When it comes to leading a team, a leader can focus on one-on-one discussions with each of the direct reports or have a meeting with the entire team. In my discussions with leaders, it seems that although they see the value of both kinds of interactions, most prefer the one-on-one meeting. They sometimes even argue that that they “get everything done” that way and that there is no need (and of course no time) for team meetings. The team meetings they do have are very often about reporting-out or status updates. And we know how effective these are …

Yet the team meeting plays an important role when it comes to develop team psychological safety. Why? Team psychological safety is not just about how the leader interacts with each team member, although he or she plays a very critical role.
In a team with 10 members (including the team leader), there are a total of 45 connections. Team psychological safety – a shared understanding by the members of a team that the team is safety for interpersonal risk taking[1] – exists through these 45 connections.

In a team with a leader and 9 other members, the leader “covers” 9 out of these 45 connections, or 20%, through the one-on-one meetings. As Pareto would agree, we are missing the part that has the biggest impact.

The remaining 80% of the environment where team psychological safety exists is through the connections between the team members themselves. The team leader of course cannot be part of all these exchanges, but the team meeting is a great and necessary tool to activate and optimize all the connections at the same time … and therefore build up the team’s level of psychological safety.

What are the keys to a successful team meeting as a team leader? There are many lists, but I think the following are critical:

What is the reason team meetings go bad? There could be many, but in my experience, the worst is when the team leader has the answer/solution/idea in mind, and uses the team meeting to either convince the team of that answer, or – more subtly – to ‘gently guide’ the team towards that answer.

If the leader has the conclusion or answer ready, there is no need for a ‘pretend’ collaborative meeting! Just inform the team of the answer/solution/decision … and move on (but then don’t be surprised about lack of real buy-in down the road!). It’s rather fake to pretend to look for input and different ideas, if the intention is really just to confirm the decision you already took. You can’t have your cake and eat it too!

An intentionally well designed team meeting goes a long way to build team psychological safety between all connections in the team. And you may be surprised once in a while about the quality of ideas you get from really counting on your team to solve issues!

Peter Cauwelier

  1. Edmondson, A.C., Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 1999. 44(2): p. 350-383.
  2. Lipmanowicz, H. and K. McCandless, The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures. 2013, USA: Liberating Structures Press.