Foster psychological safety in virtual interactions

Culture  Leadership
26 October, 2020

Leaders need to re-create a sense of trust and psychological safety during online team interactions.

As the world transitioned to remote work almost overnight, a vital dimension of social interactions has been lost. With everyone now sitting separately in their own homes, far away from each other, working in a team can feel strangely isolating and uncomfortable – unlike the sense of togetherness and camaraderie of working in an office.

Virtual meetings are tough to navigate, punctuated by hard-to-read silences and frequently crossed wires. It’s nearly impossible to pick up on normal social cues over video screens. In such an environment, people are hesitant to ask questions, voice dissent or bring up new ideas. When you don’t have allies nodding their encouragement from across the table, there is a reluctance to speak up. Another thing that’s missing is the useful post-meeting feedback from leaders and co-workers. Little issues that used to get resolved quickly through in-person chats are now festering and turning into bigger problems.

All these changes add up to a fragile work environment. And remember, pressure doesn’t always create diamonds. Certain individuals may thrive in these high-stress, isolating conditions – but most people need a sense of security and reassurance in order to deliver their best work.

A few years ago, Project Aristotle, a comprehensive study at Google, identified psychological safety as the number 1 factor that set apart successful teams. As one the researchers, Julia Rozovsky, explains: 

Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found…. the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. And it affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees. 

Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

So, this week, my message focuses on reinforcing psychological safety during virtual interactions. How can leaders of remote teams re-create an environment that welcomes diverse viewpoints? What steps can you take to strengthen team ties, even as members continue to work out of separate locations?

The COVID effect on teams

As a leader, you may have run a mutually supportive, high-performing team before COVID – but don’t take that for granted in this new landscape. The abrupt switch to remote work has eroded the shared understanding of many teams. Moreover, the pandemic has likely put your co-workers through intense stress, from health-related uncertainties to strained relationships. They may have had trouble adjusting to the new style of working, or even feared losing their jobs.

All these factors can take a toll on even the most secure of teams. Doubts start to creep in, about oneself as well as others. Do my team members still support me? Does my boss have my back? Could I face a backlash for speaking up? Are my ideas really worth sharing?

It falls to leaders to re-create a safe environment for their remote/hybrid teams, where all members can freely share their opinions, take risks and make mistakes – without fear of being rejected, shamed or punished.

It falls to leaders to re-create a safe environment for their remote/hybrid teams, where all members can freely share their opinions, take risks and make mistakes – without fear of being rejected, shamed or punished. This is a crucial aspect of the leadership mandate right now, especially since creativity is the key to surviving and thriving. Intra-team trust forms the bedrock of genuine innovation.

Here are six recommendations for leaders to reinforce psychological safety and trust during virtual team interactions:

1. Optimise the use of technology.

In their Harvard Business Review article on leading psychologically-safe virtual meetings, Amy Edmondson and Gene Daley highlight the potential of common tech tools, as well as their limitations. Here are a few pointers for running inclusive, honest online meetings:

  • Hand-raise. This popular feature lets team members signal when they want to speak up. However, people may take a while to raise their hands (remember your days in the classroom?), which can easily lead to a “false negative”. So, if you’re asking for a hand-raise to uncover new information or solicit questions, don’t move on too quickly – allow some time for people to overcome their natural reluctance.
  • Yes/No. This easy-to-use tool is a good way to get everyone to chime in on an issue, including team members who tend to be quiet during discussions. However, it has a limited scope of use, especially when it comes to complex issues where a binary choice isn’t good enough.
  • Use a poll to quickly assess your team’s thoughts on an issue, with the choice of keeping it anonymous for divisive topics. In anonymous polls, participants can express their opinions openly, without the worry of being singled out and put on the spot.
  • Breakout rooms. With breakout groups of 3-5, people have the opportunity to share insights more freely, as well as explore new ideas. Sometimes the best brainwaves come from reserved team members, who may not feel comfortable speaking up in a crowded setting. As the authors explain: 

When participants return to the large group, they find it easier to report ideas from the small group with the confidence that comes from testing and sharing perspectives in that relatively safer space.

2. Combat groupthink.

Design an environment that actively invites dissent and uncovers mistakes. This way, your team members will realise that they won’t be seen as disruptive if they have a different opinion, or as incompetent if they admit a mistake. During strategy sessions, assign one person to play devil’s advocate on a rotating basis. Or try Six Thinking Hats – a useful technique to expand perspectives. For a failure-friendly attitude, a Hubspot article recommends the following:

Encourage a “Friday Failure Forum” within your team Slack room or in a weekly virtual stand-up if time zones allow. Encourage each team member to bring an example of one moment this week where they could have done better, and, more importantly, what they learned from the experience so that everyone can share in the lessons. 

3. Foster a “just ask” culture.

The fear of being embarrassed can hold team members back from asking critical questions and getting the clarifications they need. Open communication is more important than ever right now, as companies test and pivot rapidly to keep pace with market shifts. Build a “just ask” culture by encouraging team members not to delay their questions, no matter how elementary they might seem, and to use any preferred channel for their queries. Publicly-posed questions should be celebrated, so everyone feels comfortable speaking up.

4. Follow up after meetings.

Step up individual check-ins with your direct reports after meetings – whether it’s a quick text to give kudos for their contribution, or a longer phone conversation around the concerns they raised. The HBR article mentioned above suggests the following: 

After a virtual meeting, managers can reach out to talk to participants who were quiet during the session. To replicate informal water-cooler moments, managers can use text, phone, or email, to give reinforcing or redirecting feedback.

Be sure to bring your full attention to these one-on-one interactions. Just the simple act of being listened to by their leader enhances the security and creativity of team members.

5. Make time for team-building.

A big challenge with virtual teams is that members aren’t plugged into each other’s non-work lives. When working in the same office, there is plenty of opportunity to learn about your teammates and exchange personal news. Virtual communication, however, tends to be focused mostly on work. According to one estimate, 65% of remote teams have never even had a team-building session! Without this vital flow of interpersonal knowledge, it’s difficult for team members to be vulnerable and trust each other. In remote teams formed during the pandemic, made up of virtual strangers, the feeling of disconnection is even greater.

Hence, leaders must make time for shared activities whereby team members can get to know each other better and connect over life outside of work. Along with virtual team-building sessions, you could try simple things like building a team playlist on Spotify or just chatting about what’s going on in your lives. The Hubspot article shares a useful format for weekly check-ins: 

We encourage teams to create a regular opportunity where everyone has the chance to share what’s going on in their lives and learn about their teammates as well.  Each Monday, ask the question in your team Slack room, “What is everyone’s rose, bud, and thorn for last week?” 

  • Rose: What is one thing that went well for you last week?
  • Bud: What is one thing you’re looking forward to in this upcoming week?
  • Thorn: What is one thing that didn’t go well last week?

6. Break bread together.

The informal interactions shared over food and drinks create close, lasting team bonds – I’m sure many of you can vouch for this personally! Just because teams aren’t co-located anymore, doesn’t mean they can’t still enjoy these experiences. Many companies have started hosting virtual lunch hours and coffee meet-ups on certain days of the week, so team members can dial in to catch up with each other over a meal or a cuppa. Attendance should be encouraged, without making it mandatory.

Creating a sense of psychological safety and camaraderie among virtual teams takes sustained effort on the part of leaders. The good news is that these techniques can become a part of your team culture, boosting collaboration, performance and innovation. Once the foundation is laid, the returns will keep on coming well into the future.


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