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Keeping Psychologically Safe in the Great Reintegration

There have been some BIG headlines about the return to work post pandemic. The standout themes are:

  • Adapting permanently to more working from home

  • Changing use of office spaces

  • Mental health and wellbeing of people as we reintegrate

  • Productivity as we transition to this new, changed way of working

We already know through research by Google (Project Aristotle), decades of research and the way this concept chimes so deeply with people that psychological safety is the cornerstone that teams need to be productive. It also has many of the elements that we need to navigate this next, important phase collectively.

The key elements of psychological safety are the concept of creating environments in which people feel safe to speak up and the less talked about idea of impression management. Edmondson defines, “Psychological Safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” which means they feel sufficiently safe at a group behavioural level to speak up about new ideas, about challenges to group think and about the things that are not going well. The killer principle here is that you can work on what people tell you but you can’t mitigate for the issues people don’t hear about. Sitting behind the overarching idea is Impression Management, the powerful, game changing idea that people are continually managing other people’s impression of them by avoiding being perceived as:

  • Intrusive

  • Incompetent

  • Ignorant

  • Negative

Ring true? I thought so. Now put psychological safety into the context of CoVid.

Fear - Edmondson’s most recent book was titled the Fearless Organisation. She wrote elegantly about how talented, smart people live in fear of tyrannical leaders, toxic teams and performance at all cost cultures. This fear propagates low levels of psychological safety and prevents teams from being able to work towards their true collective potential. Now we have a whole new level of fear to contend with in trying to coach and guide our people through their working lives. Fear of:

  • Being perceived as not working hard enough at home

  • Losing their jobs and sources of income and stability

  • Sickness and death for selves and loved ones

  • The uncertain future

How can we meet this new need to support people through a time of accentuated fear which could result in less speaking up in a team? Acknowledge the fear head on as a leader in the group (and everyone can be a leader). Being open about your own fears and vulnerabilities creates the ‘vulnerability snowball effect’ that Brene Brown writes about which in turn creates the openness we need for psychological safety . Don’t just ask how are you? Ask it and then say No, stop, really how are you? Not taking the first answer allows you to build your people practice as a leader and team mate, so keep doing it. Your responses can and should be human, not toeing the company line in fear of creating or setting any expectations. You can support each other to alleviate some of these new and constant fears which are permeating our daily lives and build safety for your team when they need it most. It won’t be forgotten and will strengthen the team for the future.

Reintegration Anxiety - this is a separate topic to fear as it is looming so large at the moment. The news is full of facts and speculation about lockdown measures being relaxed, return to work, big companies like Twitter and Basecamp (same CEO so go figure) moving to permanent working from home setup. Entire industries (mine included, online team coaching and facilitation is here to stay which personally I am happy about) are pivoting their offering to cater for the change as we read about the end of offices as we know them etc etc. This is refreshing and overwhelming in equal measure.

Reintegration anxiety is a real response, also called ‘reverse culture shock’ or ‘re-entry syndrome’. It’s the feeling you have when you get back from living overseas or that long-term Antarctic explorers get when they return home. If people are experiencing this or elements of it, psychological safety could be buried underneath it in your team. Tips for you and your people:

  • Be kind - acknowledge that there will be a variety of emotions as this plays out. As above, dig deeper to talk about these.

  • Don’t overschedule as you navigate the first few weeks of any permanent transition to remote working or return to the office. Allow space to work this out together. Your team may be fatigued by the change.

  • “Name it to tame it”. Naming the emotions gives people power over them and choice.

  • Remind yourself and your people that you are not your emotion. You won’t always feel like this and it doesn’t mean you are an anxious person.

  • Don’t force anyone back into the office OR to stay at home

My personal version of this is being super excited and happy about flexible working and the potential of technology to enable teams becoming mainstream, uncertainty about when my kids will go back to school and anxiety about if the decisions being made by the government are the right ones. It’s a heady mix, so I’m meditating way more than I ever have and it helps.

Negativity - negativity is higher, conversely given this is one of the elements people are trying to avoid when impression managing. We may be seeing more of this at the moment or at the very least people are certainly experiencing more negative emotions day to day then they usually would. We wouldn't be human if we endured the daily news of the last few months and weren’t sobered by it. Support feelings of negativity by creating space for them, literally create a ‘this is crap’ wall in your virtual meetings. You can deal with it if you know what it is. Counter that wall of negativity with gratitude moments with the team at regular periods. What are we grateful for this week or month and what are we grateful for in our teammates especially?

If you focus on one item for your people or the people around you, make it psychological safety. Pretty well everything else you need will fall out of it for the present and future of your team.


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