Psychological Safety and the virtual balancing act; consult, supportthen challenge

As we continue to run leadership development programmes for our clients operating in this blended world of virtual and office based working, one theme has become abundantly clear; the pressure for leaders to operate with even more consistency, awareness, and skill to ensure their teams are able to deliver while working away from one another.  

Linked with this is an area that’s become even more paramount in our coaching and team work recently – the notion of ‘psychological safety’.  

“Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career (Kahn 1990, p. 708). It can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected”  Source

The correlation between psychological safety and high team performance is well known in the world of leadership and team development; when teams feel comfortable asking for help or being able to challenge and share suggestions, the outputs tend to be a healthier, happier workplace with greater levels of innovation, an ability to manage change more effectively and increased diversity of thoughtAll of which are more important than ever at the moment.  Plus, with dedication and commitment from leaders psychological safety can be quite straightforward to measure. Sounds simple, right? Well, not quite.  

Virtual environments and psychological safety

It goes without saying that virtual working is beneficial on so many levels, but with the pros of more autonomous working practices come the somewhat inevitable impacts on psychological safety and, in turn, team performance. 

For example, it is most likely that all of us have experienced at least one of the following in the last year when working remotely as part of a team  

  • Disconnected or isolated in some way  
  • Unable to read someone’s tone during a meeting  
  • Not sure when or how to challenge  
  • Unsure of how something has landed 
  • A fear of underperforming or being seen to fail   
  • A feeling of discontent or frustration with individual or team performance  

If not, then we salute you and your organisation!  

How can psychological safety help remedy some of these common virtual challenges?

In short, positivity gets you everywhere. A global study conducted by McKinsey during the pandemic indicated that a positive team climate is the most important driver of psychological safety. And the mosexpedient and impactful way to foster this environment is through your leadership style…

‘…the highest likelihood of psychological safety occurs when a team leader first creates a positive team climate, through frequent supportive and consultative actions, and then challenges their team…’ 

Psychological safety and leadership development | McKinsey

So, consider the following questions to get you thinking around your role as leader… 

  • Am I creating a positive team climate? And if not what could I do differently? 
  • How might my style of leadership impact positive engagement? And how can I flex my style when I need to dial up the positive engagement? 

McKinsey suggests that that the combination of consultative and supporting leadership styles create the right conditions for psychological safety. Couple this with a challenging style and you have a winning combination where employees are more likely to feel supported and challenged in equal measure, aka ‘the learning zone’.   

Source: Psychological safety and leadership development | McKinsey

Your own development journey

In theory, this all sounds marvellous but of course in practice it can be a far more difficult journey to navigate as leader. A good starting point if you’re looking to up the ante in terms of psychological safety is to start by recognising and celebrating your team’s diversity. Team members who are accepted for who they are and are valued for what they bring to the team will thrive even in the most challenging of times. 

As Richard Boyatzis (Professor, Case Western Reserve Universityputs it:  

“We can’t be positively infectious with others unless we’re feeling inspired and sustained ourselves first. That’s what leaders managing high-stress positions need to do, to take care of themselves and to then involve and take care of others”.