Why Psychological Safety Matters More for Remote Workers

Nathan Allen

by Nathan Allen

4 min read
Why Psychological Safety Matters More for Remote Workers
Managing Teams Wellness Research

About five years ago, Google’s People Operations (the tech giant’s version of an HR department) shared a robust study answering a brief yet complex question: What makes a Google team effective? The company spent two years interviewing more than 200 Google employees. They examined more than 250 attributes of 180 teams. The first characteristic of an effective team that Google listed in its results? Psychological safety.

Team members feeling safe in taking risks and being vulnerable in front of each other was by far the most important aspect of an effective team, Google researchers found.

“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,” the report said.

While important, Google’s revelations of psychological safety’s impacts on teams were not new. Researchers have been looking into the relevance of psychological safety and team/organization behavior and productivity for decades. “A central theme in research on psychological safety—across decades and levels of analysis—is that it facilitates the willing contribution of ideas and actions to a shared enterprise,” is how researchers from Harvard Business School and the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) put it in 2014.

Gallup research showed in 2017 that just three in 10 U.S. workers strongly agreed their opinions count at work. The same research found if that number was lifted to just six out of 10, organizations saw a 27 percent reduction in turnover and a 12 percent increase in productivity.

Creating Psychological Safety Among Remote and Distributed Teams

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Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmonson, the modern-day godmother of psychological safety and fearless teams, says in a podcast that teams must start by setting the stage, inviting engagement, and responding productively.

Setting the stage means getting people on the “same page,” Edmonson says. Gallup proposes gathering a team and asking four questions:

  • What can we count on each other for?
  • What is our team’s purpose?
  • What is the reputation we aspire to have?
  • What do we need to do differently to fulfill that purpose and achieve that reputation?

These four questions will help employees feel comfortable sharing ideas. If your employees feel comfortable sharing their wildest ideas, you’ve fostered a psychologically safe environment. During your company’s next Zoom call, throw out these questions. And don’t forget, it helps if you model the behavior you want to encourage in your team. Managers and employees alike can model vulnerable behavior by being open and real with their own ideas and communication during team meetings.

Next, Edmonson’s inviting engagement comes into play. Ask your coworkers and teammates for their opinions and ideas. Share work-related information about yourself and your projects and then ask the same from others. And then, as Edmonson says, respond productively. Practice some empathetic listening. Definitely do not cut people down or try to make them feel inferior in any way for sharing their opinions and ideas.

Practical Tactics for Remote Teams

Now that we have some theory in place, let’s get practical. How does this look on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis?

  • Create some new communication channels.
    They can be on Hangouts, Slack, or whatever messaging or video platform your team uses. They can be specific to projects your team is working on or general brainstorming. Asynchronous communication is key to avoiding distractions or making employees feel pressure to respond immediately.
  • Get to know each other.
    Remote team members who know each other beyond an avatar on a screen will naturally have more trust and positive feelings toward one another. Scheduled one-on-ones or virtual coffee meetings with individual teammates can promote camaraderie. Informal get-togethers like Zoom happy hours or hangouts also loosen the vibe between team members.
  • Make human-to-human connections.
    It’s one thing to share a virtual cocktail. It’s another to realize your teammates are deeply human, just like you and your loved ones. The Harvard Business Review suggests five statements or mantras to use as a reminder. They are:
    -This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
    -This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
    -This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
    -This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
    -This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.
  • Replace blame with curiosity and conflict with appreciation.
    Remember, this is your team and your company. But people do make mistakes. When a teammate messes up, show them some grace and understanding. Instead of blaming, get curious. Ask questions, not just about what happened but what you can do as a teammate to help in the future. The same goes for conflict. On teams, conflict will happen, no matter how chummy and close people are. Try to transcend that conflict into appreciation of different perspectives.
  • Ask for feedback.
    Ask your teammates how psychologically safe they feel within the team and around you. After a mistake or conflict occurs, ask questions: What worked in your delivery or conversation? What didn’t? How did they feel in the situation? How can responses be improved going forward?

To feel fully safe at work, we have to know that sharing our true selves won’t lead to ridicule or retribution. Creating that environment requires vulnerability and trust. Use the tips above to implement a more trusting and psychologically safe environment among your team.

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