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Building ‘Psychological Safety’ In Global Work Teams

Building ‘Psychological Safety’ in Global Work Teams

“Every time we withhold something from others, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning.…

[and] we won’t innovate…”

(Amy Edmondson; see also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8)

 

Researchers around the world have found that diversity greatly impacts their organizations’ success:

To enjoy all the benefits of a diverse organization, we need to build psychological safety in these global work teams. Psychological safety, a term coined by Edmondson (1999), is a state in which individuals feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. Employees can challenge their managers and also ask for help when needed. 

Timothy R. Clark has contributed to the concept of psychological safety with four stages of a framework, saying that employees need 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, 2020).

I recently led a cross-cultural workshop for a global company that works with employees from 12 different time zones. During the group discussions, I became highly aware of the cultural gap that arises mainly from the degree of respect that underlings show to higher managers and the style of dialogue (direct or indirect) between the different employees from diverse cultures.

It is quite challenging to provide psychological safety in light of these cultural gaps. For instance, Israeli managers commonly feel free to provide negative feedback even in front of other workers. People from other cultures, however, often perceive such feedback as harsh, too direct, too public and therefore humiliating. As another example, Indian managers are accustomed to being shown a high level of respect. If all the participants in team interactions, at all ranks and positions, are not aware of cultural differences, these special communication styles can harm global groups. Therefore, individuals need to adjust their comfort zone to the zone of appropriateness without losing themselves in the process (Andy Molinsky, Global Dexterity, 2013). 

Communicating in a global business setting is not only about being nice but also about healthy conflicts that respect differences and allow the exchange of ideas. If employees always support each other in the name of being nice, they will miss the opportunity to learn and to challenge themselves. This leads to what Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, calls “ruinous empathy” – behavior that values politeness over progress, and may make employees feel good in the short term, but it doesn’t help anyone grow or improve.

I believe it is the group leaders’ responsibility to be role models for their teams by:

  • Being vulnerable (with the understanding that it is OK to make a mistake)
  • Using a direct style of speech (in all cultures)
  • Asking employees to share their distinctive thoughts 
  • Responding positively to difficulties and hesitations
  • Thanking employees for voicing their opinions and doubts
  • Challenging different decisions respectfully
  • Not compromising for the sake of social cohesion
  • Committing wholly once a decision is determined

(The last 3 bullets are based on one of Amazon’s leadership principles called Disagree and Commit)

Diversity is vital for success but, again, it is not enough. We need to enable psychological safety as well. Psychological safety provides the setting in which team members can leverage their cultural advantages and contribute to the global team. International organizations therefore also need to work on developing psychological safety as part of their organizational culture and their path to ever-improving business success. And that is achievable only when the organization, including all its components and employees, embraces a global mindset and cultivates high cultural intelligence.

 

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