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Alone But Not Lonely: How to Create a Culture of Psychological Safety in the New Normal.

April 23, 2021, 5-min. read
Alone but not lonely How to create psychological safety

Back in 2015, Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google decided to find out what makes a good, effective team. They held, and analysed, 200+ interviews with a variety of Google employees over two years, compared them with employee attributes across 180+ teams, and the results were overwhelmingly clear - psychological safety was identified as the no.1 requirement of an effective team.

There were, in fact, 4 further defined dynamics identified as integral to creating what Google defined as a “high performance” team. Their list of ideals were incredibly prescient considering the nature of working change suffered at the hands of COVID-19. These were:

  • Psychological safety,
  • Dependability,
  • Structure and clarity,
  • The meaning of work,
  • The impact of work.
2021 Human Capital Trends

So in summary, highly effective, efficient and purpose led teams were primarily successful because of their ability to create psychologically safe spaces for team members to work, create ideas, problem solve, risk take and develop. Since 2015, Google and parent company Alphabet have gone on to claim their place as one the biggest companies in the world, and the 5 point plan to create effective teams has stood the test of time.

Fast forward to 2021: is this 5 point plan still relevant? Probably more than ever, and especially in the case of psychological safety.

What does psychological safety mean in 2021?

Psychological safety is best defined by its reinterpretation of the meaning of disagreement and risk taking: to work in a team that can challenge ideas and foment and interpret data, while simultaneously taking interpersonal risks to meet a common-held goal, within a working context of understanding and safety, is what makes a psychologically safe workplace.

In essence, it’s trust between colleagues and equity of trust across teams to take risks and create ideas.

A psychologically unsafe environment is when the above scenario results in name-calling, negativity, and personal affront, and its worse iteration results in workplace bullying or ostracisation.

To be psychologically safe means you can challenge ideas, create new paths of understanding, literally blaze a new path through sometimes risky territory, and be understood throughout. This safety net is to create an environment of learning, free from ego and negative judgement.

In the post pandemic world, one in which emotionally intelligent leadership will be the defining characteristic of modern management teams, the idea of psychologically safe working teams is more relevant than ever, especially considering the huge move to remote work.

How does a psychologically safe environment help remote working?

This dynamic of risk taking, learning and adapting within teams hinges on trust - trust not to feel invalidated when bringing up ideas, trust to disagree and work towards a common goal and trust to commit time and effort in supporting each other.

Psychological safety remote teams

Leaders, and team members, all have a duty of care to over-commit to ensuring that remote work forces still maintain this trusted connectivity.

Remote working is, inherently, isolating. It’s a business leaders’ job to appropriately and consistently involve teams in sharing ideas, round tabling innovation and discussion from a place of psychological safety to reduce burnout, creative dullness, mental health issues and distracted workforces.

Watch out for counterproductivity

  • Being able to trust your team to take risks does not mean blind tolerance of all behaviours: it’s about setting context, and holding each other to account and doing so from a place of trust.

  • Watch out for over-comfort: As Shane Snow, author of Dream Teams puts it, safety is not the same as comfort: reducing risk taking for fear of making a workplace “uncomfortable” is as bad as letting risk taking get out of hand. Workplaces are inherently full of clashing ideas, and it’s not a leader's job to make everyone comfortable: it’s about creating an environment of formulating ideas and challenging established thinking, which can be uncomfortable, from a place of trust.

How can you create psychologically safe spaces?

Creating digital drinks Zoom calls and organizing remote yoga classes play their role in team-building, but psychological safety is far more organisationally important: it needs to be factored into the whole employee lifecycle. Some of the often overlook elements include: 

  • Reiterate your commitment to open forums of discussion: encourage free-form ideas circles, create groups of skilled thinking to challenge traditional ways of working, you need to use the digital realm to get people talking and it’s easier than ever to do with modern communication & collaboration tools. 

  • Review and reward: managers have to take a lead in regularly and repeatedly communicating progress where it happens. Remote teams need reassurance their work is serving a wider team purpose.

  • Focus on the group: risk taking has to be done in the cause of something. Your teams may disagree, may argue, may hit a creative wall. Go back to the list at the top of this article and feed this thinking in your team management: does your team know the impact of their work? Do they understand the meaning behind it? Are you management dependably, and setting the right structure? Above all, are your teams psychologically safe?

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