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InfoQ Homepage Articles Facilitating Feedback That's Psychologically Safe

Facilitating Feedback That's Psychologically Safe

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Key Takeaways

  • Psychological safety boosts team performance, because it enables everyone to contribute their ideas, concerns and feedback. Without psychological safety, important perspectives can be missed.
  • Psychological safety doesn’t always feel safe - it’s about people taking risks and saying what they think. 
  • There’s a key skill: people need to be able to say what they think in a way that feels safe for others to hear. This is especially important when it comes to giving feedback.
  • The “solution-focused” approach can help feedback to be received as relevant, appreciative and helpful.
  • My “ACE” model for facilitating feedback in a team on a proposed plan or design is: start by fully understanding the Aims. Then mention anything that gives you any Confidence that the plan could meet those Aims. Thirdly, mention what would give you Even more confidence that it could do so.

There’s a lot of buzz around psychological safety at the moment - usually in reference to Google’s Aristotle project, where they found it was “by far the most important” factor in team performance.

Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” . What kind of risks? Expressing ideas, concerns, feedback, etc, without fear of any kind of repercussions. The idea is that when everyone’s perspective is shared, the team can learn from all these perspectives and perform at its best. 

I’d say that a team has psychological safety to the degree that team members speak honestly about what they think and feel - and they don’t suffer any negative consequences from doing so.

It’s important because if people can’t say what they think and feel, they can’t relax and be fully themselves in their team, so they can’t do their best work. It means that the team misses out on their perspective - and that really matters. We know that diverse teams produce better results than more homogeneous teams - and that can’t be just diversity in the privacy of peoples’ own minds, or the colour of their skin…. It’s got to be welcomed into the communication of the team.

In this article I’m particularly focusing on feedback - ways to make it easier to give and receive feedback, so the psychological safety of the team can increase. I’m specifically focusing on feedback with regards to a plan or proposal (not feedback on peoples' behaviour or some previous event, although of course a lot of similar principles apply).

The aim is to give you insights, models, structures and practical things to try, in order to facilitate feedback that boosts psychological safety in your team(s). 

Why psychological safety matters

A team manager once told me how they discovered a fundamental problem in the design, after two months working on a product. One of the engineers said, “I wondered how we were going to fix that.”

My client was understandably frustrated, thinking, “Why didn’t you tell us two months ago?”

We’re speculating, but the engineer probably didn’t feel that his view/concern would be welcomed. In other words, there was a lack of psychological safety in the team.

This isn’t just a one-off - there’s a lot of evidence that psychological safety has a considerable benefit in terms of team performance. Google famously did a study, called “Aristotle”, in which they found that psychological safety was the fundamental factor differentiating low- and high-performance teams. 

The psychology literature has a fuller and more nuanced understanding (and I’m very grateful to Joseph Pelrine for studying and sharing this). Collective intelligence is not correlated with individual intelligence, but it is correlated with (a) social perceptiveness (empathy), (b) equality in conversational turn-taking (psychological safety) and (c) gender diversity.

But psychological safety requires subtle skills. Yes, people need to be free to say what they really think - but that’s no good if they do it in a way that upsets everyone and destroys trust. People need to have the skill of expressing feedback in a way that’s easy to receive.

Make it safer to give feedback

So how can we enable people to give feedback in a way that builds (or at least doesn’t destroy) psychological safety?

It’s key to be clear about the nature of feedback. Sometimes people talk about giving feedback when they really want someone else to change, or they are demanding that someone changes. That’s not true feedback - it’s making a request or a demand. For requests and demands, I recommend the non-violent communication (NVC) approach (amongst many others).

Feedback is simply providing information from our perspective - and it’s best if it’s for the benefit of the person/people we’re giving the feedback to.

There are a lot of angles on making feedback safer. My angle is to use the “Solution Focused” (SF) approach (which comes from “Solution Focused Brief Therapy”, which originated with Steve DeShazer and Insoo Kim Berg, and brought into the world coaching & organizational work by people such as Mark McKergow and Paul Z. Jackson in their classic book “The Solutions Focus.”) 

SF is a general approach to coaching and change, and in this context it provides a way of formulating feedback that makes it easier to give and easier to hear. The “ACE” model is my way of applying SF to feedback within a team, making it more likely to be given, more likely to be heard, and more likely to help.

The ACE model

ACE stands for “Aims, Confidence, and Even more confidence.”

To help make the feedback valuable for the recipient, we start by understanding their Aims. This means our feedback is more likely to be helpful - and they’re more likely to trust us, because we’ve shown interest in what they’re trying to achieve. That means they’re more likely to listen and benefit.

Then we can listen to and understand their plans/designs etc in light of their Aims. To generate our feedback, we can ask ourselves two questions:

  1. What gives me Confidence that this design will achieve that Aim?
  2. What would give me Even more confidence that this design will achieve that Aim?

Saying what gives me Confidence - giving appreciative feedback - is useful in two ways. In terms of content, it tells the recipient what not to change. In terms of relationship, it helps further in building trust - the recipient is more likely to hear the feedback as well-intentioned. Not only that, but the feedback is more likely to be well intentioned if the giver has thought through what’s good about the design, not just given a knee-jerk response as to what’s wrong!

Then we come to “what would give me Even more confidence?” This is where the giver of feedback can present their concerns, thoughts, ideas, responses, etc. in a positive light. This makes it easy to say, easy to hear, and most likely to make a difference.

Using the ACE model

So how do we use this ACE model in a team, in order to avoid the “I wondered how we were going to tackle that” scenarios that can waste months for a team?

Firstly, you might like to ask if this is needed. If your team can just tell each other what they think, with full candour, and everyone’s happy at the end of the conversation - that’s great! You already have enough psychological safety in this area and you can just go ahead.

If you’re close to that, but team members just need a nudge or permission, you might like to use an approach such as De Bono’s 6 thinking hats.

However, if people are likely to get upset or defensive, or if they’re likely to hold back out of fear of upsetting others, then this ACE approach can really help.

The first thing to do is to schedule a meeting, and set it up well: let people know the purpose and structure, and tell them about the ACE model.

What structure to use? Here’s one structure that works really well, derived from the “Solution Focused Reflecting Team” developed by Harry Norman and the Bristol Solutions Group. It really helps to have someone facilitating the process quite strictly (and it’s usually fine for them to join in as a team member too).

In what follows, the plan/proposal/design etc is referred to as X. The person or people who have developed X and want feedback on it are known as the “presenters”. The others, who will be offering the feedback, are referred to as the team members.

Aims

  1. Presenting the Aims. The presenters start by presenting their Aims - what the X is designed to achieve. They don’t present X itself at this stage.
  2. Clarification questions about the Aims. Team members ask clarifying questions, to get a really clear understanding of the Aims.
  3. Presentation. The presenters present X they want feedback on (and, optionally, the type of feedback they want).
  4. Clarification questions. Team members ask clarification questions (only) to get a clear understanding of X. They don’t offer any kind of feedback or suggestions at this stage. 

Confidence

During the following stages, the presenters just listen and take notes - they don’t respond to the input from team members at this point - they’ll get a chance later on (this enables more valuable communication in less time).

  1. Affirms (optional). Each team member in turn mentions one thing that’s impressed them about the presenter(s) - not about X, but about the people. This could be a personal strength or quality that’s particularly shone through in the presentation or the work they’ve done so far on this proposal. 

  2. What gives you Confidence X will achieve its Aims? Each team member in turn mentions something that gives them any confidence that X will achieve its Aims. This draws out anything in X that should be kept or continued, and helps build trust.

  3. What else gives you Confidence that X will achieve its Aims? This is an opportunity for team members to express anything else that’s giving them confidence in X - the more the better!

Even More Confidence

It’s worth reminding people at this point that the presenters should continue to just listen and take notes. There’s a chance to respond later!

  1. What would give you Even more confidence that X will meet its Aims? Team members mention things that would increase their confidence in X meeting its Aims - perhaps a question that they’d like to hear answered, a pitfall they’ve seen, or even just ask about something they haven’t completely understood. It’s worth mentioning that if something’s on your mind, it’s best to mention it, even if you’re thinking “This is so obvious, they must have thought of it already.” This is often where the most value is - something that seems basic or obvious to the team member has been overlooked by the presenter, and mentioning it can make all the difference to the future success of the project.

Reflection

  1. The presenters now reflect back on what they’ve heard and found most helpful, by mentioning the three most helpful things they’ve heard, and will be taking away to act on. This is not about responding to every point (that would take a lot of time for very little benefit, and sometimes can even be destructive). Instead, it’s about drawing out what’s been valuable from the session, that’s worth taking forward to improve X for the future. Sometimes people ask what happens to the other points mentioned. That’s up to the presenter(s)! Having improved X based on the top three most helpful pieces of feedback, there may be more things that also need addressing - or maybe not. Either way, the responsibility stays with the presenters, so they needn’t feel that they have to respond to the people who gave the feedback unless there’s good reason to.

Tips for making this ACE meeting format work well

If people are well-intentioned, this ACE model and meeting format will help them to communicate feedback in a way that builds trust and psychological safety. But if they want to undermine or cause hurt, no process will prevent them from finding ways to do so. Likewise, if people are feeling threatened by the prospect of feedback (the F-word!!), they may hear malice where none is intended.

So it can help to remind people that the idea here is to be helpful, to make sure nothing has been overlooked, to draw in the thinking from all the different perspectives in the team… it’s not a competitive sport!!

Along these lines, it’s important that the answers to “What gives you Confidence?” are genuine, not sarcastic. Seeing the good in things is a skill that some people lack (and isn’t often part of our education). If this is the case for people in your team, it may be helpful to start introducing positive appreciation into the team culture in advance of running ACE meetings. For example, you might to make a point of expressing appreciation yourself, or in other meetings asking questions that draw out appreciation from the team, for example:

  • What’s good about this so far? 
  • What have we done well this week? 
  • Of all the things you’ve done in this sprint, what are you most pleased with? 
  • “on a scale of 0-10, where 10 is perfection and 0 is the opposite, where are we now?” followed by, “What makes it that and not 0?”

Another tip is to make sure you have a clear, time-boxed end to the meeting. This helps remove the temptation for presenters to respond blow-by-blow to each point made, which can be excruciating!

Other learnings about feedback

Of course, feedback isn’t always about a specific plan/proposal/design, and it’s not always appropriate to have a specific meeting about it. Building a culture of positive communication on the same principles as ACE can really help develop a team, in terms of performance, how much people enjoy working in the team, and how long they want to stay.

One thing I’ve learnt over the years about feedback is to be really clear about intention - people can pick up if they’re being offered help or being criticised, and that makes a huge difference.

This partly comes through the verbal communication. For example, I don’t know about you, but if someone asks me, “What are you trying to achieve here?” I immediately get a sense that they’re on my side. And then if they offer ways to help me achieve my aims, I’m grateful! 

But a lot of it is about non-verbal communication. We’re not so conscious of that, but we do pick it up unconsciously, and it makes a huge difference to how we hear the message. This is especially in situations which carry emotional significance, such as feedback on something we’ve put a lot of work into.

For example, if I pick up irritation, or I get the sense that someone is trying to be competitive and criticise me for the sake of them feeling better about themselves, then I’m going to back off and be much less interested in what they’ve got to say.

Trust is a really key word here. If someone is sincere, then their tone of voice and body language communicate that, and others feel more like trusting them. But if the trust isn’t there, things can be misunderstood and taken the wrong way. So building trust is crucial.

Building trust

Early on in my career I was leading the implementation of a new accounting package for an SME, and was having to fix a lot of flaws. I was being quite vocal about my criticisms of the package! 

My manager came to me one day and said, “We’ve moved into a new phase with this project. Now it’s less about getting it working, and more about getting people using it, getting people feeling confident in using it. And if the main IT guy is criticising it all the time, that’s going to get in the way.”

I could immediately see where he was coming from, and it was clear to me that I should stop criticising the software publicly. 

He’d aligned his feedback with my Aims (getting people confident with the system, using it well, making our project a success), and had framed it in a way that was easy to hear. It was also clear that he had an appreciation of all the work I was doing to make the project a success - which helped me trust the message. 

Furthermore, he also put it in a way that demonstrated trust - he was trusting that I would be interested in the feedback, and able to find a way of acting on it by myself. The feedback came across as providing clarity about what would be a helpful way forward - there was no sense of threat or blame.

People are different!

Of course, people are very different in how they like to receive feedback. I’m from England, and our culture is one of extreme tact (even to the point where others can’t understand what we mean!). So I appreciate feedback being put in a tactful, kind and considerate way.

But other cultures - and individuals - may prefer feedback to be much more direct. They find this easier to understand, easier to know where they stand, and easier to act on. In these cultures, people are much less likely to take offence.

So, as in all communication, knowing who you’re talking to makes a big difference.

Conclusion

Psychological safety helps boost team performance, because it enables people to surface issues early. This, critically, involves giving feedback on plans and designs.

But it’s hard to give feedback in a way that’s easy to hear and maintains psychological safety - it takes real skill.

The Solution Focused approach helps with this. In particular, the ACE model I’ve described can help people to express feedback in ways that are clearly helpful and easy to perceive as such. When someone really and obviously wants to help you achieve your Aims, and genuinely appreciates all the hard work you’ve put in already, doesn’t that make it easier to listen to what they have to say?

About the Author

Roy Marriott is an agile leadership coach, helping leaders to respond more quickly and effectively to change. He specialises in “generating change without generating resistance”, using a coaching approach to allow more of everyone’s energy to flow into delivering real and immediate value to customers.

You can read more about him, his coaching, and the approaches he teaches at roymarriott.com.

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