Fostering Psychological Safety in Remote Teams is Crucial

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With the rise of remote work, fostering psychological safety within teams is crucial. In this blog we discuss what psychological safety looks like, the benefits of making it part of your organization's culture, and ways to prioritize it.


Originally published on Failure is Inevitable.

Psychological safety is a crucial component of any organization’s culture. Psychologically safe organizations are free to create, discuss, disagree, take risks, and make mistakes. These organizations are often the ones we see as key innovators in their unique industries. In other words, cultivating a culture of psychological safety is paramount in order to succeed. 

However, fostering psychological safety can be difficult, especially during this time where many organizations have pivoted to remote work with little to no preparation. And this trend is here to stay, with several organizations such as Twitter and Square allowing employees to work from home permanently. So what can we do to make sure our teammates feel secure even while socially distanced?

First, let’s see what psychological safety entails.

What does psychological safety look like?

Extreme pressure doesn’t always craft diamonds. Sometimes it creates a substandard work environment that halts innovation in its tracks. Harvard Business Review contributor Laura Delizonna writes “The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive coworker, or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat. The amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain, ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain centers.” Some people function well under this stress. However, for many this isn’t a sustainable environment. Instead, innovation often flourishes under kinder circumstances.

In her article, “High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It,” Laura writes “Twenty-first-century success depends on another system — the broaden-and-build mode of positive emotion, which allows us to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships.” Under these circumstances, “We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity.”

To foster these positive emotions, team members and leaders will want to incorporate these practices into both their remote and in-office day-to-day operations.

Twenty-first-century success depends on another system — the broaden-and-build mode of positive emotion, which allows us to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships.

Offering the benefit of the doubt and speak human to human

With your team scattered and no longer a short walk away from your desk, it can be easy for doubt to creep in. People simply become the owners of projects, the accomplishers of to-dos. You may find yourself wondering if your teammate will meet that deadline, or be online when it matters most. However, this thinking doesn’t support psychological safety. Instead, we need to make sure to give our team members the benefit of the doubt, even when there’s failure, and speak to them human to human, even if you can’t do it face to face.

Forbes contributor Karlyn Borysenko writes, “If you want to cultivate a psychologically safe experience for yourself, make sure you are giving that experience to others liberally! Offer help and resources, even when it's outside of your job description, celebrate victories with them and be there to remind them that failure is just one step towards success when things don't work out.” By offering this gesture of trust to others, they will in turn trust you. This mutual trust is the foundation for psychological safety.

This is most critical during times of failure. When your service goes down, it’s easy to begin doubting yourself and others. However, we must remember that each person is responding in the way they think will be most helpful during a particular situation with the information they have. In short, everyone is trying their best and is deserving of the benefit of the doubt.

That being said, disagreements are inevitable. Even the best teams must occasionally deal with confrontation, and how we handle this largely dictates how safe our teammates feel. In Laura’s article, she writes “Underlying every team’s who-did-what confrontation are universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Recognizing these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviors.” In moments of conflict, it’s crucial that we recognize our humanity and fallibility and talk out our disagreements in compassionate, understanding ways. While we can’t do this in the same room, we need to make the time to do this synchronously. Slack or email is not enough. Hop on a Zoom call with the person you disagree with. Turn on your camera. Look them in the eye while you work things out.

We need to make sure to give our team members the benefit of the doubt, even when there’s failure, and speak to them human to human, even if you can’t do it face to face.

Encourage creativity and curiosity

During this unprecedented time, it can be easy to eschew innovation and stick with what we know. After all, risks are scary. However, innovation can be a path to a more productive and efficient way of working, and teams must embrace this. To fully commit to innovation, teams need to feel psychologically safe enough to take risks and fail. 

Two ways to encourage this are through creativity and curiosity.

Creativity

Outside-of-the-box thinking is the harbinger of forward momentum in any industry. It’s important to motivate all team members to harness their creativity, as it's a great source of untapped potential. To do this, we can look to Pixar’s five strategies that promote creativity:

  • Banish perfectionism. Pobody’s nerfect. When your teammates can recognize that, at some point, we will all fail, it eliminates the pressure of perfectionism and gives room for creativity.
  • Don’t let risk dictate. Just because something is a risk doesn’t mean it should be ruled out entirely. Allow your team some time to ruminate on risky decisions and weigh the cost and benefit before vetoing it.
  • Don’t focus on just one idea. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. A narrow-minded perspective can give teams tunnel vision. Instead, allow your teams to float ideas around, catalogue them, and branch them out. You never know when one could be the solution to a big problem.
  • Not all ideas are initially money makers. Consider community building. Hosting virtual meetups and opportunities to share candidly may not always bring in revenue, but there are other intangible benefits associated with investing in your community. Having a team initiative to focus on other than project work can help your job feel more fulfilling, and bolster creativity.
  • Youcangive up. When a strategy isn’t working, that’s ok! You can give up without shame. Your initiative may not have succeeded, but you learned during the process.

Curiosity

Blame kills psychological safety. If teammates are afraid of being called out or shamed for making a mistake, they will be unlikely to jump in and assist with high-pressure situations in order to preserve their own pride. This can lead to cloudy incidents, poor retrospectives, and a toxic he-said-she-said culture. Instead, we should focus on shifting our mental state away from blame and towards curiosity.

Laura’s article notes “The alternative to blame is curiosity. If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation. Instead, adopt a learning mindset, knowing you don’t have all the facts.” If a teammate makes the wrong call during an incident, it’s important to approach their decision with curiosity rather than blame.

Stating the problem factually, engaging the person about it, and asking for a solution can help make confrontations seem non-accusatory. And, as Laura puts it, “The people who are responsible for creating a problem often hold the keys to solving it. That’s why a positive outcome typically depends on their input and buy-in.”

Set the stage, ask for input, and respond appreciatively

In an interview with Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, she spoke on how managers can foster psychological safety within teams. She stated that there are three main parts to ensuring psychological safety: set the stage, ask for input, and respond appreciatively.

  1. Set the stage: Incidents happen, they’re inevitable. And with the increasingly complex nature of services due to adoption of microservices, the tangled web of infrastructure (as well as the distributed teams who operate them) is only becoming harder to understand. Reminding your team of this can help put things into perspective. As Amy said, “... by their nature our systems can compound mistakes, and unless we do everything with interpersonal awareness and focus, things can go wrong.” Team leaders should try to reiterate this to team members over standups, team meetings, or in the team Slack frequently.
  2. Ask for input: During an incident or in the process of creating the retrospective, team members might be prone to keeping silent though they have valuable feedback for a number of reasons. Directly posing questions to teammates can help them open up about their opinions. Building a more narrative or interview-style of questioning into your retrospectives can help uncover issues and dependencies. Additionally, asking for input gives team members confidence knowing that someone values their opinion. Make sure that when you’re conducting a retrospective that all involved teammates are given the link to the Zoom meeting, and that you address participants individually. To create a more personal environment for this, try asking that all team members on the call try to keep their cameras on when able.
  3. Respond appreciatively: When you ask questions, you might not always like the answer. It’s important for team members to know that when they need to deliver bad news, they won’t suffer on account of it. When someone answers a challenging question or provides thoughtful feedback, recognize the effort and courage it takes to speak up in difficult situations and thank them. This could mean sending a private Slack message, or hopping on a quick Zoom call. You’ll need to make the time for this now more than ever as it’s unlikely that you’ll be meeting up with this team member at the water cooler any time soon.

Creating psychological safety within organizations can be difficult, and is even more challenging as organizations are adopting to remote work. However, this is a crucial time to double down our efforts to foster psychological safety. This will increase speed and efficiency of communication, spur innovation, and create a healthier work environment for team members. 

Especially during this crisis, it’s important to make sure our teammates know that they are safe and appreciated. By offering the benefit of the doubt and speaking to people human to human, encouraging creativity and curiosity, and following Amy’s advice on empowerment, we can work together to make sure that we’re standing strong and creating a company culture that we can all feel proud of.

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