Virtual teams and psychological safety

Virtual Teams - 5 Tips on how to create psychological safety

We are living through a period of extraordinary uncertainty and emotional disturbance —about our physical safety, our economic security, and the daily conditions in which we will be operating for the next six to 18 months or longer. At the same time leaders are confronting these challenges on an individual level, they also are responsible for supporting a wide cross-section of people, all of whom have their own range of experiences, emotions, and resources for responding—and many who are paying a psychological toll that is still poorly understood.

If you’re leading a team that's now remote, their physical and psychological safety is priority one. Most organizations are doing a good job of applying social distancing and other measures to protect their members. Today we’re required to do that on different levels.

Your team members may struggle to be productive, and they may feel anxiety and a lack of psychological safety. People who feel psychologically safe feel included, free to learn and contribute, and able to challenge the status quo without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

Psychological safety is a postmaterialist need that comes after food and shelter. But your team is not ready to perform just because their basic physical needs are met, especially in an environment of ambiguity and fear. Your people need more than that — they need to feel safe, mentally and emotionally.

Psychological safety covers basic human needs. That’s what makes it so powerful when it’s present and so dangerous when it’s not. Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content. For many people during the pandemic, the explicitness of the physical lack of safety has been experienced as a shared fear, which has allowed them to be more open and intimate and more able to voice their thoughts and concerns with colleagues. This collective fear thus becomes a potential driver of collaboration and innovation, further contributing to an open environment for producing and sharing ideas that under normal conditions may have remained unshared.

So, put trust in peoples’ strengths and address psychological safety with its’ elements such as security, the need for predictability, autonomy, ability to control choices, fairness, trust, the need to be held in high regard, the need to belong.

People flourish when they participate in a cooperative system towards the same vision and mission with high psychological safety. And that starts with inclusion.

Human beings have both natural and acquired skills that help us detect social boundaries, gestures of invitation, and signs of rejection. As a leader, you must ensure that you are consistent, clear, and inclusive with each one of your team members. Make sure each of your team members feels a strong personal connection with you. In order to do that you have to take care of yourself.

The degree to which leaders can manage their own stress and feelings, and the reason why emotional self-awareness and mindfulness are so important in times of crisis, is because leaders become emotional contagions, inflicting positive or negative feelings on others, whether it’s family members, friends, colleagues, or subordinates. And, although sometimes leaders may want to induce some stress into a situation to insert new energy and momentum, most of the time it’s better to engage people in positive pursuits to retain a higher level of creativity, productiveness, and engagement.

To sustain that level of positive outlook, there are a set of individual activities, like meditation, yoga, prayer, and exercise, that can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and help renew one’s body and mind. Other forms of social interactions can also fill us with sustainable energy, like helping others less fortunate, being in a loving relationship, spending time with pets, and engaging in playfulness and humor. Studies have shown that we can’t be positively infectious with others—and excite and engage them—unless we’re feeling inspired and sustained ourselves first. I think that’s what leaders managing high-stress positions need to do to take care of themselves and to then involve and take care of others.

How to create psychological safety in a crisis

As counterintuitive as it might seem, in many settings there is more psychological safety during the pandemic because of the greater collective fear about something very real and external. Latter has the potential and has shown to make people from many regions align against the virus because we feel like “we’re in this together”.

There are different levels of this perspective if you are working remotely. And it’s clearly different for essential workers, many of whom may not feel physically safe while they still were and are required to show up at work. Some may not have felt able to speak up about that.

So, in times of crisis and knowing our leaders and the organizations we’re a part of we know some things for sure: That leaders don’t have all the facts, they can’t remove all risk, they can’t promise zero loss and can’t eliminate all the pain.

Because we know these things intuitively, we respect leaders who acknowledge these truths, cultivate tolerance for candor, and demonstrate deep empathy. As you and your virtual team work together through this crisis, these five practical tips will help you nurture and reinforce psychological safety:

  1. Communicate why your team exists and what it stands for. To feel connected to the team, each person needs to understand why the team exists, how it works, and what it stands for. The team must first define its values, purpose, and goals and continuously communicate these things to all team members.
  2. Check alignment. The sense of belonging that individuals feel and the sense of alignment the entire team feels must be constantly checked and reinforced. Meet with individual team members ask them how they are doing and make sure they understand the team’s vision and goals, and get their feedback on how committed they are to achieving them.
  3. Create connecting rituals and reinforce inclusion regularly. Develop rituals to help your team members connect. For example, you might ask your team to start every meeting with an inspirational thought. Maybe you institute a virtual team lunch every Friday or showcase an individual team member and recognize his or her contributions. Figure out what fits your team’s vibe and personality. Rituals help create security and familiarity during unsettling times.
  4. Be democratic with your time and attention. Do you interact with some people on your team more frequently than others? Connecting with a particular group of people socially creates invisible social barriers and a sense of exclusion. Instead, deliberately reach out to the members of your team you don’t know as well. Make yourself aware of who receives the bulk of your attention and time.
  5. Sustain a level of calm and positive resolve. We know that human beings are hardwired to unconsciously pick up on the emotions of others in eight to 40 thousandths of a second. When you’re in a more powerful position—such as a leader, a parent, a coach, a trainer, a professor—you tend to be more infectious. The interesting question is, “Are they likely to pick it up as much through Zoom as in face-to-face?” Probably not, but probably more than in a phone call, and a lot more than in an email. As a leader in this point in time, you don’t want to be faking your emotions. There is an enormous need for genuineness and transparency. And that means some leaders might have to actually train themselves to be caring, curious, and positive, which is hard to do when you’re in a state of threat or fear, when self-protection becomes an overwhelming instinct. There is a strong temptation to just dive right into business without acknowledging what others might be up against. Best practice is therefore to stop, pause, breathe, and remind yourself to be genuinely interested in what’s going on for others.

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