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7 steps to build a psychologically safe organizational culture  – also remote! 

Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte
Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte
7 steps to build a psychologically safe organizational culture  – also remote! 

Psychological safety and emotional climate management have become a topic of conversation in many organizations. This is based on a series of studies that consistently highlight the impact of the emotional climate on the well-being, ability to innovate, and performance of employees and teams.

With the pandemic, remote working has become a common or even permanent form of work in many organizations. New employees have taken up their duties completely from distance, without ever meeting their colleagues physically, but also many older employees have been alienated from their work communities. The all-time wave of resignations is currently visible and ongoing. According to a recent study by McKinsey, it seems to be an emergency call from employees who are missing the feeling of meaningful work, a sense of belonging, and meaningful interaction.

Of course, there is a lot of good at remote working. It brings freedom and flexibility, increases work efficiency in some respects, accelerates the introduction of new collaborative technologies, and makes both workers and employers think more critically about the need to travel for different purposes. To maintain the sense of belonging, open dialogue, trust, and innovation while working from distance, it is critical to think of new ways to do it.

Psychological safety means a kind of work culture, in which individuals feel they can be themselves, bring out their thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and feel that others are genuinely interested in them. In a psychologically safe organizational culture, people can also talk openly about failures and mistakes, as colleagues are positive about each other and focus on learning together instead of pointing a finger. But how can such a culture be concretely promoted in a remote working environment? In this post, we’ve put together a few tips to help you promote a psychologically safe work environment today.

Cultural change is demanding, but each small step counts!

Cultural change is not just a matter of top management, but anyone leading a team or meetings can make a big difference in forming a psychologically safe culture in their team and meetings. Here are some tips for that:

1. Build trust through openness

The better people get to know each other, the easier it will be for them to experience trust and cohesion. It is worth clearing and cherishing moments for unhurried sharing, both as a group and individually with each team member. In addition, various activities that promote mutual acquaintance create an informal interaction with the group that encourages cooperation.

2. Discuss expectations openly

Team members should be involved in the development of shared meetings, for example by asking them about their expectations on team meetings, expectations towards the team leader, expectations on participation and contribution of other colleagues, and also about everyone’s own intended contribution to the meetings. This is a great way to develop openness, align expectations and increase clarity.

3. Ask directly about emotions

The easiest way to give people the experience that they can express different emotions and that those different emotions are accepted in the work community is to ask directly open-ended questions regarding emotions. For example regarding work tasks: What are you happy or enthusiastic about? What concerns do you have? Where do you feel you need further support? Honest and open talk about different feelings, including negative ones, supports well-being and a sense of acceptance.

4. Validation

Validation is a wildly important part of creating psychological security. To promote a psychologically safe atmosphere, the goal is to gradually encourage team members to be open, to share different views and feelings. Sometimes this can feel exciting, and that’s why it’s so important to get an immediate positive confirmation for doing that.

At its simplest, validation is done with a smile (in remote meetings towards the camera eye) and with small appreciative words like great, sounds good, that’s a really important aspect you just shared, thank you for sharing this. In this way, the person immediately receives confirmation that it was just ok and a good thing to bring up a certain matter, and it encourages team members to continue expressing different views and feelings openly in the future as well.

5. Approach problems from surprising angles

Sometimes the team may get stuck on a problem, and it feels difficult to find a solution. Psychological safety is also an important building block for creative thinking. It is essential to create spaces free from criticism, also remotely, where ideas can be developed playfully and intuitively. Challenging one’s thinking, for example by co-developing the topic with yes and formula, or by practicing forced connections, starts opening new thinking patterns. Creative and uncritical thinking needs to be brought out.

6. Engage participants from the start

When planning a meeting, think ahead about how to invite everyone to the conversation right from the start. This creates an inclusive atmosphere where it is easy for everyone to come up with their views or questions later because they already feel tuned in. Try to start a debate with a lighter question that has no right or wrong answers, making it easy for everyone to participate. It can be a round-robin where everyone shares how they are doing or answers a given (easy) question with one sentence or picture. An example question: What is the first thing that comes to your mind about psychological safety?

7. Provide direct feedback

A psychologically safe culture involves talking about things directly because it is perceived as safe, and because criticism is not directed at people but at behaviors (which are as such neutral). Critical thinking is also an important part of development, continuous learning, and the pursuit of ambitious goals. Giving and receiving feedback is worth practicing, and it is good to discuss what are the good rules for that.

In the book “No Rules Rules”, the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings describes the four criteria by Netflix, that a good feedback process must pass:

Giving feedback

  1. Feedback must be given with positive intent. For example, giving feedback in order to get the frustration off your chest is not accepted.
  2. Feedback must focus on what the recipient can do differently.

Receiving feedback

  1. The recipient must listen to the feedback with appreciation, instead of becoming defensive.
  2. You are required to listen and consider all the feedback received. You are not required to follow it. Say “Thank you” with sincerity.

Ultimately, as Shane Snow summarizes it in an article published by Forbes (2020), safety is not the same as comfort, disagreement is not the same as danger, and feeling safe enough to hurt people means there is no safety. Ultimately psychological safety is about caring for each other and that should be the first thing in mind in case you wish to promote it.

Xpedio supports organizations in building team and meeting cultures where it is safe to communicate openly. Let us know if you wish to have a chat!

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