Conversation starters for psychological health and safety

These questions can help you to open up a conversation that can foster and improve psychological safety among your team members.

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A leader’s role is to support the success of each of their employees and remove any obstacles or barriers that may interfere with their ability to do their job well. These questions help uncover both opportunities to support success and potential barriers that need to be removed.

Protecting and promoting psychological safety

There are hundreds of great icebreaker questions that can add to the enjoyment of any team gathering. Some are fun, some are nostalgic, some help you learn about people, and some evoke gratitude, goals or desires. 

The questions we’re sharing here are specifically to help you build a psychologically safer team. They’re based on the psychosocial factors described in Guarding Minds at Work (2009-2022) and the National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (2013).

While these questions may add enjoyment, their purpose is deeper than that. Use them on a regular basis to help your team members feel safe speaking up, become more self-aware and improve team cohesion.

Leading the discussion

The questions can be asked individually and privately, or as part of a team activity, depending on the level of trust and comfort among your team members. 

If you, as the team leader, answer each question first, you can add to the sense of safety. Showing your vulnerability can help increase the trust of your team members.

Demonstrate you understand the issues

Before you choose your questions, reflect on potential problems or concerns. If possible, state them before asking the question to show you recognize what they are experiencing. For example, before asking “How have others helped when your workload was overwhelming?”, you might say, “We are in a time of staff shortages and high demands. You have all stepped up to help us meet our objectives and it has not gone unnoticed. We hope to be back to being fully staffed by [realistic date]. What I want you to share now is how others have helped you when you were overwhelmed at work. This is intended to recognize and appreciate those who quietly support each other on our team”  

Avoid the mistake that some leaders make in an attempt to share commonality with their team members: aligning with them in blaming anything or anyone external to the team for the challenges being faced. It’s not that there never is an external source; it’s that by saying that something outside of the team has the power to make the team suffer, you’re creating a victim mentality and potentially demonstrating your own lack of power. This can make people feel angry, hopeless or dissatisfied with their work situation, even if they feel you’re on their side. 

By acknowledging that the situation is as it is and discussing how your team can best deal with it, you retain their respect for your leadership while being realistic about the limitations.

For example, imagine a corporate policy change has added more stress and work to your team. No one, including you, is happy about it, but there’s nothing that can be done to change it. Bring your team together to discuss what needs to be done in a way that avoids expressing negative or critical remarks about the decision-makers, even though it’s not what you would have chosen. You might say, “Here’s the situation, let’s all brainstorm ways that we can manage this in the best way possible for our team.” 

Managing negative responses

Some leaders will hesitate to open up a conversation with their team about any topics that may become confrontational or emotional. If this is true for you, you can ask someone with stronger skills to manage the conversation. This could be anyone on your team, someone from another department or an external consultant. If you’re interested in improving your skills in this area, check out Facilitation tips for leaders for strategies to deal with negativity, cynicism, unreasonable expectations or disruptive behaviours more effectively.

In all cases, use the responses to explore solutions with your team, or share what you already or will do, to address the issues expressed. 

Potential questions

Feel free to use the questions as shown or use them to inspire questions even more relevant for your team. If you’re concerned about the response to any of these questions and want to take action to make meaningful changes, review the information in the Psychologically Safe Team Assessment list of strategies.

  • When do you feel like speaking up about a concern at work would not be well received?
  • When might you feel unsafe on this team or any time at work?
  • How do others on this team express their appreciation for your contribution?
  • What was your best team experience ever?
  • What energizes you to do your best, even when you are not excited about the task?
  • What skills or knowledge do you still want to acquire in your personal or work life?
  • How do you respectfully handle differences of opinion – your own or between two co-workers?
  • If you were being bullied at work, how would you want witnesses to respond?
  • Can you share an example of when you supported someone at work recently? 
  • How do you manage changes you don’t want or agree with, but have to deal with anyway?
  • What is the most significant challenge you face to getting your job done well?
  • If you were the head of this organization, what might you do differently?
  • How would you respond at work to humour that you find offensive?
  • How have others helped when your workload was overwhelming?  
  • How do you balance work and your personal life?
  • Where do you feel you do not have authority to make decisions at work?
  • How would you describe our organizational culture? Think of the norms and values that are experienced at work, rather than any written words.
  • How would you know your work is valued? What might you see, hear or experience?

Share this with anyone who is a team leader or facilitates team discussions.

Additional resources

  • Psychologically Safe Leader Assessment. This free resource helps leaders become aware of the impact they can have on the psychological health and safety of employees at work. It helps leaders improve communication, social intelligence, fairness and problem solving.
  • Team activity — Mistake meetings. This team-building activity, which asks participants, including the leader, to ask for help or share how they handled mistakes, can help develop a sense of openness and trust amongst the team.


  1. Canadian Standards Association. (2013). Psychological health and safety in the workplace—prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation (CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013). Retrieved from
  2. Samra, J., Gilbert, M., Shain, M., Bilsker, D. (2009-2020), with amendments by Stuart, H. 2022. Guarding Minds at Work. Retrieved from:
Contributors include.articlesDr. Joti SamraMary Ann BayntonSarah JennerWorkplace Strategies team 2022 to present

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