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How To Create A Psychologically Safe Zoom Room

By Dr. Nicole Lipkin –  Organizational Psychologist & Speaker on Leadership and Mental Agility

nicole lipkin leadership speaker 300x180 - How To Create A Psychologically Safe Zoom Room

We’ve all had the experience of asking someone how they’re doing, they answer “Fine,” but it’s easy to see they’re anything but fine. We naturally read people’s body language, facial expressions, and the emotional vibe emanating from them when we are face to face.

A person could previously rely on these ingrained methods when interacting with colleagues or employees. Virtual meetings and check-ins, however, present a tricky situation. We have lost the in-person check-in and thus reading the room and reading a person’s emotional state is no longer easy. It’s almost like we’ve lost our sense of smell.

If a coworker answers “Fine” when asked how they are, it’s harder to tell if they’re glossing over the truth or if they really are fine. In fact, many employees aren’t opening up and leaders aren’t catching the signs that they’re actually not fine.

Anxiety, depression, burnout, and feelings of isolation have increased during the pandemic. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, “53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.” This is up from 32% recorded in March.

There was a collective concern at the onset of the pandemic for everyone’s mental health. Seven months later, however, there might be a presumption that we’ve collectively come out on the other side, psychologically speaking.

However, those who have adapted to the “new normal” – particularly leaders – may not be aware that there are many still suffering from pandemic-related mental health issues, like stress. It’s important for leaders to acknowledge that it’s normal to still be feeling this way because we are still knee-deep in it.

Thus, employees experiencing these emotions may not want to come off as a burden and may not reveal how they’re doing if not pressed.

If a leader wants to continue to build trust and engagement, it’s a smart idea to get acquainted with the virtual signs, and also to create psychological safety, remotely.

Reading the virtual signs and creating psychological safety remotely requires some new rules.

For starters, don’t meet more than you have to. This was always a good rule to live by, but particularly so during quarantine. Time is more precious now and everyone’s being pulled in different directions at home. Check in with people, hold a weekly meeting but try not to meet excessively. It will only stress everyone out as they scramble to meet the demands of home and work.

Be vulnerable. If a leader shows his/her vulnerability it will make others feel more comfortable to be vulnerable themselves. Leaders who act like a pandemic-induced quarantine has no effect on them will create emotional distance between them and their people. By the same token, implementing an expiration date for how long a pandemic or quarantine should affect someone will also chip away at the relationship. Instead, allow for some humanness to shine through. Express your own frustrations and vulnerabilities. This will signal that it’s okay for employees to be honest about their situation, which will in turn make it much easier to read the room on zoom.

Start sessions asking if this is a good time for everyone. Sure, if we were all in the office this wouldn’t be relevant, but now with kids at home and other competing responsibilities things are different. Giving your people a chance to reschedule or postpone for a few minutes – if need be – is huge. This allows for flexibility which gives a sense of agency for employees. Allowing people to have ownership over their time will create engagement, trust, and appreciation.

Ask if anyone has questions – “Is it ok to push forward?” Just like you did (hopefully) during in-person meetings, you want to make sure all voices are heard. Before moving on to the next item on the agenda, ask if anyone has questions or anything else to share. This gives everyone a chance to voice any lingering concerns. Of course people may still hesitate to voice something out loud that all can hear.

One word answers might be a sign. If someone answers “fine” or “good” or “I’m OK” when asked how they’re doing accompanied by an enthusiastic or exasperated tone – it could be an indication that they are actually the opposite. It of course could also mean they are being honest and nothing is wrong, but these pat answers are also signs of those who are experiencing mental unrest. Check for tone and facial expressions to discern if someone might be hiding their true mental state.

The opportunity in all of this is a chance for leaders to flex their empathy muscle. Checking in with employees, letting them know you are interested in how they are doing goes a long way in building trust and rapport. An employee will likely stay with a company where they feel understood and appreciated even if they could get higher pay elsewhere.

If remote working becomes more popular than going to an office, leadership skills will need to be revamped; building employee engagement will require new methods. Since we will all be in our respective homes it will require employees speaking up about their needs. In order for that to happen, a leader needs to lay the groundwork for employees feeling comfortable to speak up in the first place.




    About Dr. Nicole Lipkin

    Dr. Nicole Lipkin is an organizational psychologist, speaker and the author of What Keeps Leaders Up At Night: Recognizing and Resolving Your Most Troubling Management Issues and Y in the Workplace: Managing the ‘Me First’ Generation. Nicole’s aim is to help organizations, leaders and their teams develop behaviors and practices that increase personal and organizational resilience and sustainability by integrating the science of human behavior with practical approaches to business and leadership challenges.


    To Learn more about Dr. Nicole Lipkin contact [email protected]

    Derek Sweeney is the Director of Speaker Ideas at The Sweeney Agency. www.thesweeneyagency.com. For 15 years Derek has been helping clients find the right Speakers for their events. Derek can be reached at 1-866-727-7555 or [email protected]

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