• Anna

How to have an efficient and psychologically safe working group

Did you ever attend a meeting at which nobody spoke? Or did it resemble a set of lectures? Perhaps, in the worst case, participants spent their time arguing like children?


Working groups can be a powerful when organized correctly, but they can also be a source of frustration if they are not effective. To make working groups more efficient, productive and satisfying for all participants, it is important to create and implement some basic rules.

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To begin with, let's explore the risks associated with working groups:

  1. There will never be time for actual work, and in the end it will be email exchanges and a miserable leader struggle.

  2. If the group never brought up the real issues behind its goal, whatever solution they presented would be ineffective

  3. No productive discussion will be possible in the group

  4. It will be impossible for the group to meet the deadline.

Humans Not Robots Approach to Successful Working Groups
Create a productive environment and a goal-driven one

Meetings are often organized based on the assumption that participants are robots rather than humans. Consequently, the meetings cut corners and instead of embracing the human part in us, they force us to hide it and fight against it. Ultimately, it will always be counterproductive, as it is useless.

Did you ever attend a meeting at which nobody spoke? Or did it resemble a set of lectures? Perhaps, in the worst case, participants spent their time arguing like children? Whenever we design meetings for robots, not humans, this happens.

So when I say a goal-focused environment, I don't mean a corporate style of communication, PM jargon, or checklists. Rather, I mean ensuring that methods used for group work address real challenges. Considering the potential problems from the outset and designing for them can save a lot of time and frustration. In our human ignorance, we sometimes think this soft blabla is useless and only takes time. By explaining its role in the process and justifying the time spent on something seemingly unrelated to the topic of discussion, you can avoid rejection of "soft" methods.



Humans not Robots - Working Group Guide

If the working group is seen as potentially dealing with hard discussions and decisions, then more emphasis should be given to building psychological safety in the group, so members will feel more confident when giving real input.

  • Members should become familiar with each other's work

  • Ask ice-breaker questions to help them get to know each other as humans

  • Laugh together (not in a sarcastic or cynical way, but about something you share or relate to, e.g. being a parent, being a non-English-native, dealing with zoom fatigue)

It's important to remember that everybody has their own interests (both personal and organizational). No one is impartial, and that must be understood and embraced. To make the most of the working group's objective, align the different interests with its purpose. In essence, it is the "power of diversity". Spend time on surfacing and highlighting the:

  • Goals for each member of the working group (I, Susan, am here because the decisions made here will affect my day-to-day work)

  • The goals of the team a person represents (as a representative of the XYZ Team, I am here to ensure the engineering perspective is not overlooked in the solution).

If the goals appear contradictory to each other - take it, don't argue about it, the time will come to deal with it.


Then, but, before you begin anything, agree on a goal for the group. It might seem simple, but discussing the goal will be helpful in the future if a conflict arises. The agreed upon goal will be your guiding star for deciding on your course of action. Make sure you all understand it the same way and agree to it. If members of the group are ready to defend this goal in their respective teams, that will be an indication of their commitment.


Discuss the assumptions and expectations everyone brings to the table. Bring them to light. Whenever a conflict arises, you can understand the reasons behind both sides' perspectives.


Work on transparency, make sure that everyone knows exactly what the goal is and why it is important:

  • At the beginning of every meeting, remind yourselves what the purpose of the work as well as of the particular meeting is.

  • Know what the deadlines are and what the timeline is

  • In every meeting, the agenda should be reasonable and agreed upon - adjust it in response to the need for human interaction and the fact that real discussion takes time

Openness is the key, and that can mean:

  • In every meeting, create psychological safety by bringing out human sides of all participants, and enjoy it together

  • Ensure that participants speak freely and can ask any questions they want

  • Discuss in different ways or work in groups - not all people respond well to impromptu talks, sometimes a private, or even an individual's reflection, can be helpful to elicit insight or ideas.

Humans are extremely durable, but they need to be recharged as well
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Making frequent breaks and letting participants recharge their batteries is an important but often overlooked rule. Many of us sacrifice our well-being for the sake of productivity. It makes our brains and bodies less focused, less engaged, and in some cases even angry. Take action if you notice unfocus, irritability, or engagement. Consider taking a break or ending sooner. Beware: longer does not mean more efficient.


 

For those who love a checklist, here are the most important points in two lists:


Building Psychological Safety and Transparency in a Working Group

  • Members should become familiar with each other's work

  • Ask ice-breaker questions to help them get to know each other as humans

  • Laugh together

  • Surface goals of participants

  • Together make the goal of the working group clear and agreed upon

  • Discuss all assumptions that everybody have about the working group

  • Have reasonable agenda for every meeting

  • Build transparency with rituals around ensuring knowing the goal of the working group

  • Use different methods for engaging members of the group in the work and discussions

  • Make breaks often, and let participants charge their batteries

 

Participant’s self-accountability and integrity pledge

(as we are all accountable for success)

  • Be honest with yourself, your team and with your working group peers

  • Commit to be open and curious

  • Listen to hear, not to answer

  • Take active part in creating solutions and stand behind what was achieved

  • Help facilitator by staying on track

  • Don't be afraid to change your mind

  • Keep your emotions in check and, if you find yourself using aggressive or passive-aggressive methods, take five and reflect where it is coming from (side note: refusing to take part in something is a passive-aggressive behavior)

  • Apologize if you crossed boundaries

  • Ask for help or support when you struggle with being present and engaged

  • Encourage others to explain their position, and make sure that no one is left voiceless


If you want to plan the work of your Working Group with a Human, contact me at anna@annakuliberda.com. I supported many organizations in organizing teams, meetings and getting the work done.


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