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Collaboration and Communication

What to do when people don't feel safe in the retrospective

Retrium Team

One of the most common problems agile teams face in their retrospectives is that people don’t feel safe speaking up. There’s a lack of trust in the team climate. Without trust, psychological safety, and openness, the “real issues” are never even brought up. 

What good is the retro, if you can’t discuss the difficult issues?

This is a big problem. You’ve got to trust the people on your team, or you’re not really a “team” in the first place. 👇

What’s tricky about this is that if you’re trying to fix safety in your retrospective, you’ve waited too long. The retrospective meeting is not the time to create safety or trust. Rather, the retro relies on trust as the status quo.

"Creating a safe environment starts before the retrospective even begins."
David Horowitz

So let’s back up a bit. Rather than asking what you can do to create team psychological safety during the retrospective meeting, you should be asking what you can do to create safety in general. I recommend taking a look at this article by Slack for some ideas on how to improve psychological safety before the retro even begins.

With that said, once you're in the retrospective meeting, what can you do, if anything? 😧

One option is to start your retrospective with a Safety Check.

First, explain how the activity works. Start by telling the group that they will be rating their level of safety from 1 to 5. It's critical that everyone on the team understands and agrees to the definition of each number. This is how I tend to describe the meaning of the numbers (though feel free to modify based on the needs of your team).

Second, explain how you will handle the outcome of the Safety Check. Think this through ahead of time. What will you do if most people are a 5 but a few people are a 1 or a 2? What will you do if everyone is a 1 or a 2? Have a plan, so you're not caught by surprise.

Here is how I tend to handle the results of the Safety Check (which is based on the Dr. Mark Balbes' approach).

Third, ask each person to indicate how safe they feel in the retrospective. You can do this by having everyone write down a number that corresponds to their level of psychological safety. Alternatively, if you're concerned with maintaining anonymity, you can use a digital tool that support anonymous feedback.

For example, using Retrium you can setup a retrospective board with 5 columns labeled 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Then have each person create an anonymous sticky note in one of the columns to indicate their level of safety.

This will create a histogram of the results.

Safety Check in Retrium

Finally, discuss next steps and action items. You can say, “Since the lowest number was <X> , we will <Y>.” 

Remember that if anyone says they don't feel safe on the team, you have a problem that is important to work on. Don't wait. Building a safe and positive team climate is likely more important than any other issue you face today. Remember: safe teams are high-performing teams.

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