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In one of my earlier articles , I had proposed the use of behavioral nudges to help improve project governance. After reading an HBR article this week in which the authors provided a number of suggestions on how to sustain newly adopted behaviors in the context of the imminent return to in-person office work, I thought that a nudge-based approach might also help with increasing psychological safety.

On the surface, this might seem like a bad idea. After all, if your prevailing culture is toxic, drastic actions might need to be taken to see meaningful improvements. There could be a few “bad apples” at all levels of the organization structure who won’t change and may need to be shown the door. There would also be some benefit in providing education to all staff on the importance of psychological safety and what they can personally do to build it.

But once the dust has settled on these overt tactics, different approaches are needed to sustain the desired types of behavior.

At the risk of necro-quoting, following Gretzky’s “I skate to where the puck is going” approach will work well when hiring if we bring on new staff who are committed to creating safe environments, but what about our existing staff?

Hallway posters are not the solution. “Loose lips sink ships” might have worked during past war times, but we are playing the long game when we want to build psychological safety. And with the strong likelihood that flex-place arrangements will persist well beyond the end of the pandemic, such visual cues won’t translate well to the virtual world.

Rewarding or recognizing behaviors which promote safety helps, but if not designed properly, such carrots could generate unwanted consequences and won’t generally contribute to long-term sustainability

But if we think of Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and 2 model from Thinking, Fast and Slow, a well-designed nudge could shift the cognitive System 2 process required to behave in a different, safer manner to the lower effort, default-driven lazy System 1.

One example of such a nudge might be an add-in for e-mail, persistent chat and instant messaging tools which would analyze content as you type it and offer suggestions on different wording. Such an assistant should be more like the intelligent suggestion capabilities offered in e-mail platforms such as Gmail rather than the reviled Microsoft Clippy assistant which plagued MS Office 2000 users.

Another nudge could be an assistant which would analyze received text content to proactively alert you that it might contain bad news so that you can be better prepared to respond to it.

And yet another would be to use virtual backgrounds in video conferences with key messages highlighted so that while we are speaking with someone, the importance of safety remains front and center.

If developing sustainable psychological safety is a journey, it might keep rolling with a few nudges.

(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on  and on  as well as a number of other online book stores)

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