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My youngest son knows that psychological safety is one of the things that I talk about most often. He sent me an article on it that was in an online magazine called Inverse. You can read it here.

As always, I have some opinions about the article. I like the authors’ description of psychological safety: the feeling of trust that you are free to be you. I associate psychological safety with a feeling of freedom. When we feel psychologically safe, we feel free to disagree, voice another perspective, ask questions, and take reasonable risks. We aren’t worried about other people’s reactions or retaliation. Psychological safety is a wonderful thing at work and at home. It’s no wonder that exceptional, high-performing teams foster psychological safety.

The article states that familiarity engenders the trust needed for psychological safety. I agree. So does Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Trust is the foundation of his pyramid for the qualities of exceptional teams. He advocates building trust with a few questions that he has researched:

  • What is your birth order?
  • What was a major childhood challenge?
  • What was your first job?

Where they lose me in the Inverse article is using the infamous 36 Questions That Lead to Love to build trust at work. You can read the NY Times article about the 36 Questions here. Some of the questions are fine for the workplace, but some of them are just too personal!

We walk a fine line at the workplace when creating relationships. Leaders can’t keep themselves and their personal lives completely separate from their coworkers. We don’t generally trust people who won’t tell us anything about themselves. We feel that they don’t like us or trust us.

Of course, those individuals could just be intensely private, but we all know that we interpret situations through our Frame of Reference. What we assume or guess isn’t always what is true. In my dealings with organizations, I have seen a distinct distrust and resentment toward people who refuse to share any of themselves with others.

In looking at the graph in the article, it looks like a couple of people were alienated by the exercise. Their dots move out further from the group. I’m not surprised. Forced intimacy at the level of the 36 Questions was bound to insult and maybe even infuriate a few people.

At the end of the article, the authors say that no one should be forced to take part. Refusing to do a team-building exercise takes a lot of courage, especially if there is a lack of psychological safety in the group. Making workers stand up against something that is clearly inappropriate for the workplace isn’t helping the situation at all.

However, as I stated earlier, it’s a fine line. There are a few people who feel that answering questions about their first job is too personal. When I do trust-building exercises that involve some personal disclosure, I make it clear that people don’t have to share anything that makes them uncomfortable. If they don’t want anyone to know what their first job was, they can talk about their second or third job. We definitely don’t want any oversharing in the workplace.

I’ve created my own list of questions. Some are from Lencioni. Some are from the 36 Questions. The rest I made up. You can get a copy of those questions here. Click on “Getting to Know You.” I print these out on both sides of card stock. Then I cut down the middle to create bookmarks.

The foundation of any healthy relationship is trust. The more we know about a person, the more likely we are to trust them – if they are trustworthy. Every now and then, a particularly negative or mean-spirited person will give answers that push people away rather than draw them closer. 

In our personal lives, we can avoid these people. At work, we must accept that psychological safety with this particular person is not going to happen. As a leader, it’s important to realize the damage that the negative person can do to a team or organization.

Trying to get to know someone better is always worth the effort. Ask some friendly questions, and know that every response is an okay response. Whatever level of intimacy a person is comfortable with is the right one for him or her.

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