Ten Exercises to Build Psychological Safety in Global, Virtual Teams

Since the beginning of this pandemic in the spring of 2020, numbers of teams have become virtual, on and off, depending on the surges of the virus and the decisions of their respective companies and governments. Virtual teams, of course, already existed before that, but they have now become a common practice. And now that this phenomenon has become routine, many have focused on this new problem: fostering psychological safety, particularly in remote teams, because it is quite challenging to do so in such a context. Discussions on diversity and inclusivity have been all the rage in recent years (and still are, of course, as we have yet to achieve a perfectly diverse and inclusive world), but psychological safety has become a subject of interest, fueled by the unusual circumstances of this pandemic.

But what is psychological safety, exactly? It is the belief that team members have when they are comfortable enough to ask questions or contribute ideas without fear of being judged, punished (in more extreme cases losing their job), or humiliated for not knowing something or making mistakes. Wondering what the difference is between trust and psychological safety? It’s rather subtle: trust is an essential component of psychological safety, as it is defined as “the extent to which we hold expectations of others in the face of uncertainty about their motives, and yet are willing to allow ourselves to be vulnerable’ (Geraghty, 2020). It is how you view other people and how you find them predictable and how you think you can rely on them whereas psychological safety is about how others view you or rather how you think they view you.

Hirsch, Wendy: Five Questions About Psychological Safety, Answered. Science for Work, 9 October 2017, https://scienceforwork.com/blog/psychological-safety/.

But let’s get back to psychological safety. When you eliminate the fear of judgment, your team members can not only be themselves, but they will be their best selves, as they will be allowed to be innovative, creative, and agile, and most importantly, ask for help when needed. Diversity of thought is a great advantage for success (Page, 2008), and this is where psychological safety comes in: “Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, people do not fully contribute — and when they don’t, the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealized” (Reynolds and Lewis, 2018). 

Psychological safety doesn’t happen from one day to the next, though. It needs work, it requires everyone’s participation, and a profound culture change. Everyone needs to go through four stages to feel safe. According to Timothy Clark, these are inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety (Clark, 2020). Psychological safety needs work, a change of attitude and a change of culture.

Increase mistake tolerance

Based on the belief that nobody’s perfect and we all make mistakes, even if we work hard and try our best, the idea here is to change our mindset and stop viewing failures only as such but as learning opportunities. Teams with better psychological safety will not correct others for a mistake they made to put them down, they will tell them to help them. Amy Edmondson published a study in 1999 in which she coined the term “Psychological Safety.” In it, she reported conversations she had with employees she interviewed for her study. In one of those conversations, a lady told her that before her team decided to offer a better psychologically safe environment, when someone would point out a mistake she made, she would take it as a reproach and would then be on the lookout for a mistake that person would make to be able to blame her in return. After the team made psychological safety a priority and had worked on it for a while, it totally changed her perception and in turn, that changed her behavior. She reported that she viewed it then as a learning opportunity because her colleague would do it purely to help her and help the team make better products (Edmondson, 1999, p.371). Some companies have even created special events to discuss this so that not only the employee making the mistake learns from it, but the whole team (or even a larger circle) does too.

Exercise 1: Hold an Anxiety Party. 

The Google Ventures team decided to implement this because when they were created, they had a rather flat hierarchy and although they appreciated all the advantages and liberties that brought, the team found they lacked critical feedback. They came up with the idea of an Anxiety Party: they hold this type of meeting a couple of times per year, where all team members have to write a list of everything that causes them anxiety. Then, everyone shares and the other team members have to rate the level from the most to the least worrying (5 – you really need to improve in this area to 0 – I didn’t even realize this was an issue). They realized most of the time, people worried for nothing. The score generally makes people feel relieved and stop worrying about non-issues and focus on what actually needs improvement (the 5s and 4s to start with). This is a great psychological safety exercise since the issues are brought up by the people who have them and feedback is then easier to accept.

Keep your biases in check, remember Hanlon’s Razor to adopt a more positive mindset

Hanlon’s razor principle is the assumption that when something goes wrong, it is more likely accidental rather than the result of ill will, or as Hanlon wrote: “Never attribute to malice, that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Ok, well, stupidity may not be the most probable cause, since hopefully, your team is not stupid, but let’s say humans can sometimes be absent-minded, tired, distracted, overworked, etc. Simply put, when someone makes a mistake, one shouldn’t assume it was intentional. This rule of thumb will help cultivate understanding, compassion, forgiveness, and trust in your team.

Take the case of an email that gives the impression that a colleague was rude or too blunt; you can probably rightly assume that this is purely a miscommunication problem (maybe English is not their mother tongue, or the author is from a culture where things are said in a direct manner, but it isn’t meant to be offensive, or maybe you just misinterpreted things). When in doubt, clarify things in person or on a video call. The use of emojis might also help avoid tone misreadings when you are the one sending a message. Some might not be comfortable using them in a professional setting, but they really can help prevent certain types of misunderstandings. Modifying your biases and assuming good intentions in people can go a long way!

Exercise 2: Ask powerful questions. 

When you doubt someone of the wrongdoing, ask these powerful questions (From Douglas W. Hubbard, 2009, cited in Vinita Bansal, no date):

  • Why do I feel this way?
  • What data do I have to justify that the other person acted out of bad intention?
  • Are there other instances where they acted this way?
  • Have I spoken to them about it?
  • What is the probability that I am incorrect?
  • Could I be biased at the moment?
  • What other possible reasons could make them behave this way?

Make it a Habit for Everyone to Speak Up and Participate

First, team leaders need to prioritize psychological safety explicitly. Ground rules must be laid down and applied. Leaders, alongside their team, need to establish how failure is handled (no punishment for failure despite efforts, reasonable risks taken, and good faith). They should make failure an opportunity to learn and, above all, to share collectively the lessons learned thanks to failure (which will be not only a learning opportunity but also one to create a safe space for others to know that we can all admit our failures, contributing to this safe space). Finally, teams need to learn how to accept and adopt productive conflict. That is to say, having constructive discussions, allowing questioning, and accepting contesting can be done, by following certain ground rules, such as respect, listening, honesty and kindness, for everyone to feel safe doing it. Even when there is no conflict, nothing delicate to discuss, making sure every team member has to participate should become a habit. It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure everyone speaks. To do so, they might use different methods to ensure everyone gets the chance to speak. For example, one can give each a turn to speak, or when with a bigger group, use break rooms to facilitate everyone having time to speak up. Speaking up in smaller groups is also easier, less intimidating. The team must try different methods to ensure everyone gets turns speaking up.

Exercise 3: Create a space for idea sharing. 

Try creating a particular space for ideas (new, crazy, or maybe even bad ideas), whether during meetings or on a specifically dedicated Slack channel, for example. That way, people know there is at least this time or space where they are not only allowed but purposefully encouraged to brainstorm, share and contribute whatever they have on their mind, knowing this frame is meant for it and is a safe space to do so.  

Exercise 4:  Accept Silence to Give Time to Reflect. 

For everyone to have a chance to speak, people need to learn to be more comfortable with silence. For example, during Zoom meetings, participants tend to be uncomfortable when silence arises and tend to want to fill it (or hope someone else will). Doing so can prevent others in your team from speaking up. Sometimes, people simply need more time to reflect before answering or formulating their ideas before communicating them, especially non-native speakers. Some are just shy or new in the company or in that position, and don’t have the confidence yet to speak.  We all need that extra few seconds to muster up our courage to share that original idea or important concern, sometimes. Leaders have to remember that reflective silence is valuable and to purposely give time for everyone to have a chance to speak-up, even if that means letting an uncomfortable silence last longer (it’s not thaaaat painful, is it… and something might come out of it!). To avoid experiencing a more detached type of silence, you can let your team members know in advance what kind of input you are expecting from them at the next meeting a bit in advance.

Exercise 5: Value diverse perspectives. 

Diversity of ideas and perspectives is a major factor in creative and innovative thinking. It is one of the important factors to success (Page, 2017, 2:45). To encourage this, ask everyone to play the devil’s advocate alternately. That way, people have to think differently, and it takes away the risk (real or perceived) that the rest of the team will judge them for having different, crazy, or “negative” ideas or points of view, a point of view that could help your team solve problems and even foresee them, before they become one. This strategy using a cooperative approach instead of a competitive one, will be more effective to advance the reflection on the problem discussed (e.g. your product has a bug and you need to find a solution) and will help develop respectful debate habits simultaneously (Menzies, 2018).

Exercise 6: Promote courageous conversations. 

Sometimes a product or a project is just not as good as it could be. But team members don’t always dare say so, even if they can put the finger on what the problem might be. You can pave the road to openness by having sessions, specifically for any critiques or frustrations anyone may have with a product/project, without fear of negative consequences. Everyone must listen without interrupting. After this, everyone has to offer solutions to the problem

Exercise 7: Hold a blameless post-mortem.  

Another way to promote difficult conversations is having blameless post-mortems. The goal here is not to find out who made mistakes but what could be changed in the processes to avoid those mistakes being made in the future and improve performance. This method prompts team collaboration. If you are looking for more exercises and methods to promote courageous conversations or support psychological safety in other ways, have a look at this great article from Fearless Culture.

Exercise 8: Apply the method of “liberating structures”. 

This method was developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless to enable everyone’s participation in large groups. During a meeting, to ensure everyone’s input on a specific matter, first ask everyone to reflect and take notes on the question/problem at hand for one minute. Then, everyone must regroup in pairs and discuss for two minutes, then for four minutes in groups of four (matching previously existing pairs), before finally discussing the matter with the whole group. The advantage here is that all have a chance to offer their ideas. It is less intimidating to do in small groups. Also, while still in smaller groups of 2 and 4, ideas can already be compared, reflected upon, the best can be chosen to be discussed at the next level, before they are brought up in front of the whole group. There is admittedly a very limited time for feedback, but an idea can be discussed further if it wasn’t bad enough to be eliminated at the end of a round. It nonetheless enables the improvement of the ideas before they are discussed at a higher level. This type of structure also helps avoid control or influence of the boss on the discussion, leading to a more restricted discussion and what is practical and effective, is that this structure drives the discussion to convergence.

Exercise 9Encourage impromptu conversations to build trust. 

Needless to say, in a virtual team, psychological safety is even more of a challenge to uphold.  Because trust is usually established through time and interactions, virtual teams do not have many interactions outside the scheduled meetings. Those team members don’t have the opportunity to have spontaneous, “non-business” conversations. This is why it is vital for those teams to create opportunities for such social contact. These casual conversations can foster better bonding and better relationships, which in turn facilitate communication and improve psychological safety.

For example, some might want to have different types of calls or communications, namely having a “good morning” call or (message for the whole team on a Slack channel) to start the day with a more casual conversation. Bigger organizations might want to have a dedicated video call open for anyone to drop in and chat as if they were on their coffee break. 

Exercise 10: Read body language and facial expressions.

One might think that virtual teams are at a disadvantage because it is so much more challenging to establish trust with so little contact and through a screen, and it is not entirely false, but there can be some advantages too. Online social contacts through video calls can be an opportunity to really try to understand the person talking on the screen and read their tone, body language, and facial expressions to feel what they might be feeling. It also might be easier for some people to intently look at their colleagues through a screen as they usually (hear in person) wouldn’t dare or be comfortable doing it so attentively. Indeed, as Altman underlined, “[i]n many cultures, it can be awkward to stare at someone for 30 seconds or certainly minutes at a time. But on Zoom, no one knows who you’re looking at, and your ability to apply your emotional intelligence can sometimes be enhanced.” Not only can it be helpful for employees who grew up in a culture where one can’t look directly in someone’s eyes for too long, but also for some neuroatypical people who are not comfortable doing it either. 

Take your time!

One might think that virtual teams are at a disadvantage because it is so much more challenging to establish trust with so little contact and through a screen, and it is not entirely false, but there can be some advantages too. Online social contacts through video calls can be an opportunity to really try to understand the person talking on the screen and read their tone, body language, and facial expressions to feel what they might be feeling. It also might be easier for some people to intently look at their colleagues through a screen as they usually (hear in person) wouldn’t dare or be comfortable doing it so attentively. Indeed, as Altman underlined, “[i]n many cultures, it can be awkward to stare at someone for 30 seconds or certainly minutes at a time. But on Zoom, no one knows who you’re looking at, and your ability to apply your emotional intelligence can sometimes be enhanced.” Not only can it be helpful for employees who grew up in a culture where one can’t look directly in someone’s eyes for too long, but also for some neuroatypical people who are not comfortable doing it either.

Psychological safety is not something that is built overnight. Actually, “build” is not quite the right idea here, as psychological safety is not something you can ever 100% achieve and be done with. There will always be new people joining the team, setbacks, phases so that it will always remain a work in progress. It has to be the object of constant attention and perpetual efforts. All of this seems like a lot of work, and it is. But shifting your mindset to a more understanding and caring attitude is half the job. And since psychological safety was proven to make employees happier and perform better, it’s probably one of the most profitable changes you can bring to your work. It’s a win-win!

About the Author

Anne-Kristelle Carrier has an MA in International Politics. She has been living in Switzerland since 2010 and works as a Content Editor for Global People Transitions Ltd. in Zurich. When she is not working, bringing her kids to all their activities, or trying to cook something that they will eat (that doesn’t start with “chicken” and ends with “nuggets”), she enjoys everything Switzerland has to offer to residents and tourists alike, like ski slopes, Wanderwege, and museums.

References

Bansal, Vinita, (no date), Hanlon’s Razor: ‘How To Be Less Judgmental And Build Better Relationships,’ TechTello. Available at: https://www.techtello.com/hanlons-razor/ (accessed on 3 February 2022).

Clark, Timothy. The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, 2020, Random House, New York.

Edmondson, Amy. Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jun., 1999), pp. 350-383. (Available online at https://web.mit.edu/curhan/www/docs/Articles/15341_Readings/Group_Performance/Edmondson%20Psychological%20safety.pdf)

Geraghty, Tom, The Difference Between Trust and Psychological Safety, 16 November 2020, https://www.psychsafety.co.uk/the-difference-between-trust-and-psychological-safety/

Hubbard, Douglas W., Failure of Risk Management, 2009, Hoboken (New Jersey).

Hirsch, Wendy. Five Questions About Psychological Safety, Answered. Science for Work, 9 October 2017, https://scienceforwork.com/blog/psychological-safety/.

Lipmanowicz, Henri and Keith McCandless, Liberating Structure 1: 1-2-4-All. https://www.liberatingstructures.com/1-1-2-4-all/, retrieved 15, January 2022.

Menzies, Felicity. How to Develop Psychological Safety and a Speak-Up Culture.   https://cultureplusconsulting.com/2018/03/10/how-to-develop-psychological-safety/, retrieved 4 January 2022.

Page, Scott E.Diversity creates bonuses. It’s not just a nice thing to do.LinkedIn News Youtube channel, retrieved 10 January 2022.

Page, Scott E. (2008) The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies

Razetti, Gustavo, 9 Exercises to Promote Psychological Safety in Your Organization, How to Encourage Courageous Conversations at the Workplace. https://www.fearlessculture.design/blog-posts/exercises-to-promote-psychological-safety-in-your-organization

Reynolds, A. and Lewis, D., The Two Traits of the Best Problem Solving Teams, Harvard Business Review, 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/04/the-two-traits-of-the-best-problem-solving-teams.

https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/creating-a-high-trust-performance-culture/

Paul J. Zak is the author of Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies.

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