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Supporting Psychological Safety in a Remote Environment

Drawing of the words "Love Friendship" in the middle of a circle, with circles around it that say "Positive Bias", "Freedom", "Check In", "Personal Alignment", and "Investigate".

Over the last few years, more companies and organizations have become aware that psychological safety is key to the success of high-performing teams. As defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson, psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes."  

Companies and organizations whose teams lack psychological safety are more prone to making serious errors because they lack the organizational trust necessary to make the best and most-informed decisions. Failure to develop, support, and maintain psychological safety can result in a workplace environment that is characterized by what business consultant Patrick Lencioni calls the five dysfunctions of a team: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. 

Actively working to support and maintain psychological safety is even more important in a remote context, because the ways in which we communicate with each other virtually (e-mail, Slack, Zoom, etc.) often lack the nuance and context of in-person communication. One of the most important things we’ve learned as a remote-first company is that developing and maintaining psychological safety requires a sustained effort with active and ongoing participation from everyone on the team. 

One of the tools we use to support psychological safety is the Core Protocols, an open source framework of patterns and practices designed to help teams develop shared vision and understanding so that they can quickly and effectively make decisions. In addition to promoting emotional awareness, empathy, and presence, the Core Protocols also establish easily agreed-upon ground rules and commitments that support positive, results-oriented behavior. Last year we worked with author, teacher, and coach Richard Kasperowski, who provided remote workshops for two cohorts of Palantir team members to help us learn how to better understand and utilize the Core Protocols. 

Because Richard used many of the same remote collaboration tools that we use with our clients every day, our team was able to see how these practices are able to work in a remote context. Some, like the Check In protocol, which asks people to take turns sharing their emotional state at the beginning of a meeting, felt a little awkward and uncomfortable at first. However, with continued practice they soon became a natural and integrated part of our daily team interactions. Many of us found that using the Core Protocols helped us to better understand and appreciate each other, which in turn led to improved communication and team morale. 

Whether you use a framework like the Core Protocols or not, the bottom line is that when working in a remote context, it’s necessary to take extra steps to enable human connection and understanding. At minimum, this means that information needs to be communicated in a clear, honest, and open way that is accessible to everyone, and that team members dedicate time to engage with each other using real-time face-to-face tools such as Hangouts or Zoom. 

Especially in times of stress and anxiety, it’s important for everyone to take time to check in with each other, engage in active listening, and ask for help when needed. Building and actively maintaining human connection is not just an essential component for team success, it’s also what enables each of us to bring our best selves to our work and make space for others to do so as well.

Image by Richard Kasperowski

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