How To Build Psychological Safety In Distributed Teams

Psychological safety is a vitally important ingredient for high-performing teams, whether they’re co-located or distributed around the world. And it may be an especially important piece for distributed teams.

In a psychologically safe situation, 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. That’s the kind of context you need for the kind of creative conversations that solve complex problems and lead to disruptive innovation. And enjoy being part of it, too.

The internet’s full of tips for creating psychological safety in your team. Here are some from Forbes, for example.

Clearly it is possible to do, because there are many high-performing distributed teams out there, producing amazing stuff.

But how do these tips apply when your team’s remote? How can you “encourage generative dialogue” or “embrace radical candour” when half the team’s in India, half in eastern Europe, and you’re in London?

The first step is to pay attention. Guiding your attention towards the challenge of developing psychological safety in a distributed team is the first step towards changing things.

Specifically, I recommend you pay attention to the quality of the conversations/interactions within the team. Here are the absolute basics:

  • Are you actually talking to each other? If all (or most) of your interaction happens in writing, developing psychological safety may be tricky. It’s remarkably easy to misunderstand the emotional tone of an email or instant message. Shift conversations to “live” wherever you can.
  • When you talk, can you hear and see each other clearly? One-person-one-laptop, with headsets, video cameras and decent videoconferencing software such as Zoom?
  • With these elements in place, you can start to get to know one another. Build informal time into your online meetings, and make good use of the few minutes while everyone gets organised on a scheduled call. Schedule “virtual coffees” one-to-one or in very small groups.

Beyond these basics is where it gets interesting, for me! For example, I love to teach team members high-quality dialogue skills, so that they more often listen in a way that helps their colleagues to think; carefully guide the team’s attention with questions that spark specific kinds of thinking; and speak up in ways that influence others profoundly.

These skills aren’t exclusively useful for distributed teams – they can benefit anyone. They aren’t just useful for building psychological safety – you can use them to increase the quality of any dialogue.

But when distributed teams do use them to increase the quality of their conversations, and specifically to build psychological safety, they make an enormous difference. Teams start to fly, without the need to fly around the world!

5 thoughts on “How To Build Psychological Safety In Distributed Teams”

  1. Michele Fisher

    Yes we are seeing more remote teams tackling essential challenges.
    I would add being mindful and respectful of what time it is in the different locations and how that might be affecting some to “mentally show up”

  2. Great post Judy. I am currently working with a team based in England / US / Canada / India. We have two separate stand-ups so we can create some overlap with each other. We also start those stand ups with telling a joke. Being mindful and respectful of the time zones and having fun together really helps to build the safety.

    (aka The Naked Scrum Master)

  3. Ideally, people listen so others can speak with candor, insight, and dignity. “I love you,” “I have an idea,” “These are my real concerns,” “I’ve been diagnosed,” are all difficult things to say. You have to know how to listen if you actually want people to come to you and enjoy talking to you.

  4. I very much resonate with that quote Marc: “You have to know how to listen if you actually want people to come to you and enjoy talking to you.” 🙂

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