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Virtual Team Building: The Ultimate Manager Guide

Everything you need to know about building trust for remote/hybrid teams.

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Chapter 4

How do you build psychological safety?

Now that we’ve discussed the importance of psychological safety, how exactly do you achieve that? And why is it a manager’s job, not that of senior leadership or People Ops?

We’ll tackle the latter question, first.

Why remote managers are essential

In our conversations with remote managers, we realized most people think about company culture the wrong way. Culture is ambiguous, so many expect senior leadership to define it. In this, you get a top-down model of culture. We see values defined on bold posters, the mission repeated at company events, and inside jokes baked into fun traditions. But somehow, bad company cultures have these traits and still fail.

Here’s why: culture isn’t defined, but lived.

Every person at the organization has to understand the same values for culture to function. Scaling culture requires both top-down and bottom-up involvement. From the bottom, the people enforcing values and culture are managers.

This is especially true for psychological safety. It’s not enough for People Ops to include Trust as a company value on their hiring page. Managers have to actively preserve it for their teams and departments. Managers often underestimate their influence. According to Gallup, managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units.

Here’s how managers can build psychological safety on their teams.

Micro: build personal relationships with vulnerability

Vulnerability and shame are the focus of Dr. Brené Brown’s work. When a person can be brave enough to be vulnerable, they open a door for authentic human connection. Though it can be hard to think of work as a vulnerable space, those that prioritize vulnerability can build the trust necessary to succeed.

In Dare to Lead, Dr. Brown breaks down a few of the myths of vulnerability:

  1. Vulnerability is weakness. “I’ve asked fighter pilots and software engineers…not one person has been able to give me an example of courage without vulnerability.”
  2. Only X people do vulnerability. “There is no opting out, but there are two options: You can do vulnerability or it can do you.”
  3. You have to trust someone before you can be vulnerable. “We need to trust to be vulnerable, and we need to be vulnerable in order to build trust.”
  4. Vulnerability is disclosure. “Sharing just to share without understanding your role, recognizing your professional boundaries, and getting clear on your intentions…is just purging or venting or gossip…”

We know everything that Dr. Brené Brown shares is true because we’ve seen it. When a Kona customer opens up about something vulnerable and important in their check-in, they’re met with care from managers and teammates. This creates a feedback loop that builds trust over time.

That being said, it’s difficult to be vulnerable behind a screen. There are a few places to start:

  • Admit when you don’t know something, when something concerns you, or when you make a mistake.
  • Share your weaknesses and what you’re trying to improve. Ask for feedback from your team often.
  • Reward moments of vulnerability and new ideas appropriately. Praise in private or public, depending on the person.

Macro: build a culture of trust with set processes

Being vulnerable and personable makes sense, but how do you achieve these deep connections with a team of 5, 13, or 30?

Scaling trust is much harder. In addition to how you lead, the processes you create can enforce a psychologically safe culture. This is where team building comes in.

The next few chapters of this guide will cover key areas where you can bake trust into each of your team processes:

  • Hiring and Onboarding
  • Everyday Team Building
  • Addressing Burnout and Mental Health
  • Creating Alignment Through Culture
  • Gathering Feedback and Iterating

Next Chapter – Build a Team: Trust-Based Hiring and Onboarding

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