What does it mean to say someone feels “emotionally safe” at work? Also referred to as psychological safety, emotional safety is about an individuals’ perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks at work. Essentially, it’s referring to an environment where employees feel secure enough to be able to share their thoughts and ideas freely without worrying that they’re potentially opening themselves up to negative reactions.
Why is emotional safety important?
There’s been extensive research into the benefits of emotional safety. One of the pioneers in the field, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, has shown it’s a critical factor for understanding phenomena such as employee voice, teamwork, and team and organizational learning.
Feeling emotionally safe means employees feel able to speak up and communicate openly. They aren’t held back by the fear that by voicing their views, they’re making themselves vulnerable to criticism. That’s vital for thriving businesses, particularly those that have safety-critical operations, such as in healthcare, where feeling unable to speak up could have devastating consequences. Research by Collins & Smith 2006 and Siemsen et al 2009 both found emotional safety helps explain why employees feel able to share information and knowledge. A sense of psychological safety is particularly important if the employees lack confidence.
Innovation and creativity is so important for many organizations, yet when people feel they can’t share thoughts and ideas freely, it’s impaired significantly. Employees who feel emotionally safe, particularly around leaders, are more likely to innovate and speak up with suggestions for organizational improvements, as this Academy of Management Journal research explains. They feel able to brainstorm ideas and put forward suggestions without feeling judged and will take a degree of measured risk because, even if the idea doesn’t fly, there will have been valuable learning happening during the process itself. They’re also more likely to be motivated to perform at their very best for the company.
Emotional safety goes hand in hand with a growth mindset, where cohesiveness and collaboration is valued and employees feel supported and cared about. There’s no sense of point-scoring going on. What really matters is everyone working together to try to get the results they need. As a consequence, people are far less likely to feel fearful about their jobs, which in turn enhances an overall culture of wellbeing.
If it’s good enough for Google…
Making emotional safety part of the everyday culture is something every company should be working towards. This is a view endorsed by the likes of Google; the company firmly believes in the significance of psychological safety having conducted a four-year study and concluding it’s the number one predictor of team success.
In fact, even at an organization famed for innovation and where you’d imagine staff are confident and knowledgeable, they found that big variances in psychological safety existed between different teams, and these variances correlated with individual team performance.
These variances within a single organization highlight the important role that management has to play when it comes to the emotional safety felt by their direct reports.
So, we know psychological safety at work is important, but what can your organization do to improve it? Here are 10 steps you can take to help improve emotional safety in your workplace.
Make it OK to make a mistake (and own up to it)
What would happen in your organization right now if someone made a mistake? For an employee to feel emotionally safe they need to know that if they make an error, people will not think any less of them for owning up to it – and in fact, for owning it too. Choose to actively embrace mistakes within your culture. It’s how people learn; in fact, thought leaders like ‘Black Box Thinking’ author Matthew Syed suggest it’s actually the key to success.
Worth noting is Edmondson’s own research looking into medical teams across America which found that it was the best teams that actually saw the most recorded errors – not because their doctors and nurses made more mistakes, but because they felt more able to question when they saw something that didn’t look right and able to speak up when they themselves had made an error.
Teams operating poorly and where psychological safety is in short supply are more likely to dismiss small errors, keep them to themselves or even go with the flow to avoid a dispute with higher-ups.
Show employees their contribution matters
A sense of emotional safety stems from feeling needed. Knowing their contributions matter reassures and gives confidence to employees. Not many employers can guarantee the future, but reassuring employees that they are valued provides a stronger sense of security in their role.
Give employees their own voice in the organization
Employees need to have a voice and to be able to freely express their thoughts and views. They need to feel it’s ok to speak up and they also need to know they’re being listened to. Take a look at what ways your company enables employees to make their voices heard at the moment and consider whether there are opportunities to do more.
Everyone is different, and that’s something that should be recognized and valued. Rather than making appreciation just about achieving results, make sure there are also opportunities to celebrate individualism and the different perspectives that exist inside your company. That breadth of perspective is worth its weight in gold.
Focus on increasing trust
Genuine trust develops as people form authentic and supportive relationships with one other. It involves letting people be themselves and not be afraid of being a bit vulnerable with each other – and that includes at the leadership level. By taking time with one another, and finding ways to express appreciation and support, levels of trust can increase.
Encourage compassion from management
Would you say your managers display compassion and empathy towards employees?
It’s likely most of them do – but where it can sometimes fall down is when the pressure is on and people become so wrapped up in what they need to do, they’re less likely to register someone else’s needs. Given all the challenges managers face that’s understandable, but they need to hear from the organization that looking out for their employees is an important part of their role. It’s essential for emotional safety and for the bigger wellbeing picture too.
No company wants to encourage reckless behavior. But an inability to accept a degree of measured risk-taking and an intolerance of the notion of ‘failure’ can mean the organization is quashing an innovation mindset. Emotionally safe workplaces encourage considered risk-taking. Even when mistakes are made, or attempts don’t work out, encourage your employees to appreciate and get value out of the learning that results.
In an economy centered around knowledge as opposed to industrial output, and where added value culminates from the collaboration of many disciplines within an organization, it’s important that employees (and management) understand that risks and mistakes can and will be made throughout a process, yet these are important to develop a successful final outcome.
Recognize their efforts
Is no news good news? Not when it comes to recognizing people’s efforts.
It used to be generally accepted that if you weren’t getting a flea in your ear from your manager, you could take it you were doing a good job. That wasn’t a great assumption anyway, but there’s no way that would cut it now. To younger employees in particular, silence can be deafening.
People need to be told they’re doing well. Employees must hear that their efforts, as well as results, are appreciated on an ongoing basis. That way, they’ll know what they’re doing is seen, valued and endorsed by the people around them, whether that’s their manager, their peers or subordinates. It makes people feel emotionally safer by giving them the reassurance that, even if the outcomes aren’t what they’d immediately hoped for, they’re doing a good job. As a result, they’ll feel encouraged to keep on trying and contributing.
Employees who feel excluded for any reason are far less likely to feel emotionally safe. So look at steps you can take to promote greater diversity and inclusivity. Think about steps like setting up networks to promote greater inclusion and facilitating more flexible working practices that open up opportunities to people who might otherwise struggle to meet specific company requirements.
Create space for positive feedback
Creating the space to facilitate positive feedback is a powerful way for an organization to encourage a sense of emotional safety. Done well, feedback can be an effective technique for praising people and reinforcing specific positive behaviors.
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