Project Management

How Leaders Can Foster Psychological Safety in a Remote Work Environment

9 Jun 2022
Dave Garrett
Now in its third year, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc with many return-to-the-workplace plans. As organizations continue to work remotely, it’s more important than ever to foster and maintain a psychologically safe work environment. Dave Garrett explains why that’s the case and what you can do about it.

two men and a woman in business casual clothes chatting in a modern officeOne of the challenges leaders have had to face during the COVID-19 pandemic is how to maintain a psychologically safe work environment while we continue to work remotely. 

The term, “psychological safety” was first coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in 1999 highlighting the fact that people and teams do their best work when they feel comfortable being themselves on the job. Edmondson herself defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” 

While the term, “psychological safety,” may have been coined in academia, its implications are far from academic. Psychological safety, I believe, is a foundational concept in organizational culture and in life in general. Without it, there is no trust. Without trust, there is no “team.” And without teams, well, there is no meaningful change in the world.  

People who feel psychologically unsafe are afraid to ask questions or speak their minds. They’re reluctant to contribute ideas. And they’re unwilling to act boldly or give that extra bit of discretionary effort for fear of making a mistake and being subjected to ridicule or blame. And they certainly don’t feel that sense of belonging that we are all trying to create as part of our DE&I efforts. 

Recent studies have made the importance of these concerns tangible, showing that a lack of psychological safety in many workplaces has clearly contributed to the Great Resignation. The 2021 People Management Report reports that team members who feel psychologically safe at work are less likely to leave their jobs. Sadly, a meager three in 10 U.S. workers in Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report strongly agree that their opinions at work count. So feeling safe enough to perform well is a basic requirement for each of us, but really hard to come by.   

The organizational benefits of creating a psychologically safe work environment are the mirror image of these issues. Psychologically safe organizations experience less turnover. Their workers are likely to be more engaged and collaborative and to do better work. And they are likely to be more diverse and inclusive. Indeed, it’s fair to say that a truly inclusive workplace can’t exist in the absence of psychological safety.  

Researchers say that creating a psychologically safe work environment proceeds in four stages: 

  • Stage 1 is inclusion safety. It addresses our basic human need to belong and allows us to feel safe bringing our authentic selves to work. 
  • Stage 2 is learner safety. It satisfies the need to learn and grow and allows us to feel safe asking questions, exploring ideas, and engaging in active learning. 
  • Stage 3 is contributor safety. It addresses the need to make a difference. It allows us to bring our skills to the job and contribute ideas and suggestions. 
  • Stage 4 is challenger safety. It satisfies the need to make things better and allows us to challenge the status quo and to help drive change and improvements.

Supporting employees through these four stages has been made infinitely more difficult during the pandemic. It’s obviously much harder to gauge another person’s emotional state or read their body language on a Zoom call, and remote working doesn’t lend itself to the small, informal interactions that allow you to get to know your co-workers on a more personal level. It’s particularly tough on new employees who may never have had the benefit of meeting face-to-face with colleagues. 

So, how can project leaders foster psychological safety among their teams and embed it in team and organizational culture? To my mind, it comes down to two things: visibility and connectedness—of people and the work. 

As leaders, we need to make sure that our people are visible. That means encouraging team members to speak up at meetings and asking them to raise questions or concerns. It means making yourself visible to employees—letting them see your humanity and, yes, occasional vulnerabilities. And it means modeling the behaviors you want to see in employees—curiosity, active engagement, inclusiveness and “power skills” like empathy and collaborative leadership.   

Making the work more visible can also contribute to psychological safety. It helps connect people to a project’s goals and the desired outcomes rather than mere outputs. And it fosters greater teamwork and accountability as everyone sees where the work stands and what everyone else is doing.  

Making work more visible is, of course, a central tenet of agile ways of working and contributes to greater connectedness. As noted, it helps people feel more connected to the work, while the dashboards used to summarize work status can also serve as an important communication device.  

Open, transparent communication is imperative to creating a psychologically safe work environment. That starts with active listening, asking for feedback and showing respect for the opinions and ideas of others. It involves fostering open conversations and establishing clear guidelines around team debate and giving constructive criticism. And it requires a bias for over-communication, perhaps with a lean towards “over-listening”—reaching out to team members individually and collectively through a variety of communications channels. That includes building time into weekly meetings to socialize, allowing team members to share their personal stories and get to know each other better.  

Psychological safety is a powerful force. “Safety,” after all, is a foundational element in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. And we shouldn’t view it as a gauzy concept that’s just about interpersonal harmony. Indeed, Edmondson herself draws a straight line between psychological safety and business performance. “Senior executives,” she says, “buy into the importance of psychological safety when they appreciate its role in solving complex problems.” 

We’re facing one of those complex challenges now—as our return-to-workplace plans continue to be whipsawed by the long tail of COVID-19 and its many mutations. In this environment, we can’t afford not to prioritize psychological safety and make it a cornerstone of organizational culture.

Dave Garrett Dave Garrett

As Chief Strategy and Growth Officer, Dave will craft and drive the execution of the PMI strategy to create a clear growth path. He works across the organization to define, test, and deliver "new products that matter," to deliver dramatic increases in value to our customers. He is charged with assisting PMI to build teams that are aligned and integrated seamlessly across the organization. Dave will continue to be responsible for mergers, acquisitions, and strategic sourcing partners for PMI to address the emerging new work ecosystem.