Fostering Psychological Safety During Times of Crisis

This post was written by Analia Stratton and Roni McGee, two of our expert facilitators. 

We are in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis. As each of us experiences the distress of the coronavirus pandemic in unique ways, and as we redesign remote workplace cultures around those nuances, a key concern threads our experiences together: in addition to threatening our physical safety, this pandemic is a threat to our psychological safety. 

When a company’s culture is psychologically safe, employees across backgrounds are more likely to “feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way” (Clark, 2019). Research points to the strong connection between psychological safety and team performance. When team dynamics are inclusive and safe for interpersonal risk taking, employees feel they belong and can do their best work (Radecki et al., 2018). However, threats to psychological safety can damage health, derail trust, disrupt relationships, decrease feelings of belonging, and diminish productivity. 

Although current workplace challenges amplify some of the most common themes we see in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space, we’re already equipped with the research and tools to help us navigate this uncharted territory. Rather than pause DEI efforts, we have an opportunity to apply them with intention, particularly with an increased focus on psychological safety.

How do we cultivate psychological safety amidst these threats to our well-being? 

Now, more than ever, people are likely to have concerns, questions, and ideas about the state of the world, business, and their livelihood. At the same time, with most of the workforce unable to connect in person, sharing concerns, questions, and ideas has become more difficult. As we rethink workplace cultures, it is critical to cultivate an environment where employees feel safe to bring their authentic selves to work. 

We recommend leaders take two concrete actions to cultivate an inclusive, safe space for discussion where employees across backgrounds feel seen, heard, and valued in this time of crisis.

1: Hold space for safe discussion     

Companies can create space for individuals to authentically share challenges and concerns that have come up as a result of coronavirus and the indefinite shift to physical isolation. Doing so also allows leaders to model vulnerability through transparency and honesty about their own experiences, while also cultivating empathy and trust among teammates—both of which are critical to building psychological safety. Because individual experiences with coronavirus will vary, and grief emotions may be heightened, we recommend a few TIPs for creating safe spaces to discuss challenges and concerns: 

  • Time: Set aside time for people to raise challenges and concerns. This could be in weekly 1:1s and/or a 10-minute check-in at the beginning of a team meeting. Your organization could also organize longer discussion circles.
  • Intention: Be intentional about how you have these conversations. For example, try specific prompts during the first 10 minutes of a team meeting:
    • What are you finding challenging about working during these unprecedented times?
    • What strategies are you finding helpful to build resilience?
    • *Remember to communicate that answering these questions is optional. When meeting over video, let people know they can turn video off if they prefer (or use a feature that blurs or changes one’s background). These options provide flexibility while honoring the reality that not everyone will feel comfortable participating.
  • Process: Structure can be a helpful way to mitigate uncertainty and anxiety, so let people know when to expect to have the time to raise challenges and concerns, and share an agenda for conversations.
    • Particularly for longer discussion circles, set the stage with community agreements, which serve as ground rules for what the discussion space is and is not. For example, this is a space to listen; this is not a space to compare experiences. 
    • The conversation in discussion circles and the diverse experiences of participants may introduce tension, emotion, and tough questions. Make sure you have a facilitator who is skilled in moderating these challenges. 

2: Create specific communities for communication and connection within identity groups 

In the current context, specific groups may feel most comfortable engaging when they have opportunities to process challenges that are unique to the group’s shared identity. For example, there has been an uptick in bias and racism against Asian communities, driven in large part by political leaders who are explicitly using racist tropes to talk about the virus. Other specific groups might also be experiencing intense challenges stemming from the coronavirus pandemic—for example, employees who are immunocompromised, caregivers and parents, and employees with limited financial means to navigate these challenges. Now presents an opportunity to be intentional about building or evolving your company’s structural support for employees. Consider the following: 

  • Reach out and ask people from different communities what kind of support they need or would like at this moment. 
  • Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are a high-impact way to cultivate belonging. If it’s feasible for your organization, consider standing up ERGs to support employees from historically underrepresented or marginalized communities. For example, many of our clients have formed ERGs for people of color, Asian-American/Pacific Islander employees, Black employees, Latinx employees, employees with disabilities, parents and caregivers, and LGBTQ+ employees.
    • Forming and sustaining ERGs requires significant time, resources, and leadership support. At a time when ERGs are especially critical, don’t expect people from underrepresented or marginalized groups to disproportionately shoulder these responsibilities. Similarly, don’t expect ERG leaders to exclusively provide emotional strength when they’re also experiencing the challenges of this pandemic. Instead, ensure that the responsibilities of supporting ERGs are shared by people leaders and ERG leaders, and recognize employees for effort and time spent on ERG leadership. 
  • Create a distinct discussion space for allies to identify how they might act in solidarity with ERGs and with colleagues from underrepresented or marginalized groups during these trying times. 

As more and more employees are working under physically isolated circumstances, employees need to feel a sense of psychological safety, belonging, and community connection. By evolving DEI practices with intention, we equip ourselves and our teams to navigate current realities, and we’ll be stronger organizations in the future because of it. 

April 10, 2020

If you would like to learn more about how Paradigm can help your organization foster psychological safety, contact us today!