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8th January 2021 David Webster

Psychological Safety: The Virtual Threat

In 2012 Google initiated ‘Project Aristotle’. The project aimed to determine why some teams succeeded and others failed. This is a fascinating study, in part because of the might of Google’s analytical ability and the inclusion by project lead, Julia Rosovky, of some of best academics in the field. The subsequent report shared in such an august publication as the New York Times, matched a fundamental finding of the research on teams championed by the very brilliant Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School.

Google concluded that “of the five key dynamics of effective teams that researchers identified, psychological safety was by far the most important. The Google researchers found that individuals and teams with higher psychological safety are “less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they are rated as effective twice as often by executives”.

Psychological safety is “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” (Edmondson 1999). In a team is means people are “comfortable being themselves”. As so many established ideas from psychological research, it makes perfect sense after the research confirms it.

Its virtual but real, even when you are working virtually.

Psychological safety is of course not the same as physical safety – the absence of either can, however, trigger a very similar individual response. This is especially important when so many teams are working in far flung corners of the universe. If you don’t feel safe you tighten up, quieten down, become somebody else, hide, pull the duvet over your head, or conversely come out fighting in anticipation of threat. For a work team this is toxic. Good ideas remain unheard, bad news is buried, accountability is evaded, unhelpful conflict flares as the blame (and anxiety) tries to find a home.

What can leaders do in a virtual world to foster psychological safety?

In a recent Harvard Business Review article (August 2020) Edmondson and Daley propose some simple solutions to ensure that psychological safety continues to be fostered in a virtual world:

  1. Using the features within the tech is a useful way to engender involvement: deploying anonymous polls to bring to the surface differences of opinion or experience is very helpful; encouraging ‘chat’ brevity in the written comments boxes stimulates variety of thinking; use of breakout rooms encourages more ‘local’ conversations where introverts in particular may feel more able to share; occasionally using ‘audio only’ to limits the sense of personal exposure which may be involved in the videoconference.
  2. Before meetings: Stay in touch with individuals within the team before the meeting – discuss the issues that will be raised in the meeting, sharing opinions, sounding people out, asking about their personal experience of the current situation, all are invaluable to stimulate a sense of safety in anticipation of the meeting – the more that individuals feel they will be heard and even supported the more they are likely to share with others when the time comes. Enquiring as to personal situations and experiences – how people are feeling and what they are thinking about continued ‘virtualness’ – is a must. Without this, individuals can drift and become disconnected, their sense of belonging to the team declines.
  3. After meetings: follow-up with team members, particularly those who were quieter or whom you sense may have been holding back. Enquiring as to their state of mind as well as their experience of the team and the direction in which it is going is also helpful. The more this occurs, the more they will feel they can share and trust in the discretion of their colleagues.

So, some simple ideas from leading research and practice and supported by tech Goliaths of our age.

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