Today’s managers have to build trust without ever meeting face-to-face. We ask experts and research how to build psychological safety while remote.
With the craziness of the pandemic, asking your remote teammates how they're feeling can go a long way. Burnout sits at an all-time high making it crucial to know when someone's frustrated, left in the dark, or struggling at home. However, it’s often difficult to get an honest answer over a pulse survey or 1:1. Getting an accurate read on your team’s morale requires a psychologically safe environment.
In the last five years, companies have put a focus on psychological safety. Hundreds of blog articles and training courses have surfaced to help managers build safe spaces in the office. The concept has become such a part of mainstream leadership training that it’s reached buzzword status.
These resources are fantastic, but they’re also written for a pre-COVID era with co-located teams. Psychological safety in 2021 looks different. Today’s managers have to foster an environment of trust without ever meeting face to face. We look to industry experts and research to figure out the best way to build psychological safety while remote.
Unfortunately, managers often hurt their remote team’s psychological safety without realizing it. To understand common mistakes, we spoke with one of LA's top executive coaches. Janine Davis is a seasoned Executive Coach at Evolution Coaching, which coaches leaders at Slack, Dropbox, LinkedIn, and more.
She explains, “Most fundamental leadership gaps which might lead to lack of psychological safety are made wider due to remote. Especially with pandemic conditions, economic uncertainty, industry-wide layoffs, social unrest, environmental disasters, and polarized elections. That’s because stress exacerbates our less desirable qualities.”
Teammates are extremely vulnerable at this time. They look to their leaders for not only company direction, but emotional guidance and reassurance. Leaders that haven’t made efforts to build their EQ will struggle to convey warmth and empathy in a virtual setting. As a result, they can come off as unreasonably harsh, cold, or out-of-tune with their team’s needs.
These “bad” remote manager behaviors are more common than we think. Davis lists a few tasks that remote managers often struggle with:
Psychological safety must be maintained and changes with the team dynamic, so there's always ways to improve. It takes time, but raising your team's psychological safety can start with a slight reframing and a few simple everyday habits.
We often mistake vulnerability with weakness or oversharing, but opening up creates room for trust. To improve the team's psychological safety, both you and your teammates need to be vulnerable. Thankfully, vulnerability fosters positive feedback loops and leading with humility can often spark a reciprocated action. It's hard to be vulnerable over a screen, but there are several simple ways to start:
Read Kim Scott's Radical Candor and exercise the practices she shares!
We mention trust a lot. Not only is it the foundation of psychological safety, but its also one of the most common values in remote-first organizations. Remote and asynchronous work requires a lot of trust, and this falls to the trust we share between our teammates.
According to Anna Barber, last year's Managing Director of Techstars LA and a trained Executive Coach, trust is based off four pillars
As psychological safety is reduced to a buzzword, managers often forget the uncomfortable parts of the term. Psychological safety doesn't mean perfect harmony or constant agreement, but the safety to discuss without fear of punishment. There are fantastic articles out there regarding safe ways to fight and have arguments, but today we'll look at how you can employ frameworks to make Zoom and Slack safe spaces for disagreement.
Among the hundreds of interviews we conducted with remote managers, the teams with high psychological safety were simply happier. They could feel their teammates’ passion and care through a speaker. They spent less time on Zoom because they were already aligned. They felt they could lean on their teammates for professional and personal issues, something that’s essential for weathering 2020’s extreme conditions. When psychological safety is a given, working from home becomes a sanctuary rather than a burden.
Learn more about how Kona can help you achieve higher levels of engagement and performance by instilling a culture of psychological safety within teams:
Corine is Co-Founder of Kona. She writes regularly on emotional intelligence and empathetic remote leadership. Her work has been featured by Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. She’s a speaker at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and she’s advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.