Improve Your Team’s “Interactional Safety”

Have you ever been in a meeting where an important decision was being made, when you had something important to contribute – and you considered speaking up, but hesitated – and then decided not to say anything? And kicked yourself afterwards for not speaking up?

Chances are we’ve all been in meetings where we didn’t feel safe speaking up. We may have experienced negative outcomes from decisions made in those meetings – anything from unsuccessful rollouts of products to bankruptcy (that’s what I’ve heard when I’ve delivered this workshop.) Why don’t we speak up?


  • We don’t want to rock the boat
  • We feel social pressure to conform
  • Fear of consequences or the cost is too high

Sometimes we feel like we’re the only person disagreeing with the direction of the group; they’re all heading towards the cliff, and we’re thinking: “Wait a second, I have a different opinion that goes against the majority viewpoint.” I call that “dissent”, when we have a viewpoint that goes against the majority. And when leaders or organizations don’t leave space for dissenting voices, they often run into problems afterwards. You’ve probably experienced this yourself.

So what happens when concerns or dissenting opinions don’t get expressed in a group setting?

  • Less effective decision making
  • Withdrawal, anxiety and/or stress
  • People haven’t bought in; they may sabotage the decision
  • Mistrust, low organizational learning

Solution?  We need to create a climate of safety for people to speak up. Team leaders need to create the conditions to allow dissent to emerge.  We (OD consultants, team coaches) need to teach people these skills.

Make it Safe to Speak Up

In my workshop, “Speak Up”, I present several strategies to create those conditions, at the level of the team leader, the team, and the overall organization, including the following:

Team:  Teach the team the principles of inclusive conversation, and help them practice noticing the conversational dynamics. Give them examples of effective, non-blaming language to comment on what’s happening – language of curiosity and inquiry, that benefit the group.  For example: “I’m noticing that we’ve quickly made a decision but I’m not sure that we all agreed on the problem definition. Could we revisit that?”

Leader: Teach the leader the principles of facilitative leadership: encourage different perspectives and viewpoints that challenge the groupthink or the consensus; create ground rules so people can’t shut down conversation; save their (the leader’s) comments to the end after others have spoken – to name a few.

Organization:  Embed the principle of “It’s OK to Speak Up” in the company’s values.

I’m on a mission to make groups and teams safe spaces for conversation, which lead to more effective, business-wise decisions.  It’s not just the leader’s role – we all can take action to improve the interactional safety in team meetings.  Let’s do it together!

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