Psychological Safety on Zoom

When I facilitate in-person sessions, I frequently tell participants that I cannot guarantee that we’ll co-create a “safe space” together. They looked shocked. I go on to explain that the pre-existing power dynamics that will outlast our time together are outside of my control and inevitably affect people’s sense of safety in the room. What I can promise, however, drawing on the work of Amy Edmondson and others, is a session where people treat each other respectfully and have roughly equal airtime — two elements that do contribute to a psychologically safe session. Necessary but not sufficient conditions.

I’m learning that facilitating online introduces different requirements for co-creating a safe and positive collaborative space, particularly when the stakes are high. This thinking is still very much a “work in progress,” but here are some initial observations:

  • Chat. Some people find the chat feature an amazing benefit. People can check things with each other without interrupting the flow of the meeting and can enrich the conversation with additional observations. They can gather a large volume of input in a short time. For others, keeping up with the chat requires too much multi-tasking. It is a distraction, like a side conversation would be in an in-person session. I’ve been in a workshop where the facilitator actually disabled the chat in order to help participants focus on the conversation in the main room. Some people welcomed that approach, while others felt silenced or over-managed. You also can’t read people’s tone as accurately or consistently in a chat. I’ve been in sessions where the chat dynamic diverged considerably from the main space, in content and vibe. Having a technical producer or another colleague monitoring the chat did help, but not sufficiently to avoid people getting upset when they felt that the rules of respectful engagement were not being upheld in that space. It’s quite possible for people to dominate the conversation in ways that would be managed differently by the facilitator aloud in the main room than in the chat thread, which poses a challenge in real time.
  • Video. There are many reasons why people may choose to turn off their video, ranging from wanting to hide a messy or distracting background, to hiding the fact that they are doing other things in the midst of the meeting, to wanting a moment of privacy to gather their thoughts or get their emotions in check. As a facilitator, I prefer to see people’s faces and I usually tell them so. It helps me read the room, encourages presence and keeps the energy up. But I am careful not to insist on it, as people need agency in choosing their level of privacy too. Remember that lurking at the back of the room is challenging on Zoom unless you turn off your video, and participants may be missing that listen-only option in digital spaces.
  • Anonymity. It is possible for participants to change their name on Zoom to reflect what they want to be called. This feature can also be used to make people’s comments anonymous in the chat, or even orally when combined with turning their video off. Not surprisingly, this too is a double-edged sword. I appreciate giving people options about how they’d feel most comfortable inhabiting the space, but have also experienced other participants resisting that choice. As one said, “If we were together in person, you would not have the option not to show your face.”
  • Punctuality. Zoom meetings generally start and end on time. Participants can be given the opportunity to linger beforehand or afterwards, and lately they’ve wanted to do so. But the facilitator/host does have the power to determine hard start and end times more firmly than in person. One participant told me how much she appreciates having the option to slide into a meeting a couple of minutes late so she can avoid the small talk with difficult team members at the start. Her comment helped me be more mindful about how I ease people into and out of meetings, or don’t.

I would welcome continuing this conversation. What are you learning about using digital facilitation platforms to foster safety in groups?

6 Replies to “Psychological Safety on Zoom”

  1. Rebecca, I am surprised by – and appreciative of – your statement about telling participants that you are not able to create a ‘safe space.’ I hadn’t considered that. And the mere fact that you say it must also help create the awareness in the room around the issues that can detract from psychological safety.

    I can’t offer more tips/ideas about creating psychological safety, but for the people who prefer to slide in at the last minute, I’ll often tell people that ‘gathering time’ is 10 minutes before ‘start time.’

    1. I like this “gathering time” idea, Susan! I’ve been experimenting with different ways to create it, to avoid awkwardly staring at each other on Zoom. Music helps, but it’s hard for people to speak over top of it. I have them introduce themselves or answer a mingling question in the chat…

  2. It’s helpful to be aware of how power dynamics play out within online ‘spaces’ and read your considerable wisdom on different factors to consider in managing that.

    My favourite facilitation teachers encouraged me to facilitate to all four of the main learning style families: visual, auditory, read/write, and movement. There are good tools and techniques for the online format that speak to the first three learning styles. What kinaesthetic tools/techniques have you seen that translate to the digital realm without feeling too clumsy or uncomfortable?

    1. Today I used a dance party!

      I’ve also had people draw things (intros, key takeaways) and hold them up to the camera. Or bring an object back to the camera that has meaning for them. Or hold up a red or green object to show disagreement or support for an idea.

      You can also encourage people to use depth of field — sit farther back or lean in to communicate that they are listening or have something to say.

      A few ideas, but I’d welcome hearing more!

  3. Oh, there are so many intriguing parallels to who gets ‘voice’ and ‘face’ in communities with wide disparity and marginalization. This is good, Rebecca. I’m thinking of the years spent organizing focus groups for women, girls, day labourers, street people, the vulnerable, etc.; groups that would otherwise be silent in or barred from a community meeting. Depending on pre-existing familiarity, relationships and power within a group, I wonder about the effect of the ‘performative’ dimensions of Zoom that are different than in-person.

    1. So true! We need to be aware of the same things but have to promote/protect them in such different ways when using a new platform.

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