Establishing psychological safety while working remotely

Project Aristotle found that psychological safety was the single most significantly impacting feature of teams ahead of dependability, structure, having meaning, and purpose. In this article, we outline how psychological safety is impacting remote teams and steps we can take to establish psychological safety with remote teams.

 Min read
May 12, 2023

Establishing psychological safety while working remotely

In 1999, Amy Edmondson identified a concept that she believed was the most important factor affecting team performance known as psychological safety. It wasn’t until the conclusion and publication of Google’s 2 year study of effective teams in 2012 that the world started to sit up and take note. Project Aristotle found that psychological safety was the single most significantly impacting feature of teams ahead of dependability, structure, having meaning and purpose. So what is it?

Have you ever been in a meeting where the chair or manager has barked at the whole team for incompetence, expired deadlines or making mistakes? The feeling you get where you would rather say nothing than raise your hand and look to provide a solution or challenge to what is being said is the total absence of psychological safety. It is the feeling of safety to take the interpersonal risks in contributing your opinion, admitting a mistake, asking a question, offering an idea or just being open and honest without the fear of being embarrassed, held to blame.

It might be obvious why this is an important feature but it is worth highlighting as we start to see remote teams unintentionally decline in psychological safety. Through this article, we raise the threats and consequences of reduced safety occurring in remote teams including innovation disruption, new hire contributions and leadership challenges. Following this, we offer a variety of solutions to maintain and improve safety among current team members and new hires so that your team may arrest any slide and begin to thrive in the remote world.

How is psychological safety impacting remote teams?

Communication barriers causing blockages

Irregular communication and feelings of being an inconvenience are significant in remote teams are straining team communication. The energy drain from excessive virtual meetings, known as Zoom fatigue, is heightening a reluctance to ask clarifying questions raise concerns and seek guidance. Employees are less present in meetings reducing passive learning opportunities and thus the ability to avoid mistakes. The minor increase in communication barriers pose more of a threat than companies might understand.

According to the Tuckerman Model, teams go through a four stage process to higher performance. Starting with being new to each other and entirely reliant on the leader for direction (Forming) before each member jostles to establish themselves in the role (Storming). As they settle, employees accept clearly defined expectations and roles (Norming) prior to the final stage of sharing a purposeful vision and acting as a cohesive strategic unit (Performing). Unfortunately, with remote settings and the reduced access to both the leadership and team members, each stage can encounter friction and delays. Hindered arrival to the performing stage means overall inefficiency in teams and within the current economic environment, can have drastic impacts.

Employers are seeing a reduction in innovation in the remote workplace for similar reasons. The transparent need for solutions, lack of passive knowledge sharing, the erosion of social connection and trust required for team creativity and communication obstacles are all playing their part. Fewer solutions and ideas are generated.

Perhaps even more alarming is the acceptance of group think. With employees disillusioned with meetings in the first place, it becomes easier for them to simply accept the ideas presented to them by dominant engaged individuals. With less interest in challenging concepts, the overall project may be weakened.

Unprepared, overzealous leadership affecting trust

Any significant organisational transition that occurs hastily has residual impacts and the shift to remote work is no different. Perhaps overlooked initially are the differences in leading remote teams and the skills of the current management to do so. No training, reduced team communications and limited progress tracking often translates into micro-management from leadership who continuing to be accountable for success. The pressure vacuum increases on leaders trying to maintain standards under completely new conditions. Unfortunately, this results in more frequent and exhaustive meetings, excessive progress reports and calls which interrupt productivity, weaken the trust and deter the team inclination for problem solving and innovation.

New Hires Embedding Struggles

Staff retention and psychological safety have a positively correlated relationship. However, staff safety does not automatically extend to new hires. Without face to face introductions to other team members and opportunities to enjoy office camaraderie, new hires struggle to assimilate. Naturally new hires are reluctant to challenge ideas early in their tenure but this dissipates quickly in the office setting. That is not the case for the remote office.

Reduced informal training, interpersonal interactions and the typical isolation experienced all contribute to reducing psychological safety among new hires. The ability and desire to contribute is often extended way beyond the traditional time period. Other team members struggle to learn their working styles and can find it difficult to accommodate them.

Methods of Establishing Psychological Safety in Remote Teams

Taking a Top-Down Approach

Establishing psychological safety is not a very quick fix. It often takes a range of measures embedded into team culture to create lasting impacts which start with leadership. Firstly, leaders should address behaviours negatively affecting safety. Acknowledging the culture impact of non-constructive criticisms, assigning blame, ridiculing, anger over-disciplining mistakes and embarrassing team members all foster psychological danger and will not improve team performance.

Similarly, separating oneself as a leader from team failures absconds from the responsibility to success inherently accepted with the role. The leadership and team should be considered one and the same. Welcoming feedback, challenge and tolerance for honest errors are indicative of a safe encouraging environment ultimately leading to more success for the project overall.

Communication freedom reduces errors and innovation barriers

Of all the threats to psychological safety, communication is the most impacting. Open communication lines are a necessity but provide only the groundwork for teams to thrive. Communication must extend from transparency and clarity to meeting etiquette and individual one to onetime. The establishment of safety norms are underpinned by accessible, clear and open communication.

Meeting etiquette fairly addresses the tone and individual dominance early on to lay the correct foundations. Inviting the opinions of each participant cultivates ideas and gives a sense of respect for individual contributions. Equally, addressing negative habits that deter or embarrass in full view of the group make an obvious declaration of what is not tolerated. Our culture typically invites humour at each other’s expense but it is damaging for the flow of critical innovation and solutions. Office banter is an important feature of safety but should not infringe on the willingness of team members to speak up, admit mistakes, make challenges and ideate.

A leader who believes that an individual staff member might have had more to say but felt deterred should always reengage that person’s opinion and remind them how valued their contributions are.

Seeking out feedback

Employees ultimately want to feel respected and heard within their work place and voicing concerns is part of this. Teams that don’t offer feedback on systems and processes are alarming signs of psychological danger. Feedback is a crucial part of improvement and should besought from all levels of leadership. Friction, inefficiency and poor choices all come with financial implications and the opinions those carrying out the tasks are the primary research needed to improve. This furthers the sense of respect and value of the team. When they feel their level of expertise is valued within their organisation they become more willing to offer it earlier and more often.

Social Campaigns Break Down Barriers

Psychological danger is bred where there is discomfort and unfamiliarity between team members. By affording the social space for teams to get to know each other on a personal level, you strengthen bonds. Concern for offending or upsetting one another often dissolve as they understand there is no personal attachment to feedback. The success of the project becomes a clearer focus as individuals feel they belong to the group and are collectively represented by success rather than individual contributions.

Internal social campaigns improve a host of team attitudes including willingness to work together, the satisfaction in achieving as a group and the inclination to absorb extra responsibility to cover each other’s output deficits. Campaigns with the remote workforce have seen a stark proliferation of new ideas including virtual museum tours, coffee mornings, team building days, quizzes, happy hours and inter team challenges. Although they may seem childish to some, they create a platform for organic conversation, relationship building and comfort with colleagues.

Thinking Preference Assessments and Decision Making Tools

Psychometric tests have become part of the interview process for human resource departments in the hope of more effective onboarding processes but can often be forgotten about post-hire. This is unfortunate as they unearth key details in working processes and attitudes.

For example, the ever growing 4Di develops a profile on thinking preferences and how your team might make decisions. High level green results will show a preference for creativity and the need to find numerous solutions to problems. High yellows prefer to spend time mostly on deciding the pros and cons of alternatives while high reds are action oriented decision makers. As killed facilitator will be able to assess the team profiles and construct decision meetings to satisfy the needs of the individuals.

Similarly, the infamous 6 Thinking Hats of Edward de Bono gives each person a voice to honestly offer their opinions of different solutions. There is a plethora of thinking and decision making tools that give leadership an advantage in understanding the preferences of their teams. Knowing attitudes and thinking styles goes a long way toward creating an atmosphere within which your team feels comfortable and inevitably thrives.

Collaborative projects and in-person interactions

Collaborative projects afford team members the opportunity to strategise, converse and cohesively plan a path to success. It demands opinions, problem solving and creative expression among peers which is the essence of safety. Whether groups are formed for think tanks, as company representation or even enlisted in external training opportunities, it encourages a bond of comfort in the company of colleagues.

Without advocating any form of complacency, many of these interactions would be valuably served in-person. Of course there is a responsibility to safety and we would not recommend doing so where it is unsafe. However, the value of in-person exchanges has continued to rise since workforces became remote and isolated. People are craving authentic human interaction uninterrupted by technology. The opportunity to develop and bond is exponentially higher with the rarity of in-person exchanges.

In Closing

The unfortunate assumption in the cross-over to remote work is that the same leadership practices and team atmosphere automatically continue. However, with the transition a host of unforeseen factors affecting the team emerged. Understanding the impact on camaraderie, the lack of managerial preparation and the reduced availability of informal learning has meant that the psychological safety of remote teams is beginning to wane. Allowing this to go unresolved is detrimental. Innovation, productivity, problem solving and teamwork deficits will quickly characterise deteriorating psychological safety.

Thankfully the shift to remote work has taken people out of their comfort zones equally. Transparently addressing the need for safety and enlisting the teams help is the perfect spark to rectify any issues. As each office begins to adapt, allowing the team to have a say in how they address the issues presented forges a strong foundation to grow from. Incorporating a number of changes in light of psychological safety gives a heartening advantage in establishing psychological safety in remote teams.

Leadership does play an important part, for more information on leadership in the remote setting, please refer to our article on authentic leadership while working remotely.

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