Psychological Safety on Volunteer Teams

psychological safety

I seem to be on a bit of a trend these days about the mental health of our volunteers. Maybe because so few people are talking about it outside of Covid-related issues.  I came across a post a short while ago on psychological safety that has been making me think. It was by Jean Marie DiGiovanna, and with her kind permission I have included the sketchnote that went along with her post.

Psychological safety is becoming a bit of a hot topic across all sectors, but less so in the not-for-profit world. And yet we need it as much as anyone. Perhaps more. Within our volunteer teams we often have a wide diversity of world views and experiences (and if you don’t, you should!). Those differences, though, however valuable, can lead to challenges in understanding.

Plans to increase diversity on a volunteer team must have psychological safety measures in place for everyone on that team.

People will leave once they notice, which they will very quickly, that their ideas and skills are ignored or underutilized. No one wants to be the “token whatever” in a group. Everyone needs to feel that they are making a difference and that they are in a place where it’s safe for them to express their thoughts and ideas.

The six questions posed in the sketchnote help create or increase the sense that every member of a team is valued and their opinions, skills and ideas are welcomed. Ask these questions roundtable style in a team meeting, or in a one-on-one conversation. They can help you understand each other better, and can help leaders of volunteers to better utilize all the capabilities of their volunteers – because they now know what they are!

Note that all the questions focus on actions and not on personalities.

This helps keep the conversation objective, and makes people comfortable with sharing. If you are facilitating this discussion, try to ensure that the answers also remain objective and action-focused. The moment that the discussion strays into the realm of personalities (“you’re always such a pessimist”), rather than what they are doing (“you always say that my ideas won’t work”), the sense of safety disappears and change becomes much harder. Suggestions for improvement must always be actionable. A person may not be able to change their pessimism, but they can change what they say to others.

Asking the questions, however, is only the start of creating psychological safety for your volunteers.

Everyone on the team must be willing to answer the questions honestly. They must also be willing to accept other people’s answers with curiosity and an open mind. This takes a measure of trust, of course, and won’t happen overnight. As leader of the volunteer team, you build an environment of trust through your attitude and actions right from day one.

Finally, for this to really work its magic, take action on the answers.

A discussion is great, but it’s only the starting point. To bring about change, and create a culture of psychological safety, the entire team must be ready to follow through. Ready to change behaviours that others see as a distraction, ready to provide what others need to be successful, ready to use skills that have been overlooked.

Jean Marie’s questions are a great first step toward building a volunteer team that is diverse, dynamic, and safe.

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