Listen for … Psychological Safety

Listen for … Psychological Safety

by Denis Côté

After playing Percolab’s game Listen for…, participants reported: 

  • It felt good to share without being judged.
  • I felt welcomed and cared for. 
  • This game creates a climate of openness and psychological safety.

Knowingly or not, the latter comment nailed the quality present in the former ones: psychological safety. After hosting dozens of games over many months, Percolab’s team realized how powerful the Listen for … game is in creating conditions for the emergence of psychological safety among the participants.

Amy Edmundson identified psychological safety as one of the most important properties of team effectiveness and well-being. The concept came to prominence in the last few years following the publication of her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth and a 2016 NY Times article about project Aristotle at Google. Google’s research team re-confirmed that psychological safety was one of the key features of high-performing teams.

Psychological safety is “the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation”.

Edmundson defines psychological safety as “the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation”.  Psychological safety is an emergent property of a team in which people feel interpersonal safety because colleagues will listen to each other’s ideas, address mistakes and failures as learning opportunities, and respond to challenges. Because it is an emergent property of a team, psychological safety can only arise through conversation and dialogue, and therefore authentic listening.

Although we may feel that our organizations are based on conversations and open to dialogue, do we really have spaces to listen to each other with genuine empathy and curiosity? Psychological safety relies on active listening, but how do we do this concretely? This is where the Listen for … game can serve as a tool and a gateway into deep listening and therefore contribute greatly to enhance the psychological safety in a team.

The Listen for… game came out of Samantha Slade’s book Going Horizontal in which she presents horizontal or collaborative leadership around seven domains of collaboration. Samantha wanted to create a fun and pedagogical game to dive into these seven domains. Those are all basic domains related to work collaboration and can be used in any organization, not just horizontal ones. The other inspiration for the game was storytelling (you can read The story behind the game from Samantha Slade directly).

Seven domains of collaboration

In a Listen for … game, one player is invited to tell a short and recent story related to one of the seven domains of collaboration (there are seven storyteller cards). The other players are invited to pick a listening card; there are more than a dozen listening cards with themes such as creativity, power, asking for help, etc. The listeners are invited to listen silently to the story through the listening lens they picked. Once the storyteller is done, listeners reflect back on the story from the perspective of their listening filter. Finally, the storyteller shares any insights gleaned from the listeners’ reflection.

With those simple “rules” and within a few minutes (each round lasts around 10 minutes), a safe climate is established, storytellers feel they can share without fear of judgment and listeners are nudged outside their usual biases. The listening cards allow everybody to make sense of the story from multiple and new perspectives. There is no immediate search for solutions or advice being given, just a moment to share a story and to make sense of it. Every time that I introduce and play the game, I am surprised how fast people can generate this interpersonal safety we are looking for and by the authenticity they show to each other, even with strangers.

Amy Edmundson’s has shown “how hard it is to establish and maintain psychological safety even in the most straightforward, factual, and critical contexts”. The simplicity of Listen for … makes it an easy gateway towards psychological safety. We have used the game in many contexts now, from open community games to conflict-ridden teams. The game can be pulled out at any moment when we feel we need to make sense of the complexity ubiquitous in today’s working life. A game can be focused on a particular issue (hybrid work, work-life issues, looking back on a project, etc.), then people tell short stories related with this specific context.

The game’s simplicity nudges people into “productive conversation” in which voice and silence are balanced (Edmundson and Besieux). Storytellers contribute by focusing on what happened and getting to the essence of their story; listeners are explicitly asked to listen to the story from a particular angle. The rules of the game move people away from unproductive conversation by diminishing disruption and withholding. In the figure below, testimonies from participants in the game are placed into the productive conversation matrix. It shows how Listen for … enhances productive contributions and decreases unproductive ones.

Change happens through conversations, from the simplest encounter with a person to more complex collaborative processes. And fruitful conversations are based on empathic and deep listening. It is not easy to create psychological safety to allow deep listening to emerge; Listen for … helps to quickly dive in such a space. Come play with us, Percolab offers a monthly online Listen for… game and it’s free.