THE NEED FOR PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY IN PROJECT TEAMS
Author: Jacqui Aird-Paterson, PMP, MSc PQ
THE NEED FOR PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY IN PROJECT TEAMS We always, whoever we are, remember our favourite boss, Often, we refer to them as great managers! What was it that they did to be remembered or considered in such a positive way?
Simple. Good levels of Communication. But not just any old communication, it’s the taking time to spend individual time with those reporting lines, and focussing on them and their needs. Most often represented as 1-2-1’s. Some formal, some informal, but always individual time between 2 people.
Every manager that I admire, and respect has always demonstrated a strong ethical practice of scheduling regular 1-2-1s with members of their team and I certainly make sure that I do this with my own team members. More likely to be as a PM to project team members, but one particular team was when I was an operational manager, although we managed many projects for the organisation. I had a very senior role, Regional Manager looking after all the Training and Development needs of graduates and staff for a major Oil & Gas company. My own region was North Continental Shelf (Canada, UK and Norway for those who may be unaware).
Even though I had ridiculous time pressures to deal with, the last items that I would reschedule, or cancel were the 1-2-1 meetings. No matter the pressure on me, I felt it was vital that these were carried out. I still remember hearing one of my team members state:
“Our team is definitely the most connected and supportive in this office”
(a huge-partly open-plan area) and I will admit to a proud moment when I heard this.
Consider the social signal that was sent by me by ring-fencing dedicated time for team members. In addition to the 1-2-1’s, we also went out together for a monthly 2-hour lunch, where all were discouraged from talking about work. It was about sitting with those that you don’t work near or don’t have the chance to catch up with in the office – reconnecting, and getting to know one another.
1-2-1’s in Project Management As a PM, with a team under great pressure to deliver, these simple steps are essential for the wellbeing, belonging, performance, and psychological safety of all. Although psychological safety may not necessarily be an outcome of 1-2-1 practice, it’s those hidden, underlying messages that we send. Often a PM is working with a variety of people that are new to them. My team members know that I dedicate focused time for them laying a foundation of security, giving them free reign to discuss anything important to them while I take time to identify any issues that they may have been facing personally.
My take on 1-2-1s is that they are an investment in the future of your team members:
in their wellbeing,
and their trust
- so that when something happens that they need to tell you about, they will - without having to worry about asking for your time first. 1-2-1's are great for handling the stuff that is non-urgent, but most important to the project objectives.
Obviously, as a PM, when managing a large team, there should be a hierarchy – and by you demonstrating to the higher lines in the hierarchy the importance of the 1-2-1 sessions, it should filter down through the lines. Communication is one of our most vital skills, yet we mis-use it too often. Take time to ensure all team members are covered as part of the overall psychological safety of the full team.
Prioritising the time First and foremost, 1-2-1’s must be regular. I usually aim for weekly at first, when joining a new project or if a new member joins, which I extend to every two weeks when both I and the team member feel that is best. It's worth bearing in mind that holidays, unplanned work stuff, and the "real world" can result in 1-2-1's being postponed or skipped, so my approach is to err on the more regular frequency, because we can skip one without it causing too much of a gap between sessions. 30 minutes work best, but can be reduced to 20 minutes with an experienced team who knows to come prepared and get the best out of each session.
A month between sessions is too long, in my opinion, so should a 2-weekly session be cancelled, another should be scheduled asap. These should be dedicated meetings in our calendars by default; then if the team member wants to skip or postpone, it's their choice. The PM should avoid postponing or skipping unless unavoidable.
As stated above, should a PM struggle to find the time to have regular sessions, the problem may be the sheer number of direct reports. In this case, identify the structure within the team, are there blurred reporting lines that dictate a structure change? This may be more likely in projects than standard operations. Project managers are far more likely to be challenged by meetings at any time due to the complexity and specific challenges of their role. In this case, delegation to trusted deputies and project leads may be the most efficient route.
As a PM, if there's a problem, personal or organisational, I want to find out about it as soon as possible, not just when my team member manages to find a free slot in my calendar. That dedicated 1-2-1 time between PM and team member is a pretty explicit statement of "you matter to me", and what you care about matters to me too. It also encourages upward discussions when vital to the project.
Some PM’s have an "open door" policy, encouraging team members to book time in their calendar. This is not always effective: yes, some team members will feel safe and comfortable in booking time, but others (such as junior, more reserved team members, or those who feel less centred in the team) may feel this is too much of an imposition on their PM’s time, and be reluctant to book unless it's very urgent. People who are already checked out, unsafe, anxious, or stressed won't book that time - and they're exactly the people the PM needs to speak to and spend time with.
In my experience, my most effective or transformational 1-2-1 conversations have been with regular team appointments, members who didn't think they had anything to discuss. Before you know it, they're talking about big life goals or something personally important and impactful that makes a big difference to them, and to my perception of them.
Do allow at least 30 minutes for a 1-1 meeting. We may not need all that time, but it's important for us not to feel rushed. I also try to add buffers between 1-1s and other meetings, allowing me to deal with anything that can come up, and it's important for me to have some time to write it up, take some actions, or simply switch context.
Setting the Scene We may make use of remote and virtual tools, but I still encourage 1-1s in the quiet of my office with a closed door, if this isn’t possible, I try to make them outside the office environment. We are all more likely to talk about important stuff when feeling more relaxed about opening up, this can work best in an environment that feels less formal for some, if so we can use cafes or local open space such as parks, and I find walking 1-1s can be really effective too although sometimes time constraints need to be factored in.
The truth is that many PMs and project leads feel that they are too busy to focus 100% on the team member and will start glancing at their phone, checking emails, or responding to a chat message all send very clear signals to the team member that they're less important than the manager or the "work". This is something I see all too often. Set the scene to avoid distractions - turn off notifications on your phone, close your email, turn off chat messages, and set your status to "away". This is your team member's time, give them 100% of your attention. Shaping 1-2-1 sessions Approach your preparation for 1-2-1’s. You might go without an agenda, simply discussing whatever comes up. This may sound lazy and unproductive but can be very powerful. You might prefer to highlight topics in advance, but know that this can spark anxiety in team members when they see subjects logged for discussion. For me, the agenda should be owned by the team member, not the PM.
For a well-established project team, I encourage preparation through 15/5 reports: regular structured reports that take the team member less than 15 minutes to write, and 5 minutes for me to read. The questions and topics in a 15/5 are often set by myself, but are person-centred - usually focusing on wellbeing, morale, achievements, goals, and other open questions. 15/5s are a great habit to build, provide a psychologically safe "pulse" for the team, and facilitate effective 1-2-1s by giving strong signals about what's important to discuss.
Personally, I believe 1-2-1s are *not* the place to discuss projects, delivery, KPIs, OKRs, SLAs or other factors related to output and delivery. The team member may ask for help in solving a particular work problem, or they may highlight a challenge that they're facing in getting work done, but 1-2-1s should not be a time where the team member feels they may be chased or pushed on work matters. It may be necessary to discuss aspects of work and projects, but the context should always be positively focused on the team member. Think growth mindset, rather than deficit mindset. As a PM, if you have a problem with a project falling behind or a task slipping, schedule another meeting to discuss it.
Good topics for 1-2-1s include self-development, learning, morale and wellbeing, their personal life and goals, concerns (and successes) related to the team, plus how you can better support them as. A key point here is to ask team members for feedback, or advice in sessions. Much of the time, they won't feel at ease to provide any - but if you ask for this regularly, when they do have feedback, they know you've provided space for it, that you wish to receive it, and you will now get it.
Controversially - I don't think 1-2-1s are the time and place to give your team member feedback; remember that feedback should be timely, so if you there is specific feedback for your team member, it should be given to them as soon as possible after the issue it's in respect to.
Responding to individual needs A PM may want to use coaching practices and skills in 1-2-1 sessions in addition to the advisor, mentor, and advocate role that they play by default. Be careful to make it clear when switching roles: sometimes people want advice, sometimes they want a friendly ear, and sometimes they want the time and space to come up with their own solutions. It can be frustrating to have someone coach you if all you want is a simple answer to a problem!
People and relationships are the most important aspect of any organisation, and 1-2-1's are one of our most valuable practices, and therefore should be one of a PM’s highest priorities. A person-centred, regular, and continuously improving 1-2-1 practice is one of the most effective ways that a PM can lay strong foundations in a project and set the scene for a psychologically safe, high performing team.