The pandemic has blurred the line between our professional roles and personal obligations. Our lives were not designed to work from home, which has put a strain on our work and relationships. That has psychological ramifications. In a recent conversation with Amy Edmondson, a Novartis professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School, about her new book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, we discussed the key findings she discovered in her research on psychological safety in the workplace.
"Psychological safety is a belief that colleagues and managers absolutely expect candor from me," says Edmondson. "They expect me to speak up with my ideas and concerns and questions, and that's how we solve tough problems, innovate, and collaborate effectively."
Psychological safety has a direct impact on internal and external relationships. Workplaces that cater to their team's psychological needs will strengthen their relationships during this time of uncertainty, whether in person or remotely. Leaders weaken the ties to their teams if they do not take this into account.
"[In] workplaces where psychological safety is missing, people are reading the tea leaves before they figure out whether they can or should contribute," says Edmondson. "A great deal of important content is held back in nonsafe workplaces."
If we don't feel that we can express ourselves in our workspaces, we are less likely to speak up when an issue arises, which splinters workplace relationships.
Our psychological needs are more prevalent than ever in the midst of a global pandemic and the current state of the nation. Anxiety is running high. The need for psychological safety in the workplace should be prioritized now more than ever. As we work at a distance, we need to work harder to check in with one another. We need to feel supported in our internal and external relationships to create a deeper sense of trust.
"Now, in the present situation, you can almost assume it's [psychological safety] missing and realize you have to go out of your way to be more conscious of what people are up against," notes Edmondson. "The need is to proactively engage them and reassure people that we are just as interested in what you have to offer as ever."
If this is something you and your company have not prioritized before, we can assume that it isn't there. Edmondson spells out a quick way to set the tone:
"I think it is important that with virtual work to do a quick check-in," she says. "You need to know first and foremost whether people have very serious or distracting challenges on their plate at that moment, because you need people to be able to focus and engage."
Let your team know they can tell you that there is a 2-year-old screaming in the next room or if their mother-in-law is doing the dishes in the background.
Now, check-ins don't mean therapy sessions or to not be up front with people. They just mean to connect and have people on your team feel heard. When people feel more empowered to use their voice, they will keep the ship steering in the right direction and value your relationship.
Edmondson has witnessed the benefits of these psychological tools when she implements them during her virtual classes. "What surprised me is how extraordinarily willing and productive the students have been," she says. "This is not what they wanted, but they have been remarkably good-natured about this. They aren't complaining."
People want to get through this time as smoothly as possible while still being productive. As a leader, you can help quiet some chaos by recognizing the strain this year has been on your workplace relationships.
When people feel like they can approach their manager candidly, that will deepen their trust, relationship, and loyalty toward each other. That creates more robust teams who feel cared for and put more care into the work.
When you acknowledge the elephant in the room and have an open discussion about it, you are becoming a fearless organizer, the kind of person who will thrive and get us to the other side of this new normal.