It’s not always easy to be an effective leader when your team is based in different places and/or different time zones. That’s why managers are using a technique known as ‘psychological safety’ to help them transform how they approach their role, says business psychologist Sebastian Salicru
What’s the main challenge for managers leading remote teams? Ask them and almost all will say it’s distance between team members. Next come different locations, time zones and the mix of national and professional cultures.
These conditions do exist, but they don’t represent the main challenge faced when leading a remote team. This is actually the psychological distance that can exist between team members. And the way to prevent or overcome this critical concern is by developing something known as ‘psychological safety’.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is the shared belief held by members of a team that this team is a safe place for interpersonal risk-taking. Contrary to common wisdom, teams that are willing to discuss mistakes actually make fewer of them. This is because they learn faster and improve their performance by reducing future error rates. Team members are more likely to ask each other for help before it’s too late. They don’t need to pretend they know everything or are infallible so they look good in front of others. Pretending that you know how to do something when you actually don’t, and keeping silent when you see something suspicious or not right, is a recipe for disaster.
Imagine a young co-pilot, working for a large commercial airline, who notices that his pilot-in-command may have made a crucial mistake just before taking off on a long international flight. He’s thinking about alerting his superior but then he remembers the dismissive comments he received the last time he asked about the navigation instruments in the cockpit. Later, just under an hour after take-off, the aircraft disappears from air traffic controllers’ radar screens…
In an office, the results may be less dramatic, but they are no less significant for the business’s success. Teams operating in environments without psychological safety are motivated by fear, self-protection and managing the impression of competence.
In contrast, successful teams have a climate of openness and trust that enables them to talk freely about their mistakes. This allows them to learn more and solve problems better. In a climate of psychological safety, team members are willing to discuss errors because they realise that everyone’s voice needs to be heard if the team is to learn and succeed.
It does work. In 2012, Google conducted Project Aristotle to investigate why some Google teams shone, while others stumbled. After studying hundreds of teams to understand what makes or breaks a successful team, their research revealed the answer: psychological safety made the real difference when it comes to teamwork.
So what can you do to build psychological safety and trust in remote teams? The five techniques outlined below have been tested on several Fortune Global 500 companies, and are proven to help remote teams work better together.
Sebastian Salicru is a business psychologist promoting the practice of ‘psychological safety’ among teams
1. Break the ice
On group conference calls where people don’t know each other, start with a short icebreaker question. This will help you lead a discussion about the team’s similarities and differences related to their complementary knowledge, skill sets and strengths. For example, “John, tell us briefly about you”, or “Krishna, what would you say are your top three strengths?”
2. Choose the right technology
Success doesn’t necessarily rely on having the most up-to-date technology. Instead, it’s about using the right technology for the work in hand – particularly for conference calls. Video calls work much better than audio-only. They let the speaker see who they’re talking to and encourage other participants to be more involved in the meeting. Being able to read someone’s body language and emotions – not just their voice – is important.
3. Give everyone a chance to lead
On projects, rotate the leader/facilitator role where possible. This way each member has the opportunity to take responsibility and manage the team. This not only demonstrates and builds trust, it also invites greater participation and accountability.
4. Set up a remote buddy system
Anyone who has scuba-dived will know the importance of having a buddy to rely on. Your job is to focus on the person you’re diving with: you are responsible for them, as they are for you. At work, it’s the same thing. Link everyone with someone they can go to for support or advice. This helps employees know they have someone looking out for them. It also makes them feel valued to know that someone relies on them to do the same.
5. Celebrate people and not just their achievements
This can be a particularly useful way to promote diversity and forge understanding between different cultures. For example, ask each team member to take some photographs or a video of the city where they live. This ensures each person has an opportunity to speak about themselves or something happening in their lives.
6. Share failures and learnings
Success stories are great, but if they’re all you tell, your team will find it harder to relate to you. To build psychological safety, it’s better to share stories that show vulnerability, which is the foundation of trust. These could be stories that reveal mistakes you’ve made and what you’ve learnt from those mistakes. You could also share ‘tension’ stories about tough decisions you’ve had to make or actions you’ve had to take. This will all help to bond the team.