Google’s multi-year research project studying team effectiveness, Project Aristotle, revealed that the number one element of successful teams is Psychological Safety. Psychological safety is the shared feeling that it’s safe to speak up, admit a mistake, ask for help, or challenge the status quo. When a team with shared goals is working in an environment with uncertainty, these qualities enable them to discuss difficult topics, hear feedback, explore new ideas, and learn from failure. Psychological safety is the foundation of trust and teaming behaviors. Without it, we are each just posturing for approval.
Is your team struggling with psychological safety while working remotely? You’re not alone. I worked at Google for 11 years, where my role was operationalizing Project Aristotle and helping teams improve how they worked together. The struggle is real.
What makes psychological safety hard?
Our brains are wired to move away from threats. A tiger in the grass is an absolute threat to our primitive selves, but today, our brains see social threats as tigers. Social threats might include the hierarchy at work — will the boss give me a good performance rating? Or a teammate — can I trust Anna if I share some bad news with her? Speaking up can feel like a risky endeavor. What will happen if I disagree with the boss? Will I feel embarrassed or be penalized? In general, we want to be viewed positively by others, so we spend energy managing how others see us. We want to appear smart, so we don’t speak up to ask that “dumb question” or share a mistake. We want to be accepted and liked, so we don’t challenge the status quo or share negative feedback.
What makes psychological safety harder when working remotely?
Our brains are wired to seek acceptance, status, and safety. When we work together in-person, we absorb these things by noticing facial expressions, having a hallway conversation, walking to a meeting, and eating lunch together. It can be extra challenging to get these signals when we’re all on video conference, email, Slack, chat, or other virtual collaboration tools. Working remotely may result in more misunderstandings or miscommunication. Without clear social signals, we fill in the blanks with our own stories and honestly, we make stuff up. When we’re all remote, it takes extra effort to signal that I am not a tiger, and it’s safe to speak up.
So, how do you build trust and psychological safety while working remotely?
At Google, most of my work was done remotely. For most of my time there, I was the only team member based in Seattle, with other team members based in cities all around the world: Mountain View, San Francisco, Cambridge, New York City, Detroit, Atlanta, Dublin, and Singapore (the timezone challenge is also real my friends). So, I spent my days on video conference meetings, email, chat, and shared Google documents and spreadsheets, collaborating virtually with my teammates. Working in this remote situation, I learned a few things about fostering psychological safety, when working remotely. The number one tip is to visit your teammates in-person. Since that’s not possible right now with the COVID-19 situation, here are the next top 5 tips for all team members.
1: Check in with each other.
We’re missing the informal conversations and connections. So, you’ll need to make more of an effort here. Ping each other over chat, just to check in and say hi. Schedule regular 1:1 meetings to foster personal connection and clarity on shared projects. Sometimes people don’t ping each other because they’re worried it will feel like they’re interrupting the other person. So, talk about when/how to communicate over chat or Slack, and whether it makes sense to have regular 1:1 meetings to have informal check-in time together. Set some team norms around how to stay connected with each other.
When you do check in with each other, don’t just jump into the work — ask about how they’re doing, and share what’s going on in your world. Also, invite your teammates to talk about their concerns and questions, welcome their different perspectives, and show appreciation for their strengths and contributions. Really show that you value and appreciate them.
Also, what was once easily hidden from view at work, is more visible now during Zoom meetings — a crying baby, a distracting toddler, a barking dog, a partner, a messy house. It might be harder to manage how others view us, with real life showing up in Zoom. People are really bringing their full-selves to work now. So, welcome real life, and embrace the full picture of your colleagues. This is a great opportunity to build relationships by seeing each other in our natural settings. And, maybe reconsider that fake Zoom background. Let your teammates into your real world. When we reveal something real about ourselves (e.g. our real life home), and others show interest, compassion, and appreciation, it builds trust.
2. Be fully present during Zoom meetings.
When meeting over Zoom, be fully present (if you can). Don’t open up other windows and start multitasking on your email (it’s hard, I know). Also, look directly at the camera (not at your computer screen) to make eye contact and show that you’re listening. Most importantly, really listen and participate. Speak up and share what you’re thinking and feeling — demonstrate authenticity and vulnerability. If you’re a talker, make sure you create space for others to weigh in and participate too. When your teammates show some vulnerability (e.g. offering a divergent opinion, opening up about their feelings, or sharing a weakness), show interest and compassion.
One tip that worked really well for me is to use people’s names and paraphrase what you hear them saying, then check for understanding. For example, “Raja, what I hear you saying is…. Do I have the right? What am I missing?” It can be harder to listen and pay attention in a Zoom meeting. Just notice when your attention drifts, and bring it back. One thing that helped me is having a mindset of curiosity — to be truly curious about what the person is saying, and what makes it important to them.
3. Notice when someone wants to speak up.
When we’re on a group video chat like Zoom, it’s harder to interrupt, ask a question, or share an idea. It’s also hard to know who wants to speak up, because body language cues are missing, or there may be an audio/video delay. So, pay attention to each other and invite others to add ideas, share feedback, or ask questions. Haven’t heard from Javier yet? Invite him to share his thoughts on the topic. People will talk over each other, and (for the most part) that’s okay. Just acknowledge who wants to jump in and make sure they have some air time.
The flow of conversation sometimes feels a bit more bumpy in a video conference. You may need to slow it down to give space for everyone to weigh in and contribute. If your team is large, have smaller breakout conversations using breakout rooms in Zoom, or organizing multiple Google Meet sessions at the same time. Use the breakout rooms to discuss ideas in-depth, then return to the main room to review the main points from the breakouts and make any decisions.
4. Be curious and embrace the ambiguity.
When life is full of uncertainty, like it is right now, it’s important to embrace the ambiguity. You don’t have all the answers (even if you think you do, you don’t). Acknowledge the gaps in your knowledge, and test your own assumptions — — not to prove them right, but to prove them wrong. What might you not know? Ask open questions to learn more about what others are thinking, feeling and wanting, and why. What led them to their perspective? What might you be missing?
I always wanted to have a clear path forward in my work, but often it’s just not possible. Things are continually changing, especially in complex fast-paced organizations. Especially during this time of uncertainty, so much is just unclear. It can feel uncomfortable when things are ambiguous and uncertain, but try to embrace that. For me, I have a mantra, “I’m just where I’m supposed to be.” I don’t need to have it all figured out. Take a deep breath. We will figure out the next steps together, learn together, and pivot when needed.
5: Discuss and learn from failure.
With so much uncertainty and ambiguity, there will be failures. Welcome them. Talk about them. Explore what happened and why. Don’t be emotional about it (even if it feels emotional — just breathe). Don’t place blame. Be curious and analyze the failure in order to learn and develop as a team. Penalizing failure is a surefire way to kill psychological safety. It’s important to invite team-members to reveal their mistakes and failures without repercussion or fear of embarrassment, in order to learn from them. One way to make it safe to share a mistake is to share your own failures and mistakes. What did you try this week that failed? What are you trying that’s new? What worked about that, and what didn’t work?
Fostering psychological safety is even more critical when we’re working remotely. We need to be intentional about building relationships, inviting ideas, and learning from failures. During this time of uncertainty, it’s important to practice embracing ambiguity. It’s okay if this feels uncomfortable. Just notice that, and embrace it too. Each conversation is an opportunity to foster trust and psychological safety. Remember, your teammates are still three-dimensional people with dreams and fears. Invite their questions, welcome hearing about their failures and learnings, and be curious about their perspectives. We are each being stretched by this new normal. How might you embrace this opportunity to grow your own leadership and teaming skills?