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I once worked at a company where boundaries were crossed regularly. For instance, it was commonplace for certain team members to exchange screenshots of private text messages. It was also normal for leaders to publicly divulge personal information that was shared in confidence.

Culturally, the notion of privacy and psychological safety were, well, non-existent.

When we were younger and greener, we thought this was just standard-fare internal politics. But we later realized it had much more serious implications.

As time went on, we realized that the institutionalized lack of respect for privacy was also stifling creativity. New ideas weren’t being shared by team members because, frankly, they weren’t sure if their ideas would be brought up and lambasted at the next employee all-hands meeting.

That diminishing sense of innovation and creativity started to show in the work. People took fewer risks. They shied away from bigger goals. They kept their best ideas for their side hustles outside the company walls. In short, it diminished the potential to cultivate high-performing teams.

And, wouldn’t you know it, the company became known for middle-of-the-road, vanilla solutions.

Yes, this may be an extreme example, but in this new era of hybrid work environments, the notion of psychological safety is even more important than ever. Any team member could secretly record a confidential meeting, share a screenshot of a private conversation, create and circulate an abusive meme ridiculing the armchair in a team member's living room backdrop…

As project leaders, there are some simple but important steps that we can take to tip the scales within our sphere of influence. Here are three best practices ripped from my conversations with folks far more knowledgeable than myself when it comes to how to create psychological safety and address toxic work cultures:

1. Reinforce ground rules regularly

Projects are often their own ecosystems with unusual mixes of folks who might not always work together. But for that reason, it’s important to be clear about the things that will not be tolerated within that ecosystem.

Even if you think they’re obvious (no hate speech, no bullying, be respectful, etc.), find the time in your team interactions to make sure everyone is clear on the ground rules and the repercussions.

2. Expect to have difficult conversations

As leaders, we will have team members come to us with challenges and issues they are facing with the project or within the project team. This could include heavier things like sexual harassment, discrimination, and verbal abuse. If you’ve built a reputation as the nice, happy-go-lucky DPM like I did, confronting team members about this won’t be comfortable.

But it needs to be done. It’s also important to make sure that your team members understand that you value their mental health and well being, and are there for them to help escalate such matters, should they arise. 

3. Take a "thanks, but no thanks" stance

If a team member sends you a screenshot or recording of a private conversation, let them know that you’d prefer not to have those be part of your discussion. Most of the time, it was just because they were being lazy and didn’t realize how slippery the slope was. And for those other times, at least they know you won’t be complicit in that kind of behavior.

But I think there’s an even bigger question here: how do we create psychological safety specifically in distributed work environments?

That’s exactly the question that we discussed in a recent live Ask Me Anything session with diversity & inclusion champion and newly-minted DPM Expert, Samantha Schak. In this members-only event, Samantha shared her take on how psychological safety fosters innovation and fielded questions on how to translate that psychological safety into your remote team environments. 

If AMA sessions are something that’s interesting and relevant to you, consider becoming a member of our community. Membership allows you to participate in conversations like these to help you navigate complexity and grow continuously as a digital leader.

What Do You Think? 

So here’s our challenge to you: what sort of steps should we be taking to create and reinforce a psychologically safe environment for our teams in this post-pandemic era of work?

We’d love to hear your thoughts! Please share them below! Also, you can read more about the difference between project leaders and project managers here.

And don’t forget to subscribe to The Digital Project Manager’s newsletter, where we’re sharing more tips for virtual work in the context of project management.

Galen Low
By Galen Low

Galen is a digital project manager with over 10 years of experience shaping and delivering human-centered digital transformation initiatives in government, healthcare, transit, and retail. He is a digital project management nerd, a cultivator of highly collaborative teams, and an impulsive sharer of knowledge. He's also the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager and host of The DPM Podcast.