The impact of conversational safe spaces on the team spirit

Many of us avoid having difficult conversations because we worry about saying the wrong thing that could ultimately make matters worse. At the same time, we aim for moving and shifting things around us and that most often requires the courage and bravery of having that difficult or missed conversation. This means that if one wants to have that meaningful conversation with another team member or with a stakeholder or another department representative for example, creating the mental, emotional, and physical space for the conversation becomes essential. I will refer to this space as the “safe space” within this article.

But what is a safe space?

For me, a safe space is a place and conversational space where I feel listened to, I feel seen, and I feel acknowledged. The conversation and the person holding the space are prepared in advance by making time for the conversation as well as being in a state of calmness, curiosity, and compassion. I find it essential to forget all assumptions and to be and to listen in the present moment.

A safe space has clear boundaries set at the beginning of the conversation as well as having these reinforced at any given moment, so that the participants are reassured about the confidentiality of the conversation.

Another safe space indicator is the lack of free advice. In my experience, I find it crucial and very important to avoid giving advice under any circumstances as those usually leave one with the feeling of not being heard. Instead, the use of open questions shows me that the person holding the safe space for me, is balanced and calm in the moment shared with me.

Questions that start with “tell me,” “how” or “what” are usually good in these circumstances. For example, questions like, “Tell me how things are going,” “How are you?” or “What’s been going on for you?” can be a good place to start. If one decides to open up, the other can try to keep asking follow-up questions so they have a clear picture of the situation. The who, what, why, where, when, how questions are great follow ups.

So how can we create safe spaces to generate the impact we want when it comes to team spirit?

And I deliberately choose the word impact over change here, as impact isn’t just any ordinary change, it is changing at a larger, bigger scale than maybe imagined. I came to find out that when we say impact, it is a long-term change that does not just happen within a short period of time.

Conversations about team spirit at a team level are about sharing experiences, reviewing behaviors and finding solutions where everyone is able to feel comfortable being themselves at work.

About half a year ago one of the tasks I assigned myself was to figure out what is the current status of the teams’ spirit, so that we understand what actions are to be taken.

We on purpose decided not to use the team happiness metrics, but team morale, as team morale (which in the end turned out to be translated to team spirit in our specific case, due to the sometimes unconsciously connotation people attribute to the word “morale”) is for us a task- and team-oriented measure that does justice to the nature of the agile work environment.

Team morale (or team spirit) is the enthusiasm and persistence with which a team engages in the prescribed activities of that group.

The assessment was intended to be rolled out with 10 teams, all of them working together in a larger setup, acting as one team at a higher flight level. This means that each team has its own ecosystem with a focus on more details but no longer the entire landscape of the end product, while on the higher flight level the teams act as one united team that has more of an overview and the system’s big picture in sight.

We wanted to understand what was impacting the team spirit of our team members and the individual teams as well as the teams’ morale of the overall team.

Only when we managed to create a safe space where teams and team members felt comfortable in sharing their input, were we able to collect the data we were looking for. We did this by rolling out the exercise in an anonymous and bilingual way, so that both English and German-speaking people were approached with the language they are most comfortable with. We communicated our intentions at the beginning and made clear what was the goal and gain of the exercise. We wanted to keep people curious, so we started by asking: “Have you ever wondered how enriched the relationships within the team are or how cohesive your team is?”. We also shared our in-advance-prepared understanding of team spirit so that we were all on the same conversational page from the very beginning. Team spirit” to us means a state of mind based on usefulness, purpose, a sense of confidence, and the vibe of the entire team that makes the team, as well as the individual team members, thrive.”

Assessed statements were something like: “I am enthusiastic about the work that I do for my team” or “In my team, I feel fit and strong” or “Together with my team, we quickly recover from setbacks” where each team member had to respond with a number on a scale from 1 to 5, 1 meaning lowest agreement and 5 highest agreement. 

Our aim was to find out what the team spirit was on both levels: the individual team level as well as the overall team level: do you feel driven, do you feel confident, do you trust. Once all the data was gathered and at our hands, we co-designed with the teams sessions on looking into the results instead of just sharing them via e-mail. This allowed us to create and contain the needed safe space for talking about what was working and where adjustments were needed. Having the sessions moderated by someone outside of the team, helped team members stay focused on the topic as well as keeping them on track and not go into blaming or off mode. People felt safe in sharing personal thoughts around complex topics and with the received guidance, the involved minds were directed towards solution thinking and reconnecting with each other.

Embedding these types of conversations into our work routine or a regular work week or month or sprint can create a huge shift. Teams can start small and soon, even if it’s just sharing heart rate improvements, steps or sharing a laugh. Sharing should be encouraged. I encourage all my teams to practice self-care as a team. Anything can work, such as lunchtime team walks, morning check-ins, buddy exercising, monthly breakfast clubs, quotes of the week, music sharing. Whatever works for their office and team, the organization should give it a go, review and try to create some accountability. This way, safe spaces become an inherent part of the workplace and a sustainable process that everyone can rely on.

About Olivia Rusiczky 1 Article
Olivia is a facilitator and conversation specialist, and process manager, offering agile business coaching, and designing and moderating workshops on various themes. For the last 9 years, Olivia contagiously shared her enthusiasm with the people around her while developing her own wholehearted methodology to create safe spaces for difficult conversations. Her current focus is on communication, environment, optimization, and fun.

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