We are months into this transition to remote work, and most everyone I speak to struggles with one or more aspects of working with and leading remote teams.
We have learned to adjust our routines to be effective and productive as individuals, but physical distance and continuing uncertainty have taken a toll on our ability to connect with the teams we participate in and those that we lead.
what is psychological safety?
Although the concept of psychological safety has been around for decades, we can thank Google, and specifically a NY Times Magazine from 2016, for its recent rise in popularity. For decades, Amy Edmundson from the Harvard Business School has been the authority on psychological safety in the workplace. Her definition is:
Psychological safety is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves.
Reading that definition, it makes intuitive sense that any high-performing team would need this. After all, isn’t that what we all want?
How Stewart Leadership Can Help
My father, John Parker Stewart, is an internationally recognized executive coach who's spent decades teaching CEOs, senior executives, generals, managers, and other leaders how to lead better. In the process, he distilled leadership advice into easy-to-remember Leadership Gems.
These maxims, collected in 52 Leadership Gems, have guided leaders from different industries and geographies for decades. In our experience, these gems have been a trusted source of leadership advice no matter the circumstance. With that in mind, we wondered what leadership gems would help us lead remote teams and create a sense of psychological safety that is critical to a team’s success.
6 Leadership Gems for Building Psychological Safety in Remote Teams
1. The biggest hurdle to effective communication is the assumption it has taken place
Even in a shared office setting, communicating effectively can prove a struggle. Working remotely magnifies this challenge. Leaders must accept that every person brings their own perspective and background to every conversation they are participating in and commit to ongoing vigilance to ensure that messages are communicated. On a remote team, communication and over-communication must be the norm.
One area to pay particular attention to is the need to clarify roles and responsibilities. Clear roles and expectations help provide a framework of stability for all involved. This can involve clarification at both the individual role and the team level perspective. Why does the team exist? What purpose are they trying to accomplish? What role does each team member play?
2. Every Transaction Begins with a Relationship
Leaders need to allow human connection to occur. You can’t be all business. People need to have the pre-meeting chit-chat and side conversations—even in a Zoom call.
Often this gem is discussed in connection with customer interactions, but the same is true for a team. As a leader, you need to allow time for the team members to get to know each other at a human level. Talk about their hobbies, recent vacations, struggles, etc. This gives them opportunities to build respect for each other and understand the diverse backgrounds and perspectives they bring.
3. Allow people the right to fail, but don't sanction incompetence
Promoting psychological safety does not mean that standards are forgotten or lowered. The standards need to be clearly communicated and accountability is maintained. This allows for high team performance and growth, even when teams are physically separated.
Maintaining high standards does not mean that people are ridiculed for mistakes. In fact, that would be the opposite of promoting an environment of psychological safety. We want people to try best, take risks, and be willing to make mistakes. That is key to the learning process and increases the likelihood that a truly innovative idea may come forth.
4. swim in their tank
You’ve heard of MBWA, (Managing By Walking Around). Just transition that to a remote setting and make that manage by Zooming around.
MBWA has been such a powerful leadership principle for decades because it allows leaders to see the human side of people. You see their work environment, meet their co-workers, hear the water cooler conversation. It may be a little different, but you can use technology to facilitate this.
Every time you have a meeting, you’re being given an insight into your people. Notice the pictures, the knick-knacks, and take time to share with each other. Have more frequent, casual calls with your teams, join in on other team meetings, and have skip-levels check-ins.
The effectiveness of this deliberate effort may surprise you. As one leader I am coaching shared with me, “It’s amazing. I have become closer with my teams even though we aren’t in the office. Not having to travel gives me more time to attend staff meetings, and I have been able to dedicate more time to my one-on-one meetings. I feel like I know everyone better now than I did in January!”
5. Four magic words - what do you think?
If the goal of psychological safety is allowing people to feel comfortable being themselves and expressing their thoughts, concerns, and ideas, then a leader needs to ask, “what do you think?” often. When you do, be determined to be open-minded and pay attention to how you respond to the feedback. If you snap back quickly and cut them down, it might be quite a while before you get candid feedback again.
You cannot afford to lose that time or that trust. Psychological safety is the most critical component of the most effective teams. If you create conditions where your people feel punished for speaking out, you lose time, ideas, and insights in the process. Remember, whether or not you agree with the feedback is less important than reinforcing the importance of a free exchange of ideas.
6. culture is defined and redefined every day
Teaming is different from teams. Teaming is an action word, a verb. It is not something that is just done once. Rather, teaming is a dynamic, ongoing process of refining and aligning the actions of a team. Remember that your team culture is constantly being defined by the actions taken by you and the team members. Be vigilant and guard against taking things for granted. To create and maintain psychological safety you must work on it daily. This needed emphasis increases anytime there is a significant change or disruption - like a shift to remote work!
As a team leader and a team member, remember you make a difference! The research on psychological safety consistently identified that it is very much shaped by local leaders. It is not an organizational attribute. It resides at the team level. You play a key role in the ongoing efforts to make your team more psychologically safe. Put these tips into action to build an even stronger team!