What I’m Learning About Psychological Safety

A tree with autumn foliage next to a beach.
Autumn at a Vancouver beach.

Happy mid-October everyone! Vancouver has reset back to normal, and we’re in for a week of rain. I spent a large portion of the long weekend soaking in the last of the beautiful Autumn sunshine before the rain moved in. It was Thanksgiving in Canada this past Monday and I was thankful for the weather. My kids found a leaf pile and I discovered that I never want to get into a leaf fight with them. They take no prisoners.

I also participated in the first ever Remote Work 5k, put together by Cantilever and Workplaceless. It was big fun. We all jumped into a zoom room at the beginning of the race, and then ran the course of our choice. I won recognition for Coldest run! I hope this is the first of many such virtual races because it was fun completing a 5k with my fellow remote workers. Some of us ran, some walked or hiked, and at least one of us swam the distance.

I also spent time studying psychological safety. A quick internet search showed that I should start with Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. Her research is at the foundation of this subject. This is the link to the article if you want to read what I’m reading.

This article represents some of the early work Edmondson has done on the subject, and few things stood out:

Psychological safety leads to learning behaviour.

When I started this research I thought psychological safety led to high performing teams. Based on what the article hyperlinked above, it really has more to do with team learning. A team that can learn quickly may lead to high performance under certain conditions. If your team deals with a high degree of uncertainty and complexity, then you want people who can learn and adapt. Most (if not all) knowledge work falls into this category. However, if your team doesn’t work in these sorts of conditions then learning isn’t a good predictor of high performance.

As an aside, I believe we should create psychologically safe spaces at work anyway. It’s the right thing to do. But the problems you’ll prevent are turnover and burnout.

Context support and leadership can impact psychological safety.

This one sounded like a real no-brainer to me. If you give your team the tools and information they need (context support) and act as a coach who sets a direction and helps people get there, then they should feel safe to learn and experiment.

The article I read focused more on whether psychological safety leads to learning, so Edmondson didn’t spend a lot of time proving that these were THE factors that lead to feeling safe. She merely said that there seemed to be a positive relationship between those factors and a healthy team dynamic. Still, there were still some interesting details. I was surprised to see that there were teams who felt safe even if one of these factors was missing. She concludes by saying that more research was needed on what causes psychological safety.

I suspect that it’s a lot harder to experience psychological safety in the remote workforce if you have a micro-managing boss. This paper was written in 1999 and Edmondson studied co-located teams. It’s entirely possible for a team to bond over the shared experience of a bad boss if they work in an office. I’ve lived that experience. The boss says something regrettable, and the team makes eye contact behind his back. Next thing you know everyone is taking lunch together so they can compare notes and vent.

It’s a lot harder to do that as a remote worker. So many of your interactions happen one on one. It’s one thing to make eye contact with your coworker when you share an experience. It’s quite another to call your co worker and ask if they like the boss. I have some theories about how to create psychological safety in the remote workforce despite having a bad boss. I can’t wait to see if some else has studied this as I continue my research.

Do you work in a team that is remote and psychologically safe? I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to comment on this post or contact me directly. I’d love to hear from you.

Taking a Remote Sick Day

I looked just like this on Monday except my couch isn’t that big and my house isn’t that neat. Photo by Pixabay courtesy of Pexels.com.

I have a problem with sick days. My problem is that I don’t always take them. I caught my kids’ flu (thanks kids) Sunday evening, and still went to work on Monday.

Why Is it So Hard to Take Sick Days in the Remote Workforce?

I blame my children. (It’s what all good mothers do.) When the kids were very small I saved my sick days for when they got sick. And I’ve never broken out of the habit. Working remotely means I don’t have to.

I once worked in an office where one guy—we’ll call him Typhoid Mary—would come to work even when sick. Inevitably the entire office would catch his plague. It didn’t take very long before the office adopted a “stay home if you’re sick” work culture.

But when you work from home, you can’t infect anyone. The social pressure to stay home is gone. Now (at least for me) it’s hard to tell when to take a sick day. I don’t have to drive anywhere. I don’t even have to sit upright. If I’m well enough to binge watch Netflix, why aren’t I well enough to work?

I’m not the only one who does this. According to SoftChoice, a North American IT solutions and managed services provider, 57% of the 1,700 people they surveyed admitted to working on sick days. 80% of those folks spent sick days working through email.

There are many reasons people do this. Perhaps they don’t want to return to work and find an overflowing inbox. Maybe they’re worried that everyone will assume they’re slacking. Whatever the reason, I believe there are things we can all do to help people rest when they’re sick.

Bring Back the Social Pressure

I went to work on Monday while I was sick, and my team told me to go back to bed. Forcibly. (In a very professional, HR appropriate kind of way.) We should do this more for one another. I’ve seen other colleagues working while sick and I haven’t suggested they go back to bed. I’m going to start doing this from now on. We’re all adults. We need to make our own decisions, but sometimes we need that extra kick in the pants to make the right one. I certainly did.

Some folks may not feel comfortable telling people to go back to bed. As an alternative you might tell someone that took a sick day that you’re glad they took time to rest. Let’s reward each other for taking a balanced approach to work.

Reevaluate Work Loads

If your direct reports work while sick, you may want to perform a work load audit. Can an actual human being finish enough tasks to do a good job in an assigned role? How do you know? Do your direct reports have the tools needed to complete work efficiently? How do you know? Managers aren’t always responsible for the amount of work a company places on its employees, but we can always take on the role of advocate for our people.

Employees have to share the burden when it comes to evaluating task loads. Remote employees work out of sight for most of the day. It won’t always be obvious that we’re drowning under too much to do. If your boss is reasonable, give that person a chance to lighten your load. Speak up–and come prepared with examples.

Provide a Safety Net

If a colleague is sick, offer to take care of their time-sensitive tasks. I had two things weighing on my mind, and when I was still sick on Tuesday my team took over those tasks so I could rest with a clear conscience. It’s pretty great working on a team that has each other’s back. Don’t wait for your boss to build this sort of culture. A trusting work place begins with you.

It can sometimes feel hard to justify sick days when you already work from home. Like so many other things in the remote workforce, we each have the ability to craft the work life we want to see. Offer to help people take needed time off either through social pressure or taking tasks of their plate. Let them do the same for you. If we all work on this, we will create a more humane work culture. We’ll work for companies where people take the time they need to recover, and return rested and ready to go.

If You Want to Manage People Well Through a Crisis, First You Must Manage Yourself

Making decisions and coming up with solutions feels so good in the moment. But sometimes the best thing a manager can do is to step back and let your team do their job.

Photo by Amol Mande from Pexels

Happy Friday everyone! It’s been an action-packed week at Remota HQ. Thanks to the magic of the remote workforce, I live nowhere near the Texas Gulf coast and yet have to deal with the effects of tropical depression Imelda. Thankfully the teachers that I manage are all safe.

There’s a particular sort of stress that comes from being responsible for people who are dealing with forces outside of your control. There needs to be a specific word for this. We have a word for throwing someone out a window, for goodness sake. Standing back and letting your people work through a tough situation without micromanaging it happens way more often. (I hope.) It deserves its own word.

Have You Done Enough?

In any event, I’ve found that I’m most helpful when I take a moment to determine when I’ve done enough. Did I make all the the decisions that must go through me? Did I give my folks the tools they need to do their job? Do my direct reports know I’m in their corner, ready to support them? And then—this is important—if I’ve done everything I can do, have I stopped trying to manage the situation so my people can get on with it?

On Tuesday I had a teacher contact me to ask whether we should cancel an evening class in her area. The powers that be had just issued a flash flood warning, and some (but not all) of the businesses near her were closing early. She wanted to know if we should do the same.

Now I love solving problems. It feels so good to be the one with the answer. I even went so far as to start firing off an email before I stopped myself and took a moment to think. Remote work has its own set of challenges, but there are times when the asynchronous communication helps us make better decisions. My direct report couldn’t see me. So instead of sending a quick email to her, I instant-messaged colleague. I asked him what criteria he used to decide whether or not to cancel a class due to weather.

He replied back with “I usually trust the person on the ground to make that call.”

That was the right answer. Our teachers operate in a high trust environment. They go through a vetting process before we hire them. Of course the person in the situation should decide whether it was safe enough to hold class that night.

I emailed the teacher back and let her know that she was the best person to make that call. I would fully support her decision. We just needed to know what it was by noon.

Inigo Montoya Isn’t the Only One Who Hates Waiting

And then I waited. As the a Spaniard from the Princess Bride said “I hate waiting.” But there wasn’t anything else I could do to make the situation better. There were plenty of things I could do to make it worse. So instead, I got up and went for a walk in my neighborhood.

Don’t get me wrong. I still had plenty of other fires to put out that day. But nothing exploded in the fifteen minutes I took to walk off the urge to micromanage. Most things don’t.

I’ve found that the difference between effective and ineffective managers often boils down to how well a person manages their head space. You don’t have to be all knowing–or even particularly calm. You do have to learn the best way to short-circuit your knee jerk reactions.

For me, that means doing something physical like a walk or a run. Or I go make lunch. Once, when I was trapped in a video meeting that was making me snarky, I grabbed a nearby knitting project and knit in a way that wouldn’t show up on camera. Some people have emergency fire extinguishers in their offices. I have emergency knitting. Any port in a storm.

The things I use to short-circuit my knee jerk reactions may not work for you. The important thing is to start experimenting until you have your own toolbox of coping mechanisms. If you have anything you really like, I’d love to hear about it. I’m always looking to add to my own toolbox.