Psychological Safety: The game changer when you are leading a high performing virtual team

Do you remember when you were in high school, how you spent most of your time trying to fit in? Many of us learned we couldn’t speak our mind at an early age because that’s not what was done. And we had to be careful with what we said. Otherwise, we could look like an idiot, be seen as ‘uncool’ or get teased and bullied. As a result, even as adults, our brains are wired to tell us that we've got to be careful what we say and do; because it could all backfire against us.

Have you noticed this happen in your team too?

In this fragment of our Virtual Workshop “Leading a hybrid team”, which we ran for club members and other small accountancy firm owners, I go through the concept of Psychological Safety, what it is and why it is critical for you to manage a high performing virtual team successfully.

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What is psychological safety?

In 2015, Google published the results of a two-year study into what makes a great team. They found that what truly made a team successful had more to do with how the team members worked together than who was on the team. Among all the individual factors that were found relevant, psychological safety was the most influential one. (Read about the key ingredients to lead a high performing virtual team)

In this research, psychological safety was defined as an individual’s perception, or a personal belief, that a team is a safe space for risk-taking. Essentially, it is that shared feeling that you can safely express your thoughts and feelings;  ask for help without fearing judgement, and make mistakes while taking the initiative. (And not be worried about being in trouble for making the mistake.)

When we don’t have psychological safety, we will often hold our thoughts and ideas back, and won't attempt to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone. With all that’s going on in the world right now, it is remarkably easy to fall into a place of sadness, anxiety and fear. So your team members may be in a fearful state, regardless of what you as a practice owner are doing. Therefore, as leaders of our firms, we’ve got to over-communicate if we want to establish that psychological safety for our virtual (or hybrid) teams to thrive.

Communication is vital for psychological safety

With six months of working virtually under their belt, our members are telling us that they now recognise that communication is vital if they are going to establish that psychological safety within their small accountancy firm teams. An excellent way to do this is to maintain a regular dialogue with your teams. This is best done via:

  • A weekly 1:2:1 with your direct reports - remember that this could be as short as a 5 min call
  • The daily operational huddle where you and your team can focus on what needs to get done today
  • A weekly operational team meeting to identify any bottlenecks or problems and how these can be removed, plus prioritising what needs to get done in the next week.
  • A monthly team meeting to discuss the business performance and how you intend to steer the business away from any choppy waters

For example, in our monthly team meeting, we share exactly how much cash is in the bank account and how long that’s going to last. We also share the profit and loss of our business in a 100% transparent way. We understand that this approach is so transparent that it might not suit everyone. (Particularly if you subscribe to the very traditional view that the firm's profit is private and for your eyes only. Remember that trust is a 2-way street. If you want your team to trust you, you need to fully trust them.

Why is psychological safety so vital to the performance of our teams right now?

Let’s be honest. Most of us have not experienced such a turbulent time for a long time. And some of your more junior team members might have never experienced one at all. In this scenario, we can expect people to react in unexpected ways. Psychological safety is critical for high performing teams, but especially for virtual and hybrid teams nowadays.

When we're working with a virtual or a hybrid team, you need that psychological safety for your team members to:

  • Take the initiative and work unsupervised.
  • Be able to respond and adapt to emerging opportunities. Given how rapidly everything is changing right now, you need people to be able to react and adapt.
  • Suggest different ways of doing things and challenges. In changing times, the ability for a team to come together and brainstorm different approaches or ways to face challenges can be the difference between thriving or perishing through difficulties.
  • Speak up about emerging problems, i.e. bottlenecks or work backlogs. Now more than ever, small accountancy firm leaders need team members who can confidently speak up about emerging issues such as ‘I think we’ve got a client that might churn.’

What’s your role in establishing psychological safety?

If you want to create that safe environment for your virtual team to be able to take the initiative and make mistakes without the fear of making a fool of themselves or being lashed out at, you need to consider these:

How do you react when something goes wrong?

If you go straight out and go into anger, denial, or attack when something goes wrong or when someone makes a mistake, how likely do you think that people are going to tell you when something is actually not turning out as expected? As leaders, we need to create an environment where people can put their hand up and say ‘something has gone wrong’ so that we can come with a solution and carry on.

How well do you “ask rather than tell” in your dealings with staff?

Many of our members bring up that they have very needy members of staff. The reason why this happens so frequently is that we tend to tell rather than ask. When a staff member comes to us with a problem, we tell them how to address it right away. By doing this, we are teaching our members of staff that when stuff gets really difficult they can come back to us and we will tell them the answer, so they don’t need to think too much about it. Now, whilst this approach might have worked (or not) in the office environment, it is counterproductive in a virtual setting when we need people to take the initiative and be proactive.

If you want to enhance proactivity and push your team to take the initiative, make sure you follow a coaching approach with them. When a staff member comes to you with “Sorry, I can’t do this”, you want to take that “ask rather than tell” approach, such as “Well, what would you do if you were me? What do you think would be the first thing I’d suggest you do in this situation?” Of course, there are always going to be times where you have to tell, but we don't tend to get those that often.

How well do you truly listen to your staff?

When you meet with your staff, whether that’s in-person or virtually, are you sitting there and they can clearly see that you have their full attention? Or can they see you're looking down your keyboard, reading something on your iPad or texting on your phone? Are you giving your members of staff that real attention? If you're not, that conveys the message they're not worthy of your time and energy.

How accessible do you make yourself to your staff?

You might feel that your staff members don’t talk to you with their concerns or new ideas, but are you actually making yourself accessible to them? In an office environment, you can easily say “my doors are always open” or “just come in if it’s open”, but how do we do that in a virtual environment? A great idea is to have some virtual lunch sessions a couple of days a week when your camera is on. Then anyone can join you, and have a chat. These work really well for our business.

How quick are you to blame rather than understand when mistakes happen or things don’t go to plan?

When something does go wrong, are your quick to blame or do you seek to understand what happened first? If you seek to understand where and why things might have gone wrong first, your team will feel safer to be transparent with you. And you might also be able to get some clarity on how to improve the processes and instruction for the next time.

How often do you thank people for speaking up, mainly if they are delivering a difficult message?

When somebody does give you a bit of feedback, do you say thank you for it? Most of us are really bad at getting negative feedback. (It's how our brains are wired) It’s really easy as a small accountancy firm owner to fall into that defensive position. After all, there's a reason we run our own business. Often the corporate world's obsession with giving feedback to help us improve our performance may have something to do with you now running your own practice. However, getting good at listening to negative feedback is something worth working on. Dare yourself to say thank you as soon as you receive a piece of feedback. If you don’t feel comfortable with what you are getting, say that too. A quick “I'm struggling at the moment with this, but I really thank you for it” can do the trick.

How often do you allow yourself to be vulnerable with your staff members?

If you're having a bad day, do you tell your team about it? Do they know what's going on in your life? Do they know how you're feeling? We know it can be challenging to allow yourself to be vulnerable with your team. You might fear they’ll see you as weak or unstable. However, if you create a space for your team to know what’s on your mind, you’ll make it easier for them to judge when and how’s the best way to address certain matters. That will boost your team’s psychological safety.

How often do you give helpful feedback?

How often do you take the time to give helpful and constructive feedback? By providing helpful and meaningful feedback, by this I mean, setting clear expectations and guidelines, sharing concrete aspects of a deliverable or a process that you liked vs what you didn’t, or a suggestion on what could be improved.
If all you have to say is “I like it” or “I hate it”, your team will be very hesitant to go to you for advice.

Are you open and honest with your staff?

Finally, how open and honest are you with your staff? Do you have a culture in place that allows for anyone to turn around and respectfully say “this isn’t working”?
One of our club members recently told us “I'm worried that if I create this open culture, they might take advantage and just complain all the time.” But, actually, how can we be sure that they will complain all the time? Our team members might not complain at all!

If you've got a culture where complaining is the norm, then that's a cultural issue. Definitely, the best way to address it is by openly talking about it.
I remember a member of the Accountants' Growth Club who I started working with; every single call started with “it's really hard”, “It's a challenge”. After a couple of meetings, I turned around to him and said: “Right, I’m banning the words “hard” and “challenge” from our conversation. From now on, you need to replace these with ‘opportunity’”. I know I sounded like the worst Headmistress you've ever experienced, but now in our calls, he uses the words challenge or hard once or twice at most! So, if you're seeing that there's a culture in your firm where people tend to have moaning shops, make sure you address it and clarify that if something is wrong, you expect staff members to discuss how to overcome the pitfall.

Another common situation is having your team go all "Moaning Lisa" on you. (Let's remember that everyone is human!) Giving your staff 60 seconds to moan and vent. Then invite your team to think constructively how you can go about this situation or how you can change face it.

Boost your virtual team’s psychological safety and see the impact it has on their performance

Psychological safety is at the very core of your team adaptability and high performance so make sure you keep a close eye on it. I can absolutely guarantee that if you implement this advice, you’ll see a positive impact in your team’s psychological safety. And as consequence, in their performance levels.

Not sure your firms’ culture and leadership style are supporting your team’s psychological checklist? Take a look at our Psychological Safety checklist to assess how you are doing.

Ready to kick-start the growth of your firm?