Meeting your team’s psychological safety needs in the time of Covid-19

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Meeting your team’s psychological safety needs in the time of Covid-19


Coach Tammy Turner speaks eloquently about trust and psychological safety in teams. In short, trust is measured by – and exists between – individuals, with one person giving the other the benefit of the doubt. Psychological safety is a team construct, which measures if it’s OK to share and make mistakes, without fear of recrimination, and gives each of us, as team members, the benefit of the doubt in making our contribution.

With teams currently working remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, informal opportunities to speak to a colleague or a manager about our concerns or mistakes might be lost and we might find ourselves having to announce those reservations or errors on a larger stage.

What’s more, the stakes are higher if people don’t feel able to speak out, because it might take longer for mistakes to be identified. So, if we are to create (or preserve) an environment in which each team member feels confident in getting it wrong, there is work to do. We need to celebrate behavioral diversity and recognise the challenges where some are contributing in a different way to others.

“Psychological safety is not nearly as complicated as it may sound. After all, it’s really about truly making a team come together as one and putting forth an environment that sets up everyone for success.” – Forbes

There are practical steps you can take to build psychological safety into your team’s everyday interactions. When working virtually, these steps need to be more conscious; more at the forefront of our processes. Right now, psychological safety is needed more than ever.

  1. Treat others as they’d like to be treated, not as you would.

Our default can be to work and interact on our own terms, but our own behavioral styles don’t sit well with everyone. We need to learn how others communicate, learn, interrelate and contribute to a team in order to understand how best to approach and work with them.

As a manager, we need time to explore the differences within our team, and we need to learn how best to communicate with them in this new and, for some, uncomfortable situation. From a coaching perspective, we should start by asking how self-aware the manager is. Do they understand the way they are coming across to others, and has this changed now they are working in a virtual environment? Now would be a great opportunity to ask for feedback from the team.

What we do want to promote is authenticity – if the team think that the manager is trying to be something they’re not, respect may be lost.

  1. Encourage mistakes.

Organisations have long tried to eliminate the language of weakness from industry, because it can be a difficult subject-matter. But, too often, the result is a blame culture, or one where mistakes are brushed under the carpet. How can we encourage a blame-free culture? Do you have a framework that everyone understands to talk about weakness?

Whilst working remotely, it can be easier to ‘disengage’ when things get uncomfortable. The manager needs to think about how a culture of openness and a blame free environment can be maintained.

  1. But keep accountability.

Whilst it should be OK to make mistakes without fear of blame, this doesn’t mean tolerating loose cannons who undermine the team’s efforts. Team members still need structure, purpose and boundaries.

Is now a good time to look at the way different team members prefer to communicate? Should the team always communicate via Zoom, or should there be other networks – remember the phone is still there.

  1. Encourage conflict.

Richard J. Hackman’s study found that disagreements were good for a team, so long as they were handled in the right way. Whilst it might be tempting to work with others who take a similar approach to our own, behavioral diversity offers a better outcome, since important factors for success are less likely to be missed. At each stage, consider which contributions the project requires, not which selections will make for a quiet life.

  1. Allow creativity to flourish.

Some team members need space to explore new, left-field ideas and even to present incomplete work, without being too constricted. Providing they have the team’s brief in mind, they should be given this space. This might mean restricting the influence of other team members (until these ideas have had a chance to blossom).

  1. Promote honest, constructive feedback.

Leaders need to lead from the front by showing vulnerability, and accepting and acting upon feedback, where necessary. This example of growth reverberates throughout the team, letting others know that they can accept and what they should take on board as constructive feedback.

Should feedback be just for the leader/manager? Now is the perfect time for the whole team to tale a ‘health check’. How can the manager encourage feedback between team members?

  1. As a leader, balance the needs for guidance and autonomy.

Each team member needs something different from their leader. Some need work delegated in detailed, specific terms. Others will resent intrusion and seek to be left to their own devices.

Understanding your leadership style gives you the tools to meet your team members’ individual needs and help them reach their full potential.



Questions :

  1. Are you seeing a decrease in psychological safety? How is this manifesting itself?
  2. What practical steps can we undertake to address the need for psychological safety whilst working from home?
  3. How important do you think it is for managers of teams to be aware of the trust within the team?
  4. What advice can we give to managers and team members right now?

Victoria Brown is the Head of Research & Development at Belbin. After graduating from the University of Cambridge, Victoria joined the Belbin team in 2006. She is passionate about delivering the data, insights and analysis which help spread the Belbin message to individuals and teams worldwide.

Jo Keeler leads strategic and operational activities building the global Belbin brand – the well-known theory and tool that helps individuals and teams reach their potential in the workplace. Jo is also an international speaker, presenting research and findings on most team related subjects.