Atg Logo Vector

5 Steps to Improve Psychological Safety in a Virtual Team

Theresa Sigillito Hollema (she/her) shares a real-world case study of how an international team improved its psychological safety. Plus, join her upcoming free live event, “Managing Global Teams: Ideas to Improve Collaboration and Impact,” in SWE's Advance Learning Center on April 17!
Theresa Sigillito Hollema graphic for blog post about how to improve psychological safety

Psychological safety has been a popular concept in the business press lately, particularly after a Google study of teams highlighted psychological safety as a key characteristic of high-performance teams. Many managers ask, “How do we foster psychological safety, particularly in a virtual team?” Fortunately, I interviewed a team in which psychological safety improved due to a new leadership approach.

The benefits of psychological safety go straight to performance. Team members are more engaged, share more information, and are more productive. In diverse teams, psychological safety is one of the reasons they are more creative.

The evidence is compelling, but the steps to develop psychological safety are illusive. Various activities combine to create an environment where people feel free to speak openly, and managers need examples to make the concepts concrete. The virtual team I interviewed, which was distributed across offices in three different countries, serves as an informative example.

The virtual team received a new manager who had a different view towards creating the team. He and the team made the following changes together, which resulted in one team member explaining, “We are not afraid to ask anymore. Before, I was hesitant as I would not throw things in the open.”

1. Build a Team Identity

In this example, the manager prioritized creating the feeling of one team. He eliminated boring reporting meetings and replaced them with topics that interested everyone. The team initiated activities that brought them together, including coffee breaks. A surprisingly insightful sharing activity, “tell us your favorite book,” helped team members feel included.

2. Focus on the Unique Individuals

Belonging involves two elements: each person identifies themselves as part of the team and each person feels valued for their unique characteristics. The team manager was immediately interested in the competences and characteristics of each person.

In addition, the manager met one-on-one with each person. As he explained, “Each one-on-one is different, and it is not dependent on me. What we speak about and how we engage varies dramatically from person to person. It is the way that person and I foster the dialogue. It really depends on what happens specifically between us.”

3. Emphasize Team Learning

The virtual team scheduled “lunch and learns” where members could share their ideas. They invited different external stakeholders to these meetings to have a broader understanding of the business. The team manager facilitated the conversations and encouraged open dialogue.

4. Leverage Communication Tools

A pleasant surprise for the team was the impact a simple Microsoft Teams chat had on their feeling of personal connection. Team members shared fun posts, gifs, birthday wishes, and local celebrations. Each person treated the chat forum with respect and participated as they wished.

5. Model Vulnerability

An underlying component of psychological safety is the willingness to be vulnerable, which starts with the manager role-modeling that vulnerability is ok.

As one team member explained, “When the barriers and the walls come down – today, I am having a crap day, my computer crashed, a customer yelled at me. Everyone has these days, and to know that your manager also has these days and is willing to share it in a professional way without bringing everyone down [is powerful].” Others followed, thereby creating the space to share personal bad days without any repercussions.

These activities, combined with the attitude of the manager and team members, created a psychologically safe environment. People started asking more questions, reaching out to others, and learning together. Even though they worked in different countries, the team improved how they interacted and functioned together.

The live event, “Managing Global Teams: Ideas to Improve Collaboration and Impact,” takes place on Wednesday, April 17, at 10 a.m. CT. The session is free for SWE members, and Theresa will provide practical ideas for managers who want to tap into the potential of global collaboration. Register today to reserve your spot!


  • Theresa Sigillito Hollema

    Theresa Sigillito Hollema (she/her) is a consultant, trainer and speaker focused on supporting international leaders and teams to develop cultural competence, virtual competence, and global leadership. She is the author of "Virtual Teams Across Cultures: Create Successful Teams Around the World."

    View all posts