Over the last five years, the concept of promoting “psychological safety” in teams has become more and more commonplace. And for good reason. Psychological safety has been seen to directly correlate to high-performing teams. In Googles’ groundbreaking study of their highest performing teams (published in the New York Times in 2016), they found that their best teams had two traits. First, these teams exhibited “equal turn taking.” In other words, everyone on the team was engaged in discussions, brainstorming and problem-solving. No one was sitting in the corner with their arms crossed and looking grumpy. Second, Googles’ highest performing teams had, what researchers termed, “high average social sensitivity.” This was a fancy way of saying that team members actually cared about each other. Underlying both of these behaviors is the foundation of psychological safety. When we feel psychologically safe, we drop our armor at the door and bring our whole selves to work. We feel comfortable enough to offer our opinions in conversations and to find ways to connect with our coworkers. In addition, psychological safety directly correlates to overall team chemistry, engagement, innovation and one of my favorites – speed of bad news (when we feel psychologically safe, we’ll share bad news more readily because we know we won’t get shot).
Fast forward to today. Having a psychologically safe team today is a really good thing. It helps the team to stay connected when it is separated due to virtual working guidelines. It creates a foundation for innovative problem-solving when we are dealing with the unknown or uncertain. And it creates a safe place for difficult and uncomfortable conversations like racial inequity in the workplace. We need psychologically safe teams if we are going to come out of this alternate universe that we are calling 2020, all in one piece.
So, how do you know if your team is psychologically safe… or not? I’ve had the opportunity to work with many teams across multiple functions and industries since the world went virtual and I’ve seen a few important subtle patterns emerge. Here are signs that your virtual team is NOT psychologically safe:
1. There are members of your team that do not put their camera on during virtual meetings.
This is the easiest way to determine if your team is feeling psychologically safe. If you have members of your team that seem to always have an excuse as to why they can never put their camera on (or just simply refuse), your team isn’t fully psychologically safe. “But Brandon, I only have one team member that does this. Does that mean the team is psychologically safe-ish?” No. Sorry. This is an all or nothing assessment. Googles’ findings weren’t “most team members practice equal turn-taking.” Nope. It is an all or nothing proposition. If you have one team member who refuses to put her or his camera on, you have a problem.
2. There are members of your team that use fake backdrops for their backgrounds during virtual meetings.
This one is a little more subtle. What I’ve noticed is that the team members that do not feel as psychologically safe are using fake backgrounds that are ironically very “safe.” Their backgrounds may be the logo of the organization that they work for or a generic background they picked up off of Zoom (generic beach scenes are my favorite). They aren’t letting other team members see their kitchen, their dog, or even their fourth grader with her headphones on trying to get through math class. To further highlight the importance of this simple act, consider my trust formula: Trust = (Authenticity + Vulnerability) X Credibility. Look closely as the first part of the formula: (Authenticity + Vulnerability). When we allow people into our homes, it is both an authentic display of who we are as well as a very vulnerable, personal experience. What we also know about psychological safety is that it will invite vulnerability. Do you see your teams letting you into their personal lives or are they putting on a performance for you and the rest of the team? More importantly, what are YOU doing related to this point? Are you letting your team members into your home and daily life? We model the behaviors that we want to see in others. If you are the team leader, find a comfortable place in your kitchen and get ready to run your next meeting from there. One important caveat: steer clear of any backdrops that might show your bed prominently displayed in the background. Some backdrops are a bit too intimate. I had a training session that I conducted a few months ago where, for the entire 3 hours, one of the participants laid in her bed for all of us to see. Talk about uncomfortable (for us, not for her!).
3. Team members rarely use the chat function during virtual meetings, and when they do, it is always serious.
Now we are getting into the finer points of psychological safety. You might look at this point and say to yourself, “We are here to do a job. We have no time for ‘playfulness’.” And you would be wrong. To be playful with each other is to say, in a subtle way, “I feel safe enough to engage with beyond just our work and to get to know you as a person.” During meetings, the psychologically safe teams are lighting up the chat function with not only commentary about the topic at hand, but also playful side commentary about each other. Before I go too far, let me qualify “playful.” Playful isn’t inappropriate jokes or humor directed to make fun of someone else. It is usually some form of an inside joke that the team shares or some other form of “playfulness” that is meant to remind the group of its connection. Making fun of another person is divisive. I never see this behavior in psychologically safe teams. To summarize, does your team use the chat function as not only a way to comment on the substance of the discussion but also to remind each other that they are valued, appreciated and connected in playful ways? Or do they just “stick to business?”
There you have it. Three simple yet very telling signs of psychological safety (or a lack thereof) in your virtual team. If you are the team leader, focus on points one and two. If you see a team member holding back, check-in with her or him and ask what you can do to make them feel more comfortable. Practice modeling authenticity and vulnerability in your meetings and get comfortable sharing more of your home life in the background. If you nurture these two points, you should start to see the third point emerge on its own. Before long, you’ll start to see the group tease you about your messy kitchen counters and how you always wear the same outfit on Tuesdays. Just remember, it means they like you.