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Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

Amplify Engagement with Safety

Anne Elizabeth Collier


  • Psychological safety is the feeling of being able to express oneself without penalty.
  • Problem-solving mindsets lead to a safe culture.
  • Learn 14 tips for creating a safe, engaged and problem-solving culture.
Amplify Engagement with Safety

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Whether it’s an internal meeting, client meeting or board meeting, there are often people who hold back. They are reluctant to share their ideas. They don’t speak up in meetings and you, as the leader, need them to. The same is often said of some new or long-standing members of volunteer boards and committees. Leaders will say “I don’t have a year to wait for our new members to get involved and engaged. We need them now!”

Achieving results requires everyone’s best thinking and that often requires improving team members’ engagement. For people to be involved and engaged, they must feel safe sharing their ideas and concerns, even if means being the wacky outlier. This is psychological safety. When it is present, people feel comfortable and, in fact, are encouraged to speak up about work-relevant content without penalty. They can disagree openly and surface concerns without fear of negative repercussions or feeling pressure to sugarcoat bad news. In a safe culture, colleagues ask for help, reveal mistakes and deal with, rather than hide, mistakes. They don’t spend energy worrying about whether they are in trouble. Nor do they waste precious time avoiding blame, jockeying for position or trying to look good.

At its core, psychological safety and a safe culture require that colleagues possess a problem-solving mindset. This isn’t always easy, especially when colleagues become stressed and even reactive in the face of setbacks and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. To create a safe and problem-solving culture requires the intentional management of fear-based reactive thinking, feelings and behaviors such as fear, anger, jealously, conflict avoidance, impatience and pessimism. For more insight into your fear-based reactions take this short-form assessment.

14 Tips for Creating a Safe, Engaged and Problem-Solving Culture

Especially when the team is stretched thin, you need people performing at their best, which requires safety. These 14 tips will help you create a culture in which colleagues align to solve problems collaboratively and without blame.

  1. Promote a problem-solving mindset. Stay focused on resolving the problem instead of lamenting the problem. You are where you are. Know that you and your colleagues can deal with it.
  2. Give up blaming. If you do in fact express your frustration, do so as it pertains to the problem not the person. Further, eschew person-focused blame by reminding yourself that the problem itself is causing your stress, not a colleague’s actions or failure to act.
  3. Depersonalize complaints and criticism. Leaders can easily fall into the trap of feeling targeted or responsible when a project isn’t going well. The truth is that the complaints and criticism are not about you, even if they are directed at you. Rather, complaints embody information about concerns and most likely reflect fear and stress. Listen, learn and lead.
  4. Don’t complain. Especially if you are the leader, don’t complain. Remember that you set the example by staying focused on creatively solving the problem. You don’t have to be a robot, or ridiculously positive. Do express appropriate empathy and appreciation for colleagues’ hard work and frustration.
  5. Ask yourself “What did I make that mean?” Recognize that you may have climbed up the Ladder of Inference, adding negative meaning to an email or other communication. Distinguish between what was said or done and the meaning you’ve added.
  6. Use coaching skills with colleagues. Coaching, in the business context, means that you ask colleagues open-ended questions to help them think clearly and creatively as they become more engaged in resolving the challenges you face.
  7. Be collaborative and curious. Be sure to encourage participation in co-creating by asking questions that start with “what,” “how,” “when” or “who.” Avoid “why” because its use can be mistaken for criticism. Pause often. Wait for responses. Strive to better understand your colleague’s perspective and ideas.
  8. Use neutral language. Especially with the defensive, use neutral language to discuss problems. Avoid exaggerations like “always” or “never,” and avoid “should” or “should not,” which can be seen as judgmental and not in the spirit of collaboration.
  9. Make requests. Use “Would you be willing to . . .?” This language both clarifies the request and assent to the request. Make the request specific, doable and positive.
  10. Think objectively, speak candidly. You set the example of safety by candidly raising concerns about resources, priorities and other challenges.
  11. Frame challenges. Frame seemingly negative comments or feedback with why it is important or what is at stake if the issue is not resolved.
  12. Ruthlessly prioritize. Be realistic about what you and colleagues can accomplish within a time frame. While there is a time for cheerleading, be mindful that you aren’t damaging psychological safety by making it taboo to raise concerns about overload and burnout.
  13. Appoint a devil’s advocate. If your team members struggle to ask the hard questions, make it a colleague’s job to do so and rotate this responsibility. Further, be sure to thank colleagues for all input, especially if you don’t agree.
  14. Solicit everyone’s views. Once you’ve created psychological safety, for the more reserved to share their thoughts and ideas, you still may have to employ facilitation techniques, which have the added benefit of reinforcing psychological safety. Encourage engagement by soliciting everyone’s views with post its or notes and polling. Manage dominant voices with breakouts or rooms.

To accomplish your goals, you need team members to engage and for that you need psychological safety. Adhering to these 14 tips will help you create a safe culture that fosters engagement as you solve your toughest problems.