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To Build Trust Within Virtual Teams, Psychological Safety Is Everything

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The #1 question I’m asked by leaders and members of virtual teams alike: How can we create a trusting environment when we hardly ever (or never!) meet in person? Teams that span multiple time zones have an even harder go of it, as they have few opportunities for real conversations of any kind.

Remote teams face other challenges when it comes to building trust. For example, in a virtual world, social cues and emotions are difficult to detect, making it hard to tell how everyone else is really feeling. As a result, some will keep their dissenting views to themselves so they can be seen as a “good team player.” Or if the team is given overly ambitious deadlines with no opportunity to sanity-check their viability, people may feel forced to work crazy long hours if no one else seems to be complaining. Team leaders want to imagine that if everyone says that “everything’s okay,” then it must be. And when teams are being pressed to perform against super-tight deadlines, no one wants to be that person responsible for slowing down the speeding train.

If only there was some way virtual teams could be given more opportunities for healthy conversations to help build relationships, brainstorm ideas, resolve issues, ask questions, surface issues, or seek help. In this article, I explore ways to create psychological safety for virtual teams (a phrase popularized by Harvard Business School professor and author Amy Edmondson) as the best way to build rapid trust.

  • Ask virtual team members what a “safe space” might feel like. The conditions that create psychological safety are not the same for everyone. Some typical responses: People listen to my ideas or concerns without judging me. I can tell the truth without retribution. I feel comfortable disagreeing with a point that everyone else goes along with. My ideas are considered, even if they are not adopted. I can point out when I think something is wrong, even if it’s someone I report to, or a client. I have multiple ways to open an honest dialogue outside of scheduled meetings. I can ask for help without fear of appearing weak. Start the conversation by asking people what psychological safety means to them, and which elements are most important.
  • Devote more team meeting time to meaningful conversations. Instead of reviewing content that can be shared ahead of time, consider what kinds of conversations are most important to have right now. Come prepared to ask team members questions that stimulate thoughtful discussions. Examples: What barriers might you be facing that we can help you remove? If you could take one thing off your plate right now that would relieve the pressure, what would it be? Looking ahead to next month, what are some things you’re excited about? What’s one thing that you’re especially proud of achieving over the last week?
  • Make yourself vulnerable so others feel safe to follow suit. The best way leaders can open the door for others to reveal vulnerability is to model it. Share your hopes for the week ahead, what’s keeping you up at night, or what challenges you find especially daunting. Ask for help or ideas, if appropriate. If you’re having a tough week, say so, disclosing the reason, only if it feels right. You can do this in a team meeting, 1:1, via a group chat, in a team portal, or whatever communication channel that makes sense. For example, you might start your workday with a group chat that goes something like: “Good morning/afternoon/evening everyone. I may be a little slow responding today because I’m having a hard time shaking the images I saw in the news this week. How are you all doing?”
  • Use 1:1 meeting time thoughtfully. (And whatever you do, cancel these only in the case of a rare emergency!) Be prepared to ask (and answer) candid questions that may be hard or inappropriate to discuss in a team venue. Have your own questions ready, and encourage your team member to come ready to ask, share or discuss what’s on their mind. Let them know that no questions or concerns are out of bounds. Examples of your comments/questions: “I’ve noticed that in the last few team meetings you’ve been unusually quiet. Can you share what’s going on for you?” Or, “You did a great job on the XX project, but I notice that XXXX seems to be taking more time than we had predicted. I’m wondering how I or someone on the team might be able to help.”
  • Create a place where team members can converse asynchronously, regardless of location or time zone. This might take the form of something like a Slack channel, a team portal, or an internal social media site set up for the team. This could be a place where people ask questions, make connections, solicit ideas, ask for resources, say hello, or just get to know each other. Some teams prefer to set up separate channels for social and project-related conversations, while others like the idea of having more “organic” conversations that touch on multiple topics, mimicking “water cooler” kinds of conversations.
  • Solicit frequent feedback, reflect and respond. If you ask for ideas, give them your full consideration and let people know how you plan to use them, or why they may not work in their current iteration. The degree of trust that exists between you and your team members, and across the team, may help determine the most effective feedback channels, which might include team meetings, 1:1 conversations, team portals, or virtual suggestion boxes. While anonymity may sometimes be important to stimulate participation, ideally you want to create an environment where people feel safe to identify themselves for follow-on discussions.
  • Use video to help create psychological safety…or not. Let’s say you’re ready to jump onto your weekly team meeting with 15 colleagues. You’re horrified to realize that the room you’re using is in visible disarray, your hair is a mess, and your dog is pacing. And yet you know that your team leader, who enjoys a beautifully-appointed private office space, insists that everyone turn on videos at the start of each meeting. (“Bring your whole self to every meeting!” she exhorts.) If you’re not inclined to share that “whole self” just now, you fear you may be seen as someone who feels they’re above the rules. But if you turn on your video at this moment, you’re afraid of being judged by your peers. As a virtual team leader, be circumspect about why and when the use of video is especially important, when it’s nice to have, and when it will get in the way. (Keep in mind: Staring at small video images all day can be stultifying to our brains.)
  • Make sure everyone has equal access to and confidence in using team collaboration tools. No one wants to hold people up by stopping to ask how to do X or Y. As a result, some people may never ask, and they’ll be left behind, and others may have no qualms about asking for a 1:1 tutorial while others wait. Even if people can use the tools just fine, spotty internet access may mean that some are unable to use video or see what’s on the screen. Design your meetings with a workaround to accommodate those who may need some technology assistance. It’s always a good idea to invite people to join early, or set up time before the meeting to demonstrate certain features, if you feel they could use some handholding.

“Teams can be lonely places, especially when you believe others may not support your opinion or come to your defense. Such interpersonal fears are amplified for employees working from home during a prolonged crisis like the pandemic. Building psychological safety in virtual teams takes effort and strategy that pays off in engagement, collegiality, productive dissent, and idea generation. The good news is that the tools and techniques that engage people — and lower hurdles to engagement — can become habitual and serve managers well today and long into the future.” – Amy Edmonson, How to Foster Psychological Safety in Virtual Meetings (hbr.org) in Harvard Business Review

Links

Related Communiques:

How Video Meetings Mess with Your Head and How to Make it Better (guidedinsights.com)  

Who Moved My (Virtual) Water Cooler? (guidedinsights.com)

How Inclusion and Integrity Foster More Productive Conversations, Reduce Bias in a Virtual World (guidedinsights.com)

Healthy Conversations Can Bring Virtual Teams Back To Life (guidedinsights.com)

Related articles:

Make Your Employees Feel Psychologically Safe – Harvard Business School Working Knowledge (hbs.edu) – Amy Edmonson – Nov. 2018

How to Foster Psychological Safety in Virtual Meetings (hbr.org) – Amy Edmonson and Gene Daly – Aug. 2020

Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace (hbr.org) – Video with Amy Edmonson – Jan. 2019