Psychological safety is an essential ingredient for high-performing teams: probably the single most important ingredient. But how can you build psychological safety in a remote team?

In 2016, Google did a huge piece of research into the dynamics of effective teams, called Project Aristotle. Data from more than 200 interviews was crunched using 35 statistical models on hundreds of variables.

Five factors emerged as crucial, with psychological safety topping the list.

What’s psychological safety? It’s a situation where everyone feels safe to take interpersonal risks, voice their opinions, admit mistakes and ask questions. Nobody will be punished for admitting a mistake, asking a question or offering an idea.

There’s neuroscience behind this. Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that trust is centered in the prefrontal cortex and distrust in the amygdala and limbic areas of the brain – two very different areas. We can’t connect to others if our amygdala is overactive. Fear and distrust close down our brains.

So if we want to perform well with other people, we need to feel safe.

The concept of psychological safety is based on work by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. She offers three suggestions for developing psychological safety within a team:

  • Frame the work as a learning problem
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility
  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.

I’ve worked with remote teams now for decades, and in my experience psychological safety is no less important in distributed teams than in co-located ones. You aren’t physically alongside your colleagues every day, but for effective team working you still need to feel that you won’t be punished for admitting a mistake, asking a question or offering an idea. 

And there’s nothing in Edmondson’s list that can’t be done remotely. Whether you do your team-connecting by text chat, phone or video conference, you can do her three things.

Then, you can take your team’s conversations to a deeper level. Try my ENGAGE model for that.

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