Crisis leadership: How to give people psychological safety

As the COVID-19 pandemic forces people around the world to work remotely, some team members may feel anxious and disoriented. Here’s how to help your employees feel psychologically safe
482 readers like this.
crisis leadership how to create psychological safety

Nearly every organization on the planet has been rocked by the mounting coronavirus pandemic. Millions of workers have begun life under quarantine, with no clear sense of how long it will last.

If you’re leading a team that's now remote, their physical and psychological safety is priority one. Most organizations are doing a good job of applying social distancing and other measures to protect their members physically. But what about their psychological safety?

[ IT leaders in our community are sharing advice on navigating this crisis. Read also: How to lead in the age of newly remote teams and Crisis leadership: How to overcome anxiety. ]

Your team members may struggle to be productive, and they may feel anxiety and a lack of psychological safety. A worker who feels psychologically safe feels included, free to learn and contribute, and able to challenge the status quo without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

People flourish when they participate in a cooperative system with high psychological safety. And that starts with inclusion.

Psychological safety is a basic human need

Psychological safety is a postmaterialist need: It comes after food and shelter. But don’t make the mistake of thinking your team is ready to perform just because their basic physical needs are met, especially in an environment of ambiguity and fear. Your people need more than that — they need to feel safe, mentally and emotionally.

Psychological safety covers three basic human needs: fulfillment, belonging, and security. That’s what makes it so powerful when it’s present and so dangerous when it’s not.

With high psychological safety, people flourish

People flourish when they participate in a cooperative system with high psychological safety. And that starts with inclusion. Make sure each of your team members feels a strong personal connection with you.

As a leader, you must ensure that you are consistent, clear, and inclusive with each one of your team members.

Human beings have both natural and acquired skills that help us detect social boundaries, gestures of invitation, and signs of rejection. As a leader, you must ensure that you are consistent, clear, and inclusive with each one of your team members. In fact, during the coronavirus outbreak, you’ll have a unique opportunity to do just that, as you may serve as a repository for peoples’ fears.

How to create psychological safety in a crisis

In times of crisis, we all know at least four things about our leaders and the organizations we’re a part of:

  • They don’t have all the facts
  • They can’t remove all risk
  • They can’t promise zero loss
  • They can’t eliminate all the pain

Because we know these things intuitively, we respect leaders who acknowledge these truths, cultivate tolerance for candor, and demonstrate deep empathy. As you and your virtual team work together through this crisis, these five practical tips will help you nurture and reinforce psychological safety:

1. Communicate why your team exists and what it stands for. To feel connected to the team, each person needs to understand why the team exists, how it works, and what it stands for. The team must first define its values, purpose, and goals and continuously communicate these things to all team members.

2. Check alignment. The sense of belonging that individuals feel and the sense of alignment the entire team feels must be constantly checked and reinforced. Meet with individual team members and ask them how well they understand the team’s vision and goals, and how committed they are to achieving them.

3. Create connecting rituals. Develop rituals to help your team members connect. For example, you might ask your team to start every meeting with an inspirational thought. Maybe you institute a virtual team lunch every Friday or showcase an individual team member and recognize his or her contributions. Figure out what fits your team’s vibe and personality. Rituals help create security and familiarity during unsettling times.

4. Be democratic with your time and attention. Do you interact with some people on your team more frequently than others? Connecting with a particular group of people socially creates invisible social barriers and a sense of exclusion. Instead, deliberately reach out to the members of your team you don’t know as well. Always be aware of who receives the bulk of your attention and time.

5. Reinforce inclusion daily. A sense of inclusion is fragile. Even if it’s not broken, it fades when not reinforced daily. The easiest way to do this is to offer daily virtual greetings and expressions of appreciation. Let your virtual people know you’re thinking of them often.

[ Are you leading through change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]

Timothy R. Clark is the founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, a global leadership consulting and training firm. An Oxford-trained social scientist and sought-after international authority on organizational change, Dr.