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January 31, 2023
ASCD Blog

Fostering Psychological Safety Among Staff, One Hour at a Time

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How weekly faculty meetings—or “Power Hours”—can build a sense of community and support.
LeadershipSchool CultureProfessional Learning
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Credit: G-Stock Studio / Shutterstock
What makes a team successful in the workplace? This is a million-dollar question. Literally. In 2012, Google spent millions of dollars and devoted an enormous amount of resources to demystifying the often-unpredictable exercise of building successful teams. Studying more than 180 real teams working at the company, the research team examined how team composition (e.g., the mix of personality traits of team members) and team dynamics (interpersonal relationships among them) impacted team effectiveness. The goal was to isolate the distinguishing characteristics of Google’s highest-performing teams.
By 2014, Google had its answer. Project Aristotle, as the study came to be known, pinpointed psychological safety as the foremost characteristic that distinguished high-performing teams from their low-performing counterparts. The term was originally coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who defines psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for risk-taking.” Psychological safety is a necessary precondition for generative dialogue, earnest risk-taking, cognitive friction, and genuine vulnerability among colleagues—the cocktail of collaborative skills that fosters trust, commitment, and accountability, and leads to results in the workplace.

Fostering Psychological Safety in Schools

Founding a culture of psychological safety is not simple. For school leaders, we should view the findings of studies like Project Aristotle as equal parts empowering and humbling. On the one hand, the concept of psychological safety allows us to focus on one primary goal: creating conditions for a workplace culture steeped in respect, inclusivity, and honest communication, reducing the huge number of variables (such as the fluidity of interpersonal dynamics) that a school leader would customarily try to account for when assembling a team.
On the other hand, cultivating such a culture is a complex undertaking that requires leaders’ sustained attention, patience, and commitment. In short, it necessitates a perpetual investment of time—not exactly a resource school leaders have in abundance. Moreover, many teachers collaborate within and across grade levels and departments, serve on schoolwide faculty committees, perform a range of administrative functions, and are involved in decision-making related to whole-school reform and innovation. These many and varied responsibilities magnify the challenge for school leaders in ensuring that their teachers feel a strong sense of psychological safety on each team of which they are a part.

Where School Leaders Can Begin

Fortunately, bringing a culture of psychological safety to life is not the duty of a school leader alone. In fact, school leaders do not possess the sort of unilateral power needed to do so. Creating a culture of psychological safety requires that the whole faculty shares in this responsibility (even one antagonistic faculty member has the power to undercut and derail the trust, integrity, and cohesion of the team, regardless of a school leader’s efforts). The commitment to building a culture of psychological safety may begin with school leaders, but its success is predicated on the buy-in of faculty.
So, as a school leader, where do you begin?

Knowing someone well, understanding how they think, how they feel about different topics, and how they engage with the world are the building blocks of trust and psychological safety.

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A team that knows and trusts each other is more capable than a team that doesn't. Knowing someone well, understanding how they think, how they feel about different topics, and how they engage with the world are the building blocks of trust and psychological safety.
As complex an idea as psychological safety is, the starting step to initiate this cultural shift can be a simple icebreaker—a tool we’re all likely familiar with, designed to build rapport and further acquaint us with one another. However, as fun as icebreakers are (yes, I’m the guy who actually enjoys icebreakers!), they’re only a first step. Icebreakers are limited in their ability to generate the kind of synergistic and secure feelings that undergird true psychological safety among faculty.
In large part, this is because the bonds formed during team meetings are relegated to and reserved exclusively for the members of that team. But psychological safety throughout a school is not something that can be attained if it’s limited to certain pockets or reserved for certain groups. Because staff members leave schools and team assignments change from year to year, any initiatives intended to cultivate a culture of psychological safety have to be provided to all faculty members in an equally distributed and comprehensive manner. 
This is where Power Hour comes in. 

What Is Power Hour?

Power Hour is a weekly gathering for middle school faculty at Francis Parker School of Louisville that started during the COVID-19 pandemic. What began as a virtual gathering has continued as school has opened back up—we now meet in-person outside of contracted hours on Fridays, where we gather to share something we did or saw over that week that felt powerful, hence the name “Power Hour.” Sharing is optional and faculty can share whatever is on their mind: something that happened at school or outside of it; something really big or quite small. Faculty members might relate a major life event such as their child’s wedding or they might talk about something quotidian but consequential, like a student in their class making marked strides. The time we spend together is determined organically—sometimes we take up a whole hour and everyone shares; other times, a handful of people share while others are present and listening. At its core, Power Hour is a dedicated time and shared space for faculty to learn about one another and feel more connected.
Power Hour helps faculty:
Shift perspective: Positivity is powerful. When people move through their week knowing that at the end of it they’ll get to share something that made them feel powerful, it shifts their mental and emotional inputs. They begin to pay more attention to the little things that make them feel good and hold on to those feelings, as opposed to allowing them to be usurped by negative experiences. The knowledge that Power Hour is on the horizon implicitly serves to foreground positive experiences in people’s minds. Power Hour naturally lends a greater resonance to, and extends the life of, the highs from the last week. 

Bonds can form quickly when we ask meaningful questions, even when time is at a premium.

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Ask people how they’re doingand mean it: Teaching is an endlessly busy profession. When we’re not teaching, we’re on duty; and, when we’re not on duty, we’re lesson planning or attending meetings. It’s rare that we have time to pause and chat with our colleagues. Most commonly, we see our colleagues in the hallway on our way from one responsibility to the next. As we breeze past them in the halls, our check-ins are quick: “Hey Shantel! How you doing?” Power Hour can’t change the amount of time we have, but it can make these passing interactions more meaningful. When we know more about what’s bringing joy to those around us, we can follow up on that joy when we check in. Instead of a generic “How you doing?” I’m now asking Shantel how things are with that one student or how her daughter did at tryouts. Bonds can form quickly when we ask meaningful questions, even when time is at a premium. 
Model vulnerability: As Todd Whitaker says, “When a principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold.” This is why the school leader is always the first to share at Power Hour. For everyone else, sharing is optional; for the school leader, it is mandatory. By sharing, you are inherently taking a risk and exhibiting vulnerability. You are setting the tone for the rest of the gathering by granting others permission to do the same. When we lead from a place of vulnerability, we create the conditions for psychological safety to flourish.

How Does Power Hour Work? 

Power Hour should be structured enough to prevent crosstalk and interruption, but flexible enough that people feel secure speaking up openly and being vulnerable. While there isn’t an exact recipe to strike that balance, here’s what’s worked best at Francis Parker School of Louisville:
On Fridays after school, Power Hour is held in a space large enough to accommodate the group (our faculty consists of twenty members), but intimate enough that people can face each other and hear one another without straining. When faculty members arrive, chairs are set up in a circle. Once people are seated, I, as the division director, begin by saying:
Welcome to Power Hour! Power Hour is a chance for us to get comfortable and connected. We choose to do this by sharing moments from this past week that have made us feel powerful. Sometimes what makes us feel powerful is something big and sometimes it’s something small. You do not have to share, but, if you do share, you don’t have to share about school—you can share about any moment this week that made you feel powerful. You are the judge of what makes you feel powerful. What you share can be funny, sweet, sad, sincere, etc. During Power Hour, only one person has the floor at a time. We can affirm and empathize with the person sharing, but Power Hour is at its best when the group is comfortable with silence. With that, I want to share something this week that made me feel powerful.
If my experience with Power Hour in any way foretells yours, you’ll receive emails like the ones I received from faculty following our first gathering: 
  • “Power Hour was so nice, everyone loved it!”
  • “What an inspiring and energizing way to end our first full week of school.”
  • “I wanted to tell you that I love the idea of Power Hour. Ending the week on a positive note with colleagues is really nice, especially because it gives us the chance to connect on a personal level.”

Teachers who feel safe and supported are more likely to be engaged and focused on their students, leading to a better learning experience for all.

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The impact of the pandemic on mental health and the need for psychological safety in the workplace is ongoing. As school leaders, it is our responsibility to create conditions for a workplace culture that promotes respect, inclusivity, and honest communication. This includes creating opportunities for faculty to come together, get to know each other, and build trust. One way to do this is through initiatives such as "Power Hour," which can help to foster a sense of community and support among faculty. Ultimately, a positive and supportive culture benefits both teachers and students, as teachers who feel safe and supported are more likely to be engaged and focused on their students, leading to a better learning experience for all.
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