As leaders, we want our teams to work well together. It means more collaboration and coming up with great ideas to solve our customers’ problems. For teams to do this they need a high level of psychological safety. In fact, psychological safety is recognized as the number one attribute of high-performing teams in businesses like Google.

So how do you create psychological safety on your team and how do you do this when they are working remotely?

What is psychological safety?

Psychologist Amy Edmondson first coined the phrase “psychological safety” in 1999 to describe “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

It’s about creating a safe space for your team to experiment, make mistakes and say when things are wrong. It is also about acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers and instead, the team needs to look at all the possibilities to find several answers.

In this way, the team can create better solutions to the problems they or your customers face.

Psychological safety is not saying that “anything goes”. There are still rules and expectations around your team but these rules support each individual to bring forth their best skills and knowledge to the group.

Research shows that psychological safety can help increase diversity as people are more willing to express their unique ideas and experiences. It can also increase wellbeing and resilience in teams as people are less likely to want to cover up their mistakes and instead learn and grow from them. Finally, it can increase innovation as the team benefits from shared ideas rather than following whoever speaks up the loudest.

How to create psychological safety in your team

1. Create clear accountabilities and boundaries

Firstly you need to be clear on the boundaries and accountability.  If you want everyone to contribute to the team then they need to understand what behaviours are acceptable.

People need boundaries to avoid chaos. Empowered teams have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them and an understanding of what their end goal will be. This comes from leadership.

When you take on the role of manager, you put on a certain set of behaviours. If the behaviours worn are that “the leader knows best” then it’s harder for your team to question your decisions when they have a different perspective. This sets boundaries in place that creates low psychological safety.

However, when you put on the behaviour of “bringing out the best in your team” then it allows your team to make suggestions and bring forward ideas. This creates a higher level of psychological safety.

People also like to know what they are responsible for within the team. This means that when they make a mistake or something goes wrong, they can find a solution to fix it rather than cover it up. It also increases productivity as your team is less likely to send the decisions up the managerial chain because no one wants the buck to stop with them.

2. Ask the right questions

As a leader, you can only make decisions when you have all the available information. This means asking the right questions.  When you ask questions of your team, you give them the autonomy to think for themselves. No one knows the job like the person doing it, so when you ask and listen, you get more information to support the team as a whole.

At the same time, notice who isn’t speaking up.  When there is a high level of psychological safety, your team will feel comfortable contributing their ideas in meetings. Yet, not everyone will want to do so in that space. When you notice who isn’t speaking up, you have an opportunity to gather new information that might otherwise be overlooked.  It will also help that quiet team member feel valued and more likely to contribute at the next meeting.

3. Frame the work as learning

As humans, we never stop learning and we only get things right by making mistakes. Where there is low psychological safety, people will be afraid to make mistakes. This is problematic because it reduces the opportunities to learn and grow.

Thomas J Watson, the founder of IBM said: “Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.”

When leaders allow for mistakes and treat work as a learning opportunity, your team will grow and flourish.  Instead of assigning blame when things go wrong, instead, approach the situation with curiosity.

Instead of asking “who is responsible?” ask:

  • “Why did this go wrong?”
  • “How can we do this differently?”
  • And “What can we share from this experience?”

When you celebrate the learning rather than place blame on the mistake, you’re letting your team know that all good employees make mistakes.

When you create effective feedback, you open up opportunities for further learning and development within the team.

4. Role model with leadership

At the core of high psychological safety is leadership. The team will mirror the behaviour of the manager. So if you’re the kind of manager who encourages debate, listens well, opens up conversation and shows that you don’t have all the answers, then that is a significant part of creating psychological safety on your team.

If you’re the kind of leader that wants to be seen as the superhero, knowing all the answers, or micro-manages the team, then you’re going to be working with a low level of psychological safety. Your team is not going to tell you when things are going wrong, or share that brilliant idea they’ve had in the meeting. It also means you’ll be making decisions without all the information you need.

Psychological safety starts with leadership.

Psychological safety and remote teams

So how do we create psychological safety with remote and hybrid teams? Working remotely or having some of the team in the office and some at home can create a “them and us” between your team.  

As a leader, you can address this by making sure everyone knows what is expected of them and others in the team. It’s about creating that accountability and making it transparent.

The challenge of remote work is that meetings and social gatherings are always planned. It removes those chance meetings over the kettle or in the corridor where you can catch up with colleagues. Instead, you need to create the space and time for your team to bond.

Your team needs to share their frustrations as well as celebrate their work. A regular time where people gather in the office is helpful to maintaining a high-performing team. As are inclusive social events outside of work. It’s important to consider how you can make it easy for your remote workers to attend as much as it is for those who have caring responsibilities outside of work.

Use the tech to your advantage

Even when office work was the norm, people would rather send emails than walk over for a discussion. We now have tech that allows discussion to take place online and with teams that are dispersed.

Encourage your team to use spaces like Teams and Slack to collaborate and discuss ideas. Model behaviours such as picking up the phone or taking the discussion to video call to make progress.

While bringing people together in person for purposeful collaboration, remember that those who cannot attend can still get a hybrid experience by using video conferencing and virtual whiteboards that can be used both in the room and online.

Have clear communication

Communication is crucial when you’ve got a remote team. It’s far easier for that quiet member of the team to stay silent during an online meeting than it is in person. It’s also harder to judge body language over Zoom.

Leaders need to pick up on communication where screens are lacking by making sure everyone has a say, using the chat functions and encouraging the whole team to improve their communication skills.

Invite your team to create a personal readme

One of the ways you can increase psychological safety within remote teams is to invite them to create a personal readme. It works like a personal user manual to explain your strengths and weaknesses, how you like to work and communicate, and your personality or thinking style.

There are some great examples of how these work including SidSijbrandij, CEO of GitLab, Steph Smith, Marketing Director at Hubspot and Kelsey Bishop, Founder at Candor. Candor’s profiles add an extra visual representation of each team member and give everyone an opportunity to find the common ground and connect across remote or hybrid working. It also gives your team a chance to reflect on who they are and where they need extra support - giving them permission to ask for help when they need it.

Claim your Candor profile here.

Key Takeaway

Psychological safety begins with the manager. What you model to the rest of your team will impact the level of psychological safety they feel at work. This in turn will affect how well they collaborate and perform. It’s about creating the kind of space that brings out the best in people.