first job? Worst job?
  • How many siblings do you have?
  • What do you do in your free time?

The questions might not feel very interesting but you’ll be surprised at how team members begin to relate to one another on a more personal level. For Will, Spill’s Head of Brand and Marketing, this is his favourite exercise. “I liked that it seemed like obvious stuff but it’s amazing how you can work with someone, and feel like you know their day-to-day behaviours really well, but actually not know some of the more nuanced things about their upbringing or their past”, he says, adding “it was really nice to have the chance to hear people speak at length uninterrupted; it was different from the kind of quick one-on-one chats you might have in the pub.”

So, how did personal histories help Will feel in terms of psychological safety in the team? “It gave me more context on people’s lives, and more openness helps me to understand where people are coming from and see them as whole human beings”, he says. “I felt afterwards that if I needed to message someone in another team asking them about something work-related, or asking them to help me out, it would feel less weird.”

“Personal histories gave me more context on people’s lives, and more openness helps me to understand where people are coming from and see them as whole human beings.”
- Will, Head of Brand and Marketing at Spill

🚦2. Stop, start, continue

Stop, start, continue — a common retrospective exercise — is a simple way to gather feedback in teams. A quick Google search will throw up plenty of ideas about how to use it, but at Spill, our Sales team introduced it to help navigate intimidating performance reviews of recorded sales demos with prospective customers.

“Instead of the previous 121 setup, we each created a safety net for one another to contribute and share feedback,” explains Ally, Sales Manager at Spill. “Doing it this way immediately takes the pressure off the team member who is being ‘reviewed’. We watch a demo recording back as a group and everyone adds their suggestions to the whiteboard that the person could stop, start, and continue doing.”

Given that feedback is integral to psychological safety, stop, start, continue is a valuable exercise that gets everyone involved. “Knowing that everyone is there to help another member of the team means we get more honest feedback: everyone has a place to share their thoughts. We encourage pushback and because we do it consistently, everyone gets more and more comfortable with it. It’s helped us all move towards a safer and stronger relationship.”

“Start, stop, continue has helped our team move towards a safer and stronger relationship.”
- Ally, Sales Manager at Spill

🌴 3. Desert Island Discs

A fun exercise following the familiar format of the popular radio show of the same name, Desert Island Discs is another low-risk way to get to know your fellow team members, albeit in a slightly different way: through music. 

Much of a person’s history is wrapped up in music, whether that’s songs from their childhood, the first gig, the first love, the ‘good old’ uni days: one track can instantly transport us to another time. And Desert Island Discs is a way to share those experiences with the people you work with every single day.

When we first did this at Spill, we split the team up into eight pairs and everyone jumped onto a Slack video call with their partner. In each pair, one person took on the role of the iconic Kirsty Young (as if we need to clarify, but just in case: Kirsty presented Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4 from 2006 until 2018), interviewing their partner about their four song (plus book and luxury item) choices. At halftime, each pair swapped roles.

An example of some of the questions 'Kirsty' could ask her partner during Spill's Desert Island Discs

We made a Notion doc for the exercise and the ‘Kirsty’ in each pair would jot down a few sentences explaining their partners choices. At the end of the session, everyone regrouped. As well as the Notion doc, we made a playlist of everyone’s songs on Spotify and shared it round the team.

A screenshot of Spill's Desert Island Discs Spotify playlist

We’ve kept the Notion doc available for everyone (internally) to see and it’s a great way for new starters to a) get a glimpse into culture at Spill and b) learn a few things about their new team: for example, this exercise uncovered a lot of surprise Harry Potter fans on the team…

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More exercises to build psychological safety in teams

The examples above are some of the exercises that we’ve used ourselves at Spill, but there are plenty more out there, like these:

💙 Paul Santaga’s ‘Just like me’ reflection

Developed by Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, this reflection is a way to practise empathy, and remind people of the importance of belonging and inclusion. Before a meeting (for example), Santaga leads his employees through the following statements: "This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me. This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me. This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me. This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me. This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me."

It doesn’t take long but the idea here is that it allows your employees to show support and empathy for one another. You could even put these phrases on a poster and put it up around the office. As Santaga says, we should always speak ‘human to human’ and that’s exactly what this reflection does.

🗣The prime directive

One of the most comprehensive and classic books on how to do team retrospectives suggests that every team retrospective or feedback session should start with participants repeating a phrase known as the ‘prime directive’, in order to set a tone of safety and acceptance for the discussion to come. The phrase goes as follows: "Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand."

❄️ The ‘snowball’ icebreaker

A neat little icebreaker, this is a fun way to start a company-wide workshop or planning day. The premise is simple: everyone writes three things about themselves (e.g. favourite app on their phone, last supper, and their coffee order) on a piece of paper and scrunches it up into a ‘snowball’. Everyone has a quick ‘snowball’ fight for one minute and when the minute is up, everyone grabs the closest snowball, takes it in turns to read out the answers, and guesses who it belongs to. It’s a quick and fun way to share a few low-key personal insights, connecting everyone in the room before the serious stuff gets underway.

✍️ Use post-it notes to practise speaking up

Less an exercise and more an idea to introduce into team brainstorms or meetings. Give everyone a few sticky-notes and a pen, set a timer, and ask them to write down their thoughts, questions, or ideas about a given topic and stick their notes to the wall. This gives everyone a safe way to share their opinions and own their ideas, and sets the team up for asking clarifying questions for more insight. But that’s not all: there’s usually a lot of movement in the room during this activity, so no one is singled out or ‘monitored’ on which ideas they have. Plus, it can be reassuring to see that other people have the same ideas. This can help individuals who are less sure of themselves grow in confidence and feel more comfortable speaking up in the future. 

If your team is remote, you can replicate this approach using FigJam: simply set the timer and let everyone add their virtual sticky notes to the board.

💪 Team effectiveness exercise

Best done in smaller teams (less than 10 people), this is a slightly higher-risk exercise taken (again) from The five dysfunctions of a team. Ask team members to silently write down the single most important contribution that each of their co-workers has made to the team, as well as the area that they must either improve or eliminate for the good of the team. Everyone then shares their responses. It might sound intrusive but you’ll be surprised at how much constructive and positive information you’ll uncover. Be sure to ask the person hearing their responses how they feel about it and remember, it’s meant to be uncomfortable rather than personal. 

📖 Personal stories

An adaptation of the personal histories exercise described above, this one requires your team to be split into pairs. One person shares a personal story with the other and after 5-10 minutes, they switch. Once everyone is finished, each person tells the story they heard in the first person, as if it was theirs. As well as reinforcing belonging, this exercise deepens empathy, too. To trigger a profound or revealing story, consider asking everyone to ‘share something that’s happened to you that you feel proud about, but very few people know’.

💭The ‘4 Ls’ retro

It’s common practice to host some kind of review or ‘retro’ when a project or work cycle finishes to reflect on how it all went. If you’re looking to try out a different format, give the ‘4 Ls’ retro a go, from Atlassian. During the retro, everyone highlights what they loved, loathed, learned, and longed for, and it’s not just about the work itself: encourage your team to think about people, socialising, even the office space or technology used. Following a retro framework like this keeps the meeting focused and encourages a balance of positive and negative discussion points.

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Tools and technologies for psychological safety

Psychological safety is about the interpersonal dynamics of your team, but that doesn’t mean technology can’t help: especially with hybrid working establishing itself as the new normal.

It’s been a few years since remote working was forcefully thrust upon us but many workplaces are still working hard to find better systems, processes, and ways to keep their teams connected via the screen. Here’s our take on tools and tech that can help boost psychological safety in your team, hybrid or otherwise.

🧠 For mental health support

Psychological safety, or rather, a lack of psychological safety can have a huge impact on mental health: stress, burnout, anxiety, loneliness, and negativity are all consequences of a psychologically unsafe workplace. And they’re all things that no one should have to deal with on their own. Spill is a tool that gives you and your team access to therapy, whenever it's needed. It’s free at the point of access, integrates with Slack or MS Teams, and encourages your team to look after their emotional health.

💬 For better communication

Communication is king when it comes to psychological safety. Playing an important role in transparency and trust within an organisation, clear and honest communication is a must: especially if your team is scattered around the country (and world).

Slack (or any other instant messaging platform) is great for everyday communication, while Notion is our go-to for mass communication. It’s where we keep everything from office policies and brand guidelines to strategy docs and product user manuals. Video platforms like Loom or Claap are a great addition to async communication, too. Simply record a short video explaining a decision or showing how to do something and leave no room for the confusion that can so easily follow a text-based message.

🗣️ For feedback

There’s no end of tools to help teams gather feedback on their work, including plenty of Slack apps, like Inkrement and Lattice. But feedback shouldn’t just be performance-based: in a psychologically safe workplace, everyone feels able to bring their full selves to work and it's worth praising people exactly for that. Consider gathering and sharing (anonymous) unconditional praise about a different team member each week or month. It’s a truly lovely way to value individual personalities and gives people recognition for who they are, not just the work they do.

🙋 For employee input

To help your team feel included, you need to find ways to keep them in the loop. Online surveying tools like Typeform, Survey Monkey, and Google Forms are great for gathering feedback on company initiatives or measuring psychological safety, while visual tools like FigJam and Miro help your teams collaborate and share ideas.


👓 For further reading

While reading up on psychological safety, we came across three other resources that you might find useful:

  • Google’s Reworks toolkit acts as a useful introduction to psychological safety and team effectiveness, and includes guides to help you discuss these topics with your team and how to take action.
  • Caveman in a suit shares an activity to help you build psychological safety in your team. Consisting of four questions designed to start healthy conversations within the team, it includes questions to help you apply your learnings.
  • The art of teamwork by Microsoft is a whole guide devoted to improving the dynamics that set teams up for success.

Remember, these exercises aren’t just about ‘team building’ and they shouldn’t replace other important activities for psychological safety like regular 121s, clear goals, transparent leadership communication, and feedback frameworks, which all help people feel safe at work. But, an emotionally connected team is one that’s happy to share their vulnerabilities, problems, and solutions, and by making this the norm, you’ll see and feel your team grow in their respect, confidence, and engagement with one another. 

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