The first of my articles this month explores the psychological safety element of my “leading hybrid teams” model.
This model highlights the areas in which leadership competency needs to be elevated to successfully lead high-performing hybrid teams.
It’s unlikely that you haven’t heard of the term “psychological safety.” It has become a business buzzword, and like many buzzwords, it can lose its meaning over time. Psychological safety is more important now that we have hybrid teams, but before I explore that I want to make sure we are on the same page in regard to what it is.
Dr. Amy Edmonson, a Harvard Business School professor and behavioral scientist, introduced the construct back in 1999 when she published an influential paper on the subject. She defined it as:
“A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
Her studies found that teams that made more mistakes actually were more successful than others. This was because they created an environment in which people felt comfortable in taking risks, which is key to fostering innovation in the workplace.
The same outcome was discovered in a multi-year study by Google that commenced in 2012 called Project Aristotle. The goal was to answer the question: “What makes a team effective at Google?”
The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. Psychological safety was top of the list meaning that team members felt safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
The hybrid manifestation
How would psychological safety manifest itself in a hybrid team? Here is a good example from Hubspot’s Remote Work and Inclusion Program Manager Meaghan Williams.
“Imagine you’re the only remote employee on an otherwise co-located team. It’s time for the weekly team meeting and you’re Zoomed in as a giant face on the screen while the rest of your teammates sit together around a conference room table. A topic of debate emerges from the team conversation and, for the first time, you decide to be the voice of dissent amongst your team members.
Time flies by, the meeting ends, your teammates walk out of the room, and you log off the Zoom to get back to your workday. But, instead of feeling panicked that everyone is talking about what you said as they walk back to their desks, you return to your work day, feeling confident in your ability to trust that your team members understand and appreciate your view – even if it wasn’t in line with theirs.
This feeling is what we call ‘psychological safety’ and it’s something we take very seriously at HubSpot.”
Psychological safety is important, but even more so in a hybrid environment as illustrated in this example.
Time and effort
Psychological safety takes time to create and effort to maintain. The foundation of psychological safety is trust, which as the saying goes, is hard to build but easy to lose.
Psychological safety is demonstrated through mutual respect, shared values, interpersonal skills, inclusivity and equity,
As a leader, it’s much easier to observe these behaviors when everyone is co-located, and to positively reinforce the behaviors you want to see more of and actively discourage the behaviors that diminish psychological safety.
When your team is distributed, these behaviors are less visible. There needs to be acknowledgement that creating an environment of psychological safety will take longer in a hybrid environment and require more effort to maintain.
Creating psychological safety must be intentional and you must get buy-in from all team members. The leader is often tasked with the responsibility of creating an inclusive environment and building psychological safety within the team, but it can’t be up to you alone. Especially in a hybrid team, everyone needs to be held responsible for recognizing the right behaviors and calling out those that contradict the team values. Your team must be your eyes and ears in a hybrid environment.
Psychological safety means that everyone is included and everyone is treated equally. Every person’s voice is valued and their ideas will be welcomed and heard.
A challenge of hybrid working is maintaining a level playing field regardless of where people are working. When your teams are working in different locations, they may have varying levels of autonomy, access to technology and access to you as their leader, which can lead to feelings of exclusivity and inequality. This must be avoided at all costs in your hybrid team. Everyone must be treated equally, included, respected, valued and trusted, regardless of their location if psychological safety is to be maintained.
The hybrid shift
Amy Edmondson and Mark Mortensen, writing for Harvard Business Review, describe how the new forms of work affect psychological safety.
“When it comes to psychological safety, managers have traditionally focused on enabling candor and dissent with respect to work content. The problem is, as the boundary between work and life becomes increasingly blurry, managers must make staffing, scheduling, and coordination decisions that take into account employees’ personal circumstances — a categorically different domain.”
The shift is that before remote working and hybrid teams, we approached discussions about “work” and “non-work” as separate and we could keep clear of the latter. During the pandemic, leaders have found they have had to discuss topics such as childcare arrangements, home-working environments, health-risk concerns and challenges faced by other members of the household.
Even after the pandemic ends, this will not stop. As a leader, you can’t manage a distributed team without access to the data that allows you to effectively schedule and coordinate the team activities. The challenge is that seeking access to often personal data can carry risks and legal implications and invade employee privacy.
The solution is to create an environment of psychological safety in which your employees feel safe to share information about their personal situation relevant to their work that allows for effective management.
As Amy Edmonson and Mark Mortensen stated in the HBR article:
“Management’s responsibility is to expand the domain of which work-life issues are safe to raise. Psychological safety is needed today to enable productive conversations in new, challenging (and potentially fraught) territory.”
There are five steps I suggested to create psychological safety for your hybrid team.
1. Set the scene
Speak openly with your team about the change hybrid working has brought and the challenges both you and the team may face. Honesty and transparency will be key.
2. Lead the way
Share your own challenges and constraints. Be vulnerable. If you go first, others will follow.
3. Take baby steps
It will take time for your employees to share their most personal and risky challenges. It will take time to build trust in this new environment.
4. Share positive examples
Explain how increased transparency and collaboration has enabled better solutions for the team and employees. This will encourage sharing of challenges and needs.
5. Be a watchdog
Be vigilant and push back when you notice comments or behaviors that diminish the inclusivity and equity of team members based on their location.
As I have said in many of my articles, leading the hybrid team is uncharted territory, and there is no roadmap. Traverse the terrain as a team, embracing setbacks as learning opportunities and celebrating along the way. Building and maintaining psychological safety is a work in progress that starts with conversations promoting trust and transparency. It’s a journey of constant learning.