In this episode of Inclusion in Progress, we will be discussing psychological safety and what it means for you and your team in the workplace. Kay will take a deep dive into the definition of psychological safety, its significance highlighted by the pandemic, and how it helps to make your workplace a more inclusive and welcoming space for all.
Psychological safety can be hugely beneficial for teams and leaders everywhere to foster in order to make your workplace more accommodating for everyone, especially in a remote or hybrid workplace. Psychological safety means that we as contributing members of a team or organization should feel comfortable sharing ideas and asking for help without fear of being punished or humiliated for speaking up, and teams that foster this positive environment ultimately get more buy-in from each individual, and experience more success.
Kay gives us the information as well as some of the tools and insights we as leaders need to consider and utilize when establishing and maintaining a psychologically safe environment for our teams. She also does a great job of setting expectations and helping us to understand that it won’t happen all at once, and that creating a psychologically safe environment will not only require time, consistent effort, and attention, but also that each member of the team is on board and is understanding of one another.
Welcome to the Inclusion in Progress podcast where we give you the ideas, actions and insights to help you build more equity at your workplace and in the world at large. I'm your host, Kay Fabella, international expert on diversity, equity and inclusion, a Filipina American living in Spain and your guide in navigating this DEI journey. Having worked with teams at companies such as Philips, the IMF, Red Hat, PepsiCo and more, I know firsthand that the work of inclusion only works when everyone has a seat at the table. Regardless of your personal entrypoint into this conversation: your race, ethnicity, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, country of origin, or educational background, we all have a role to play in creating inclusion for all and it starts with us having conversations we need to create the change we wish to see. So let's dive into today's episode.
Hey there and welcome back to the show! We are now officially in April, if you're listening to this in real time, the start of a new quarter in 2022. And that means… drumroll please…. that’s my very, very poor attempt at a drumroll. Anyway, it means the start of a new season for us on this podcast.
So, if you've been listening to the episodes this year, again in real time, you'll notice that for 2022 we’ve been dividing the podcast into four “seasons”. I'm putting seasons in air quotes as I speak, and I forget that I'm not on video. So anyway, seasons. So yes, we are continuing to put out episodes two to three times a month. But the twist is that we are deep diving into a specific topic related to inclusion every season, and leveraging our unique lens working with cross-cultural and remote teams here at Inclusion in Progress, LLC. Now our goal here is to continue to provide you and those you collaborate with in the workplace with the useful, most up-to-date insights that you need to lead inclusion at work.
And if you happen to be enjoying this podcast so far, why not leave us a review? Especially if you are a long-time listener, and we know there are quite a few of you now. So it only takes five minutes to leave a review for Inclusion in Progress, especially on iTunes. The mission behind Inclusion in Progress has always been to empower as many allies and advocates for inclusion as possible around the world, and reviews like yours help boost our show in the algorithms so that we can reach even more people with all of the insights and conversations that we're having here. You all know that this is a labor of love as a podcast and, although we've currently got an audience in 34 countries and counting, we do need your help to continue reaching the people who'd most benefit from a more inclusive world.
So again, if you would like to help us on our mission to empower thousands of allies and advocates for inclusion in our workplaces around the world, head over to iTunes and leave us a review - we'll even make sure to feature your review on a future episode!
But back to today, last season,as you know, we were tackling mental health and workplace wellness, which continues to be an ongoing need for global teams. Not only are we all dealing with the uncertainty with our global pandemic, the ongoing movement for racial justice, and collective burnout for knowledge and frontline workers alike. We're also dealing with the ongoing invasion in Ukraine…which I can tell you from where I'm sitting in Madrid, Spain, has been heartbreaking and terrifying to watch unfold in real time.
Now, in the face of so much uncertainty, it's no wonder that so many of us are strained emotionally, and mentally including yours truly some days. Which is why for our second season of 2022, we wanted to dive into another very hot topic for global teams that we work with, which is psychological safety. Specifically, what is the role of organizations and leaders in fostering psychological safety for their teams who are all facing some degree of mental exhaustion and burnout? And how does this apply to teams who are working remotely or in a hybrid work environment?
So let's kick off the season and dive right in.
Now, we've talked about psychological safety in one way, shape or form before on this podcast, and we have plenty of episodes where we've just kind of snuck it in, right? But I realized, as I was reviewing with the team in preparation for this episode, that we actually haven't talked about or really defined what psychological safety is.
Now, if you're familiar with DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) work, you'll most definitely have heard the term psychological safety. And this comes to us from the work of Dr. Amy Edmonson of Harvard Business School, who defines psychological safety as, “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”
What does that look like in a nutshell?
Well, if a leader wants to know if they have successfully fostered a culture of psychological safety, anyone who works with them should feel comfortable to raise their hand when they'd like to contribute an idea to their team or organization; when they don't know an answer and need to ask someone for help; when they want to raise an issue that's bothering them; or share when they've made a mistake without fear of potential fallout or blowback from those on their team.
With so much riding these days on innovation; especially with how quickly our world is changing, the new ideas that we need to continue to thrive and grow; it's essential to attract and retain quality talent. But what good is that if no one on our teams feels able to speak their mind and share those ideas? Now a team's success and an organization's success requires a continuous stream of new ideas, new challenges, and of course, critical thought. A psychologically safe work environment, therefore, isn't one that suppresses or silences, or ridicules or intimidates.
Now, listen. We all know that not every idea is good.
But the questions that get asked even though they may not always be the right ones, and disagreement, and trying to achieve consensus, which could potentially slow our processes down, are all essential parts of the creative process. The creative process that organizations need to identify ideas that work in our fast-changing world.
Now, according to Edmonson, “People must be allowed to voice their half finished-thoughts, to ask those questions from left field, and to brainstorm out loud; it creates a culture in which a minor flub or a momentary lapse is no big deal, and where actual mistakes are owned and corrected, and where the next left-field idea could be the next big thing.”
Now, we know today that, in addition to Edmonson’s body of work, that psychological safety is an essential driver for high-functioning and high-performing teams. Research has shown that it also fosters a healthy collaboration, effective execution in companies, and of course, greater innovation.
For example, back in 2012, Google set out to answer this important question: What makes teams successful? Now, Google actually named it “Project Aristotle”, which comes from the Greek philosopher’s quote, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Now, Google wanted to study real teams at work. And to that end, they spent two years studying 180 real and diverse teams across Google's different offices and functions. Now, these were not experimental teams that were assembled for some, you know, graduate school study in an academic environment, but teams that were doing real work in a corporate setting. And upon concluding the study, Google's Project Aristotle identified psychological safety as their top indicator of their highest-performing teams. The reason being that teams that benefited from strong psychological safety are less afraid of the negative consequences that may result from taking smart risks, making mistakes, sharing their opinions within their team, and being candid with one another. And these teams are therefore better equipped to respond productively to different perspectives and opinions and ideas. They feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable with one another.
But while this research has helped us tremendously, most of us know how difficult psychological safety is to apply in practice. And even more so now with the complications of remote and hybrid work.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, our most popular solutions with clients involve working with teams or entire departments on how to foster psychological safety in a virtual workplace. Many of the questions we hear from managers and DEI leaders include things like: What does psychological safety look like when teams don't see each other in person, or work alongside each other? How do we encourage teams to share when they're experiencing challenges without forcing them to disclose personal information or invading their privacy, especially across different cultures? Another question we hear is, Is there such a thing as too much or too little sharing, and how does that contribute to an environment where our teams trust one another? These and other conversations have inspired this episode that we're sharing with you today.
So to understand how to apply this research to the real-life workings of your remote team, let's take a look at how working virtually has changed the conversation on psychological safety over the last 2+ years.
So let's start by defining what does psychological safety actually look like in the context of a remote team? Unfortunately, as we've learned, work-from-home and hybrid working makes psychological safety anything but straightforward for managers and employees.
Prior to the pandemic, leaders traditionally focused on keeping their conversations very open when it came to talking about work, while striving to respect their colleagues’ personal boundaries. Now, as we know, the boundaries between work and life have gotten a little blurry for teams. So leaders have been asked to navigate ways to redefine productivity for remote teams (as we discussed in Episode IIP077) and looking at ways to create better workplace boundaries to support teams that are working from home (as we discussed in Episode IIP084). Be sure to check those episodes out if you haven't already.
More importantly, for leaders to have psychologically safe conversations about how to support their teams in a post-COVID world, they're going to have to touch on subjects that were previously considered “off-limits”, or to have conversations that were related to aspects of employees’ identity, values, and personal choices, which for many of us is uncharted territory.
For example, one employee could decide that they prefer to work from home to support an ailing parent or as a widow supporting their two children. But another employee could feel excluded from the conversation of who should be asked to return to the office as someone who is single or decided not to have children. Now, how a manager leads both of those conversations is going to require even more tact, even more patience, and even more understanding of different people's situations, while making sure everyone is clear on the roles and responsibilities on the team. Now this is just one of many conversations that have made it more personal for employers and leaders and potentially riskier when being asked to navigate legal or ethical challenges such as confronting their own biases.
Now with these nuances in mind, let's dive into three specific ways. We've advised clients and partners on how to foster psychological safety on remote teams.
First, we start by creating transparency and communication practices, which is something we talk about very often on this podcast. Now, not every conversation for managers and their team members is going to revolve around personal disclosure or non-work challenges. But it's critical for managers to foster an environment where both team members and leaders can face and share ownership of their tasks. Which is why it's important to create transparency in how and when your team communicates virtually.
Now, as we've mentioned on a previous podcast episode, we often recommend creating a shared calendar, where team members can say for their individual time zones the times that they're available to collaborate or who even just wants a virtual buddy to go through a live Google Doc or hop on a zoom call with.
To that end, we also look more generally with teams at how to make asynchronous communication work for you. It helps if every team member has a roadmap of sorts, knowing what each channel of communication is for and how it supports their role and responsibility. It also helps to know how to set up their technology, to set their own boundaries for each channel of communication, such as: advising others of their available and non-available hours; and knowing that everyone will respect each channel’s purpose for communication.
And if there are channels that can specifically be used for non-work communication, where colleagues can discuss shared interests or even link up with one another for some off-work one-on-one time, it's helpful to have that outlined transparently too. In fact, one of the first exercises we do with client partners who are looking to manage remote teams more inclusively and effectively is starting by reviewing everyone’s day-to-day schedules, establishing a team policy that understands each individual's different work styles, strategies, situations and personalities, and finalizing a shared team agreement document that supports flexible work. But we'll talk about that more later in the episode. By doing so, we're not only establishing work life boundaries that supports the team, but also supporting psychological safety. Because this environment allows everyone to know what each person needs to do their job effectively, including things like their focus time and time off, and more importantly, how to support one another.
The second strategy we advise on is inviting engagement through team-building. Now, we often say that psychological safety is built on trust, and trust is built in micro-moments. Teams that are able to find these micro-moments can fall back on this currency of trust when times are more challenging, or misunderstandings or collisions arise. To that end, there must also be intentional structures for team building. Otherwise, it's challenging to build and maintain trust on remote teams, especially when many of us are unable to see one another for long periods of time.
Now, this can start by looking at how to make your day-to-day meetings and interactions more collaborative instead of just one person leading those conversations. GitHub, for example, recommends using Google Docs for both their formal and informal work communication protocols. For their meeting agendas, GitHub uses Google Docs for documenting discussions, decisions and actions. Everyone in the meeting can add notes at the same time and even finish each other's sentences, in some cases. They prefer Google Docs to Whiteboards because, by brainstorming in text instead of drawings, they're all forced to clearly articulate proposals, designs and ideas with less variance and interpretations across remote teams that occupy different countries and cultures. They use indentations to go more in depth on a given topic, and by retaining everything inside that Google Doc for that meeting agenda, this method retains context for comments, discussions and ideas, even if someone wasn't present for the original live conversation. But GitHub also uses Google Docs so that no one feels left out of a conversation and allows for diverse sets of perspectives to be heard, from both GitLab team members and from customers and community contributors.
Now, while many of us are going back to the office, it's also fun to imagine team building practices that don't require endless back to back-to-back Zoom, or Team calls, or things like game nights; which, as we know, were very popular at the start of the pandemic. Now, you can host things like an AMA or Ask Me Anything channel once a week or a month to discuss non-work topics in one of your asynchronous channels. You can create a virtual book club, watch a new TV series together and discuss what's happened in a shared channel, share a love of Fortnite or League of Legends with your favorite character’s avatars, or create a shared team playlist on Spotify that allows each of your team members to rotate playing DJ for the month. You can ask your team to add their cultural holidays and celebrations to your shared calendar to allow people to highlight the diversity in beliefs and practices and, by extension, hold space for observance and discussion. You can use things like asynchronous voice messages for teams through a platform like Yac or asynchronous video messages through a platform like Loom, where other team members can view and comment on the video below.
Now, I know all of these things, if you're listening to them in order to use them, might seem silly or potentially trivial. But they are easy ways to help your team members highlight other facets of themselves and build trust with one another as a result, without having to invest or think that they're investing more time out of their busy days. Psychological safety is also about being able to discuss when you feel uncertain or unsure of an idea without fear. And, while this may seem like it's going back to basics, again, sometimes it's just as simple as knowing who to reach out to when you're struggling, who to contact when you have a question, or you just need a second opinion or sounding board that would benefit you, as well as the rest of the team as a result. Having that roadmap is actually very helpful in a remote environment.
Now, with many of us not having physical gathering spaces or the ability to work in the same location where we could, say, run into each other casually in an office, a team or department org chart, again, helps us unify a distributed team. This is particularly of interest for new joiners, because it helps them know which groups are working on what, which groups are leading which functions, and how all of those things are working towards the same company mission. Having something like an org chart that's specifically tailored to your team, and the departments that you most likely coordinate or liaise with, is really important to help drive a common mission that then creates a stronger team and company culture. Because this shared responsibility and accountability encourages more team members, regardless of their background, or location, or ability, to be internally motivated towards action and the betterment of the team. It also means that teams can look for cross-collaboration amongst themselves and create co-leadership opportunities on your team, rather than it just being led by the line manager who's leading. Knowing the structure of your team and/or your department helps foster psychological safety because it empowers individuals to be proactive about their abilities to accomplish their tasks, and find opportunities to collaborate effectively with one another. Which is something that we've consistently seen on our 360º surveys working with client partners: a desire to know who they are working with, aside from members they have their direct teams.
The third way that we support remote teams in creating psychological safety is by helping establish working agreements for teams. Now, working agreements are living, breathing documents to help teams establish how to engage with each other, whether it's day-to-day interactions, or difficult conversations. Now feeling safe to communicate with one another starts with unintentional conversation about how to make remote work work for everyone. Having that honest, sit-down discussion with your team and arriving at a communication agreement that everybody can commit to and rely on when things get hard. And that discussion starts with covering a list of questions around communication and collaboration. So just a few questions that can help you get that conversation started with your team involved the following: What information needs to be shared team-wide? How might we communicate that information best?
What response times are reasonable for each of our communication channels, such as email, or Slack, or Teams? How should we share what's being worked on? How should we make requests for information or assistance? And do we need to find shared core hours of overlap in our work schedules? Questions like this should lead to a productive discussion about how to use your different software and different channels, how often to communicate with each other, how to define what's important versus urgent and the difference between the two, and how to be open to feedback and respectful of different perspectives and opinions when they arise. Some examples of working agreements we've helped define include: establishing which channels are for which forms of communication for the team and moving away from software that is no longer necessary; having a clearly defined way to give and receive feedback, especially reciprocal feedback or feedback loops between managers and direct reports; understanding each individual's preferences on how and where they work, how and when to receive feedback, etc.; anonymous pathways to offer feedback to managers, specifically when individuals need help resolving differences or challenging issues; and a code of conduct that the team can agree to while navigating their challenging or difficult conversations.
Now, the last and most important stage in creating a working agreement is ensuring commitment from everyone who's involved. Now, it's not as simple, as much as we'd like it to be, as wrapping up a meeting and saying, “Cool, is everyone good with this?” and throwing up the deuces and logging out. It's important to go through whatever questions you decide for your team to go line by line, answer by answer, and make sure everyone on the team is on the same page, carving out the time to actually make sure everything is accomplished and that that agreement is signed at the end of the session. For example, a question like, “What response times are reasonable for each communication channel?” might turn into a statement like “As a team, we agree to 24 business hours as a reasonable response time for email messages—both to try to respond in 24 hours and to wait 24 hours before following up to request a response.” You could also include in that working agreement each team member’s individual timezone, working hours and preferences for remote work, maybe even their work situations if they're working from home and have pets or kids to be mindful of, as well as provide easy links to access all of your key files and folders. Finally, make sure to include the code of conduct that all team members will adhere to before wrapping up your discussion. Now, once everyone has committed to your working agreement, you'll want to make sure that everyone has easy access to that document. Now, you can review that document six months or a year later, and of course, revise it. But until then you want it front and center to remind all of your people of the new norms of how they will work together, and how they'll contribute to the team's success.
Now, what we've learned from working with remote teams for the past eight years is this… psychological safety is only achieved through regular intention, through regular ideation, and implementation, and repeating that cycle. It's far from a one and done. And, unfortunately, many of the teams we've worked with that are struggling with psychological safety are also struggling with burnout due to their heavy, fast-paced work environments. not seeing one another face to face is the start of this pandemic, and a sense of mistrust in their organizations and their leaders due to, say, mismatched expectations and poor communication. And when that happens, we need to look at how do we interrupt that pattern. As a manager, sometimes all you need is a container for what we call a “zoom out” moment with your team, a reset if you will, to help check in with one another, and reestablish those boundaries and expectations, and a specific framework that'll help your team foster an environment of psychological safety. An environment that allows your team members to tap back into the agility and innovation that come from having all of their diverse perspectives at the table. To get the best out of your team members, people
To get the best out of your team members, people must feel that everyone has each other's back. And now more than ever, organizations need leaders with the integrity to tell the truth, the vulnerability to say, “I don’t know”, the courage to accept being challenged by others, and the guts to act in the interest of their teams. Now we know promoting psychological safety isn't easy, but at Inclusion in Progress, we are here to help. Through our remote team building workshops, we partner with people managers to help their team support their own resilience at work, and foster an open discussion about what's necessary for teams to communicate effectively, to innovate, to have hard conversations, and to look out for each other. Now, every experience is different because as you know, we tailor all of our workshops and our virtual experiences to each team's participants and makeup. So if you'd like to learn more about how to book a psychological safety workshop for your remote team, to help foster inclusion and innovation, head to the link in the show notes to get in touch with us or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, we've just opened up slots for Q4 and even Q1 in 2023. So, before we close our calendar for the rest of the year, we would love to share how we can partner with you this year to foster inclusion for your team or organization by leveraging psychological safety.
Finally, let's look at specific strategies for managers to foster psychological safety on their remote teams. Now over the past 2+ years… gosh, it's so hard to say that out loud!... we've been witnessing shifting expectations of how managers interact and engage with their employees. Managers are increasingly expected to model authenticity and transparency in their communications, to facilitate the exchange of ideas and conversations, and to provide greater autonomy at the team and individual levels. Through the 360º surveys we ran for client partners, we found that when managers were more understanding and empathetic and adept at leading teams remotely, this directly correlated to whether or not employees decided to stay; not just at their teams, but at their companies. We've also witnessed organizations choosing to give managers greater autonomy in the structures and resources they use to lead their distributed teams. And as a result, we can conclude that the impact of a people manager or a line manager on the employee experience and the likelihood of retention will increase exponentially as we move into remote and/or hybrid working environments. Therefore, it's crucial for managers to actively move towards tech savvy, equity-minded leadership approaches that enable employees to achieve team outcomes while prioritizing work-life integration or balance. With that in mind, here are just a few strategies that we offer for managers for fostering psychological safety on the remote teams.
First, to help managers leverage virtual tools for effective remote teams, we work with them to identify performance metrics and growth opportunities for the direct reports, monitoring their team's communication channels for connectivity and productivity, and assessing their team's individual personalities and preferences for remote work. Second, as teams are distributed across time zones, and cultures and countries, we use the data that we've gathered to determine shared on and off work hours for optimal productivity, to help managers streamline their communication channels for work and non-work purposes, and offer collective learning and trust building spaces that allow individuals to strengthen relationships within and outside of their teams. And finally, in a distributed work environment that crosses generations and cultures and lived experiences, it's all too easy for managers to be overwhelmed trying to anticipate everything their teams need. So we guide managers on how to foster psychological safety by showing them how to anticipate when their teams might be struggling, and how to give employees the ability to choose what they disclose, and when.
But we also know that being a manager is not without its challenges, especially while navigating the many changes that we've seen over the past few years. To lead others from a place of effectiveness starts with taking an honest look at ourselves. Now, if you're struggling with your own psychological safety, you just simply won't be as effective in helping others with theirs. Doing whatever you know helps you maintain a happy and healthy approach and a pace of work that is sustainable for you, is the equivalent of putting your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. Now, as team leaders that others depend on, many of us get so focused on caring for our team that we often minimize or even neglect our own needs entirely. But we know that if you don't look after yourself, you can't look after others. So if you're struggling, please find a mentor to advise and to help you, remember to take care of your own health and well being ,and by extension model for your team the importance of disconnecting and taking time away from work. Remember that one of the most important and powerful things that you can do as a leader is to admit to your team and your peers when you're not at 100%. Not only will this help you to obtain the support you need to get through a tough time, it will also model and make the same behavior psychologically safe for others when they're going through similar challenges. Now, in our experience, sometimes the best thing that managers can do to foster psychological safety is to model it themselves.
So there you have it, our reflections on how you create psychological safety for remote teams, why it's different from our pre pandemic world, and specific ways that you as a People Manager or Leader can model a work environment that's conducive to your team members engaging as their best selves.
Though today's episode is inspired by our work with client partners like Red Hat and Instagram and more, the conversation today is especially important for anyone who's responsible for leading others at work. We're all navigating multiple team member states of mental, emotional, and psychological health in the workplace at once.
What we've learned from working with remote teams for the past eight years is this: psychological safety is only achieved through regular intention, through ideating frequently and revisiting those ideas often, and implementing, and repeating. As I said before, it is far from a one and done deal. And we know that many of the teams we've been working with, especially recently, are struggling with a mixture of things that could be getting in the way of psychological safety, such as burnout, fast-paced work environments, not being able to physically see one another, and a continued sense of mistrust that further exacerbates their own disappointment, mismatched expectations and poor communication.
So what can we do? Now as leaders, sometimes all you need is a reset. A reset to have an honest conversation about what you and your team needs to move past, say, instances of mistrust and miscommunication, to have an honest conversation about what well-being looks like and what trust looks like, to foster an environment of true psychological safety while working remotely. To be able to get the best out of your team members, everyone must feel that they have each other's backs. Thankfully, our team is seeing more people managers and employees alike willingly and openly asking for what they need, sharing more of what they'd like to see in the future of work, including things such as their non-work roles and caregiving duties. Now this dialogue is what will support our teams to want to stay, to unlock their potential without sacrificing their humanity, or ours, in the process.
With teams spanning more locations and lived experiences, identities, and cultures than before, it's easy for us to feel overwhelmed. At Inclusion in Progress, one of our specialties as a fully remote team, spanning APAC, EMEA and the Americas, is how we've learned to embrace nuance and humility in pursuit of consensus across our differences, and untap new ways to respond to today's challenges. Rather than modeling how to avoid conflict, we focus on empowering individuals to address setting healthy boundaries together, and looking at how to foster psychological safety, leading to team and company cultures that foster inclusion and sustained growth. Now promoting psychological safety isn't easy. But at Inclusion in Progress, we're here to help. If you'd like to learn more about a psychological safety learning experience that is tailored to your remote team, head to the link in the show notes to get in touch or email us at email@example.com. Before we close our calendar for the rest of 2022, we'd love to share how we could partner with you this year to foster psychological safety for your team or your organization. Now we've developed long standing partnerships with the likes of Red Hat, Headspace and Instagram, and we'd love to discuss how our IIP framework can help your team or organization thrive.
As always, if you liked this episode, please share it with other leaders and changemakers who would also benefit from a more inclusive world. In the meantime, thank you so much for listening, take really good care of yourselves and each other, and we'll see you next time on Inclusion in Progress.