Psychological Safety in Online Meetings

Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

In 2015, Google launched Project Aristotle with the aim of identifying the behaviours of managers that promoted psychological safety in teams. The HR practitioners wanted to understand the behaviours of individuals within high performance teams; they were searching for data on the interactions contributing to success.

One of the team activities where the research took place was in team meetings. The researchers were expecting the high-performance teams to share some practices like whether members caught up with non-work related matters before the meetings, or whether they reviewed the work periodically, or whether the were keeping the content of the meetings completely business focused.

None of these or other practices were common to all teams. They only found only one common practice among all the high-performing teams: they had developed group norms that “created a sense of togetherness while also encouraging people to take a chance”. They had developed psychological safety, a concept first identified and studied by Harvard’s Amy Edmondson.

The research also showed that managers and leaders of these teams shared a set of behaviours:

- They invited people to speak up.
- They talked about their own emotions.
- They didn’t interrupt others.
- When someone was concerned or upset, they showed it was ok to intervene.
- They tried to anticipate how people would react and then worked to accommodate those reactions.

Creating the Conditions for Psychological Safety in Online Meetings

The advice on managing teams that came out of Project Aristotle has been neatly summarised by Charles Duhigg in “Smarter, Faster, Better”. Although the advice was mainly targeted at those running colocated team meetings, there is nothing to prevent you from adopting some (or all!) of those behaviours in your online gatherings. Let’s have a look at some of Duhigg’s suggestions and how we might adopt them to the online environment.

Avoid interrupting team members.

Not interrupting others can be harder in online meetings than in colocated ones.
How many times have you interrupted someone due to a delay in the connection? One easy way of reducing interruptions is to ask everyone to speak at the beginning of each meeting, so that you can assess the quality of their broadband and how well our meeting platform is operating. (Later on in the book, I will cover in more depth the wider importance of these check-ins.)  

If you engage in conversation, you can also practice adapting your rhythm to accommodate any delays in the connection. Ask each other questions and see how whether there are any gaps in the conversation caused by the tech. I have great fun assessing the quality of phone lines and other communication infrastructures during news items involving foreign correspondents, just by paying attention to the pauses as the sound comes through with a few seconds delay.

In addition to this, remember that silences feel longer in the online space. Someone pausing for breath, or trying to articulate a thought might come across as having finished speaking. If in doubt, you can always say something along the lines of, “Can I double check that you’ve finished what you were saying?”

Admit what you don’t know.

Here’s where we’re at an advantage in the online space. We can admit what we don’t know something, but if we know where to click on our browser or computer to to top up our knowledge, we can find the answer almost straight away.

If someone asks something that you can quickly check while you’re online, check it. Communicate what you’re doing (“I don’t know the answer to that, but if you give me ten seconds…”) and take a minute to look it up - while you mute yourself to prevent your typing from echoing loudly in your team members’ ears.

Actually, even a minute might be too long. If it’s going to take you more than 30 seconds to find an answer, you might as well make a note, look it up straight after the meeting, and add your findings to the online space where you follow up after meetings.

Don’t end a meeting until everyone has spoken at least once.

There are many reasons why people stay quiet in meetings - whether they’re over audio, video or colocated.  Sometimes people feel like everything that had to be said has been said and they followed the ancient piece of advice: “Don’t speak unless you can improve the silence.” (I first came across this phrase in a fortune cookie.)

On other occasions they might want the meeting to be over so that they can take a break from their computers. It could also be the case that they haven’t quite formulated their thoughts and are not ready to share them.

Sometimes, before moving the conversation along, you might need to hold the silence to give room for people to speak up. Silence feels more uncomfortable in the online space as people tend to stare at the screen when they’re on video and it’s difficult to decipher what silence signifies during audio calls.

Be brave. Hold that silence after you’ve asked if anyone has anything further to add. Count to five if you must, even count to ten. It might be the moment that the person who hasn’t yet spoken decides to share their thoughts.

If you are meeting only over audio, keep an ear out in case someone has been very quiet for a long while. If you are concerned that certain members are too quiet, you can even have a list of people’s names by you and make a note of how often people speak. In addition to helping you judge whether the conversation is being dominated by some individuals, there are also practical reasons for checking if someone has been quiet for too long. You never know when someone’s connection might drop off or when a headset can suddenly stop working.

One other way of ensuring that everyone speaks at the meeting is to do a round robin in the team before ending. If you are on video, maybe ask each person to nominate who should go next. And if you’re on audio, grab that list of names you should have by your side and ask the quieter folk to go first. Make sure you have ticked everyone’s name off that list before you close the meeting.

Your communication should not end with the meeting. If someone has something they still want to say after the meeting has ended (but time was really running out, or they didn’t want to hold everyone back) or a crucial thought comes to mind as soon as they log off, there should be a place only a click away where they can tell the rest of the team. Just because the meeting has ended, it doesn’t mean that you should stop talking to each other. (Remember that ecosystem I was talking about in Part 1?)

More important than whether everyone has actually spoken or not at the meeting is that people know that they are allowed and welcome to speak out, and that they’ve had the opportunity to do so.  Thanking people for their contributions, especially when it’s obvious that they’re struggling to articulate their thoughts, or share an unpopular opinion, goes a long way.

Encourage people to express their frustration without being judged.

This is really difficult to do, but again, one where we’re at an advantage in the online space. Sometimes we can’t help it. When people express their frustration at something that’s not working in the team, we feel personally attacked.

One disadvantage of online meetings if they’re held on video, is that you can all see everyone’s faces all the time. In the colocated space, you can only take a a few faces in at a time, but in the online world (at least for now while we’re using 2-D video), we can see everyone all the time.

So in some cases, if you hear someone expressing discontent, just double check that you’re not frowning, or reacting in a way that might signal that it’s not all right to continue speaking. Or if you catch yourself disapproving (sometimes we can’t help it), focus on what questions you can ask them to understand the problem further. Take a deep breath, focus on what they’re saying (rather on the effect the words are having on you) and ask as many questions as you can to understand their context.

(It’s also worth remembering that in most cases, those in the meeting won’t be able to see the lower half of our bodies. If discomfort or impatience creeps in when someone else is speaking, how about letting it flow to your legs, instead of your face?)

A similar note of warning could be given for the audio-only space. The voice reflects the speaker’s emotion, so be aware that the tone of your reply to someone expressing their frustration doesn’t signal that such contributions aren’t welcome.

Call out intergroup conflicts and resolve through open discussion.

You could argue that it’s not the manager’s responsibility to resolve all conflicts in the team. It should be the team’s responsibility to resolve conflicts in their team. You could also suggest that if managers point out and resolve conflicts all the time, team members will always wait for the manager to act when there is conflict between people, rather than resolve it themselves.

This is one of those aspects where I can’t guide you without knowing the makeup of your team. You will have to be the judge of when it’s necessary for you to “call out intergroup conflicts and resolve through open discussion” during your team’s operations. However, at meetings, it’s quite easy to see how the group is reacting to any conflict or disagreements.

I’m going to focus on the second noun, “disagreements” rather than “conflict”, as it’s more specific. What looks like conflict to you might look like healthy discussion to me. However, if people are disagreeing, the key question to knowing whether to intervene is, “Is this discussion helpful to the work? Will it help us get better results or to improve our team process?” And “Is this a discussion that we need to hold right now or should those involve schedule (now!) at time to seek agreement?”

Disagreements are helpful when they lead to actions or decisions. Otherwise they are just social activities.

It’s important to remember that disagreeing with our team members about the work is an essential part of improving our team’s process. Help people stay focused on the task and how their disagreements help team members become even better at collaboration and their work.

This and other blog posts have been collated into our book on leading remote teams: Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook.