Leading remote teams

You might have experienced that it’s not always easy to be an effective leader when your team is based in different places and/or different time zones.

And, now is the time when you need techniques for leading a remote team.

‘Psychological safety’ can help them transform how they approach their role – Sebastian Salicru, business psychologist.

What’s the main challenge for managers leading remote teams?

  • Distance between team members
  • Different locations
  • Time zones
  • Mix of national and professional cultures

The psychological distance that can exist between team members – to overcome this, one way to prevent or overcome this critical concern is by developing something known as ‘psychological safety’.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the shared belief held by members of a team that this team is a safe place for interpersonal risk-taking. Contrary to common wisdom, teams that are willing to discuss mistakes actually make fewer of them. This is because they learn faster and improve their performance by reducing future error rates. Team members are more likely to ask each other for help before it’s too late. They don’t need to pretend they know everything or are infallible so they look good in front of others.

Pretending that you know how to do something when you actually don’t, and keeping silent when you see something suspicious or not right, is a recipe for disaster.

Imagine a young co-pilot, working for a large commercial airline, who notices that his pilot-in-command may have made a crucial mistake just before taking off on a long international flight. He’s thinking about alerting his superior but then he remembers the dismissive comments he received the last time he asked about the navigation instruments in the cockpit. Later, just under an hour after take-off, the aircraft disappears from air traffic controllers’ radar screens…

In an office, the results may be less dramatic, but they are no less significant for the business’s success. Teams operating in environments without psychological safety are motivated by fear, self-protection and managing the impression of competence.

In contrast, successful teams have a climate of openness and trust that enables them to talk freely about their mistakes. This allows them to learn more and solve problems better. In a climate of psychological safety, team members are willing to discuss errors because they realise that everyone’s voice needs to be heard if the team is to learn and succeed.

It does work.
In 2012, Google conducted Project Aristotle to investigate why some Google teams shone, while others stumbled. Psychological safety made the real difference when it comes to teamwork.

So what can you do to build psychological safety and trust in remote teams?

  1. Break the ice

On group conference calls where people don’t know each other, start with a short icebreaker question. This will help you lead a discussion about the team’s similarities and differences related to their complementary knowledge, skill sets and strengths. For example, “John, tell us briefly about you”, or “Krishna, what would you say are your top three strengths?”

  1. Choose the right technology

Success doesn’t necessarily rely on having the most up-to-date technology. Instead, it’s about using the right technology for the work in hand – particularly for conference calls. Video calls work much better than audio-only. They let the speaker see who they’re talking to and encourage other participants to be more involved in the meeting. Being able to read someone’s body language and emotions – not just their voice – is important.

  1. Give everyone a chance to lead

On projects, rotate the leader/facilitator role where possible. Each member to take responsibility and manage the team –  demonstrates and builds trust, invites greater participation and accountability.

  1. Set up a remote buddy system

Anyone who has scuba-dived will know the importance of having a buddy to rely on. Your job is to focus on the person you’re diving with: you are responsible for them, as they are for you.               At work, it’s the same thing. Link everyone with someone they can go to for support or advice. This helps employees know they have someone looking out for them. It also makes them feel valued to know that someone relies on them to do the same.

  1. Celebrate people and not just their achievements

This can be a particularly useful way to promote diversity and forge understanding between different cultures. Ask each team member to take some photographs or a video of the city where they live – each person has an opportunity to speak about themselves or something happening in their lives.

  1. Share failures and learnings

Success stories are great, but if they’re all you tell, your team will find it harder to relate to you. To build psychological safety, it’s better to share stories that show vulnerability, the foundation of trust. These could be stories that reveal mistakes you’ve made and what you’ve learnt from those mistakes.
You could also share ‘tension’ stories about tough decisions you’ve had to make or actions you’ve had to take. This will all help to bond the team.

Suresh Shah, Pathfinders Enterprise


My thoughts in writing above, are inspired by a thought leader, and a psycologist

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