Originally published in Forbes
Creating psychological safety is a foundational step in cultivating a high-performing team culture. Dr. Amy Edmondson, a pioneer of the concept of psychological safety, characterizes this term as a “climate of openness” where team members feel comfortable sharing ideas, admitting mistakes and challenging the status quo. When this kind of safety exists in the workplace, you can imagine that there is room for growth, for innovation and for teams to thrive collaboratively.
In a hybrid work environment, there are clear challenges to creating psychological safety. Hybrid teams don’t have the direct access to one another that in-person teams do. Without as much day-to-day communication, opportunity for calibration and relational comfortability, psychological safety can be harder to build. If you want to foster an innovative, high-performing culture within a part virtual, part in-person team that’s threatened by distance and abnormal communication patterns, you have to be proactive.
Below are four ways leaders can create psychological safety in a hybrid work environment.
1. Create socialization opportunities.
To foster an environment of trust and safety in the hybrid workspace, you must be purposeful about socialization by providing intentional opportunities for your team members to be heard and seen for who they are as people.
In person, you have the opportunity for quick hallway conversations, personal catch-ups in the elevator and other unplanned, yet relationship-fostering interactions. The lack of these human-to-human interactions in a hybrid environment can create a disconnect between people, sabotaging their ability to feel safe with one another.
To create space for these kinds of connections, try:
• Baking in five extra minutes into each hybrid team meeting for catching up
• Implementing regular out-of-work hangouts such as happy hours or team dinners
• Intentionally checking in on remote (and in-person) team members just to see how they are doing
Simply providing an opportunity for your team members to be heard and seen can positively contribute to the collective sense of psychological safety.
2. Communicate effectively.
To promote psychological safety, communication must be a top priority. Only when employees feel heard and included will they feel confident enough to speak up, ask questions and provide valuable knowledge that can propel performance forward.
For remote workers, communication can be especially challenging and with the physical disconnect, they may even experience feelings of paranoia. They may start to read into things that aren’t there or feel that they aren’t doing well enough — that their job may be at risk. There are a few ways to combat this hybrid environment communication challenge. Try:
• Setting clear expectations for timelines, goals and benchmarks for remote and in-person employees alike
• Offering regular employee feedback (positive and negative) to cultivate a sense of security and confidence
• Conducting team calibration by doing regular project check-ins to help eliminate the chance of miscommunication and allow for course correction on the spot
3. Model receptivity to feedback.
Feedback can be a touchy subject, especially for those you don’t often see in person. Working remotely may make receiving feedback from one’s leader seem like a bigger deal than it actually is. To normalize receiving feedback, it should first and foremost be modeled by leaders.
As a leader, recognizing when you’ve made a mistake, asking for productive feedback and implementing that feedback will go a long way in showing your team that you’re serious about creating psychological safety. Because psychological safety is largely about how people are treated when things go wrong, taking responsibility for your own mistakes and showing that it’s acceptable to do so will set the expectation for how your team should react to their own mistakes. This can dismantle the fear of making mistakes and normalize accepting feedback.
4. Practice your awareness.
When leaders are under too much pressure, this threat can trigger the fight or flight reflex resulting in poorly reacting to situations, assigning blame or transferring stress to others. If these responses are occurring frequently, psychological safety cannot thrive. Leaders must be able to slow down enough to become aware of how their stress may be entering a conversation and how their team’s stress is being communicated.
When you’re talking to an employee, pay attention to the effects of your actions, words and non-verbal cues. Observe their body language to determine in the moment if what you are saying is being well received. This may be harder to do with remote employees, but doing regular video check-ins rather than phone calls can help you read their reactions much better.
The challenging part about creating a psychologically safe work environment is that once it exists, it needs to be actively maintained, otherwise it will be short-lived. That’s why, in order to maintain psychological safety in a hybrid work environment, you need to recognize and own when there has been a breach in psychological safety. Seek to understand and apologize for any part you may have played in violating it, and actively work to reestablish it. It won’t be a perfect journey but being open and honest along the way will only reinforce your desire to create a safe environment for your hybrid team.