Steps to Improve Psychological Safety in a Virtual Team

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Steps to Improve Psychological Safety in a Virtual Team

By Theresa Sigillito Hollema

Author of: Virtual Teams Across Cultures

Psychological safety has been a popular concept in the business press lately, particularly after the Google internal study of teams highlighted this as a key characteristic of high-performance teams. Many managers ask – how do we foster psychological safety, particularly in a virtual team? Fortunately, I interviewed a team in which psychological safety improved during the pandemic!

The benefits of psychological safety go to straight to performance. Team members are more engaged, share more information and are more productive. In diverse teams, psychological safety is the reason they are more creative. The evidence is compelling but the steps to develop psychological safety are illusive. Various activities combine to create an environment where people feel free to speak openly, and managers need examples to make the concepts concrete. Meet the Virtual Team who are in a services company and were distributed between three country offices before being 100% remote during the pandemic.

The multinational team received a new manager in December 2019, just before offices closed. Following are the changes that he and the team made together. These resulted in one team member explaining, “We are not afraid to ask anymore. Before I was hesitant, as I would not throw things in the open.”

Theresa Sigillito Hollema photo

Theresa Sigillito Hollema

Build Team Identity

The manager prioritized creating the feeling of one team. He eliminated boring reporting meetings and replaced them with topics that interested everyone. The team initiated activities that brought them together, including coffee breaks. A surprisingly insightful sharing activity called ‘tell us your favorite book,’ helped people to feel included.

Focus On The Unique Individual

Belonging involves two elements – the person identifies themselves as part of the team and each person feels valued for their unique characteristics. The team manager was immediately interested in the competences and characteristics of each person. In addition, the manager met one-on-one with each person. As he explained, “Each one-on-one is different and it is not dependent on me. What we speak about and how we engage varies dramatically from person to person. It is the way that person and I foster the dialogue. It really depends on what happens specifically between us.”

Focus On Team Learning

They scheduled Lunch and Learn where ideas could be shared. They invited different external stakeholders to their meetings to have a broader understanding of the business. The team manager facilitated the conversations and encouraged open conversations.

Leverage The Communication Tools

A pleasant surprise for the team was the impact of MS Teams chat on the feeling of personal connection. Team members shared fun posts, gifs, birthday wishes, and local celebrations. Each person treated the chat forum with respect and participated as they wished.

Vulnerability From The Manager And Team Members

An underlying component of psychological safety is the willingness to be vulnerable. This starts with the manager, role-modeling that it is ok. As one team member explained: “When the barriers and the walls come down – today I am having a crap day, computer crashed, customer yelling at me. Everyone has these days and to know that your manager also has these days and is willing to share it in a professional way without bringing everyone down.”  Others followed, thereby creating the space to share personal bad days without any repercussions.  

These activities combined with the attitude of the manager and team members created the psychologically safe environment. People started asking more questions, reaching out to others and learning together. Even through a pandemic, and working in different countries, the team improved how they interacted and functioned together. These changes seem to be lasting and will most likely continue into the post- pandemic future.

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