What To Do When… People Don’t Feel Safe In The Retrospective

What To Do When… People Don’t Feel Safe In The Retrospective

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

What good is the retro, if you can’t discuss the true 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 retro is not the time to create safety or trust. Rather, the retro relies on trust in the first place.

Creating a safe environment starts before the retrospective even begins.

So let’s back up a bit. Rather than asking what you can do to create safety during the retrospective, 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, 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):

5I can talk about anything.
4I feel mostly safe, but there are a few things that will be difficult for me to discuss.
3I can talk about some things but not others. I am willing to talk about why I feel unsafe.
2I can talk about some things but not others. I am unwilling to talk about why I feel unsafe.
1I do not feel safe.

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):

If the lowest rating is…Then…
5Continue the retrospective as normal! 😊
4Ask the team whether it would like to use the retro to focus on improving safety
3Focus on safety during the retro
2Don’t focus on safety (because at least one person is unwilling to discuss why she feels unsafe). Instead, make sure all activities are fully anonymous.
1Cancel the entire retro. There is a deeper problem that can’t be solved in the retro itself.

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 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 note in one of the columns to indicate their level of safety.

Safety Check in Retrium

This will create a histogram of the results.

Finally, discuss next steps. 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. This is likely more important than any other issue you face today.