Three Elements of Emotional Safety

Take a moment and remember a time when you were operating at peak performance. You can probably remember how good it felt. You can probably also remember the things you didn't feel: fear, apprehension, tension, confusion, frustration. Communication was easy, confidence was high, and there was freedom to balance planning with creative spontaneity.

Now imagine that your team, and your entire working environment, is like this all the time.

What would it take to create an environment where people just naturally stay positive and productive - and their performance continually reflects that? In my experience as a clinical psychologist, MBA and management consultant, the answer is deceptively simple.


Human beings are emotional animals, and our emotions are active all the time -- even when we're at work and supposedly not being "emotional." If we feel safe from emotional duress and connected to those around us, then we can fully focus our mental and physical energy on the work tasks before us.

We can comfortably and happily unleash our potential.

From this perspective, emotional safety is not an end goal. Rather, it's a prerequisite for people to give their best to their teams and organizations. If you lead a team of any size, understanding emotional safety gives you powerful insights for creating an outstanding working environment, the kind that gets results consistently.


In this post we'll explore the three basic elements of emotional safety and how to develop them in your evolving workplace. They're like the three legs of a stool. You need all three for the stool to function.

The first element is accountability. In my work with nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike, often the most common problem they present to me is a lack of accountability. The surface symptoms vary from company to company, but underneath it the same root causes appear over and over: People do not trust that their leaders or coworkers will do what they say or live up to the values they espouse.

People with good ideas hold back because they're not sure their team has their back, or that their boss will continue to support them if a good idea takes a little more time to pay off. Leaders are constantly second-guessing:

"Was this person a good hire? Will they deliver what they promise?" No one is thriving fully. Everyone is at least partially inside an emotional shell.


If you think about it, much in our lives runs on accountability. We trust that the ingredients on food labels are accurate. We trust that the sales­person is going to give us a reasonable product recommendation. We trust that the ride-share driver knows the best route to our destination.

The more we have to question all these things, the more stress and un­certainty we feel. We become emotionally drained - or we avoid certain interactions entirely. When the reverse is true, we can move through life confidently without nagging worry. We try new things with a positive attitude.

A great workplace is like that: people feel safe to contribute and grow because they trust that everyone else is, too.


If you think about it, much in our lives runs on accountability. We trust that the ingredients on food labels are accurate. We trust that the sales­person is going to give us a reasonable product recommendation. We trust that the ride-share driver knows the best route to our destination.

The more we have to question all these things, the more stress and un­certainty we feel. We become emotionally drained - or we avoid certain interactions entirely. When the reverse is true, we can move through life confidently without nagging worry. We try new things with a positive attitude.

A great workplace is like that: people feel safe to contribute and grow because they trust that everyone else is, too.

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The second element of an emotionally safe workplace is communication. In almost every organization I have encountered, there was some level of mis -communication.

Even the best-run companies know communication is a potential problem, and here's why: human communication gives us almost unlimited range to express ourselves, but that comes with an equally broad range for people to interpret what we have said. And as many studies show, our emotional state determines a lot of how we understand things that we hear or read. If we're angry, we interpret ambiguous communication in ways that amplify our anger. If we're feeling afraid, we can read potential threats into even innocuous corporate communications.

This is particularly true for texts and emails, where we lack the context of visual cues that would usually tell us if someone is kidding or serious.

For this reason, clear communication is essential to emotional safety at work. Any time that weak communication creates doubt, concern, confusion or anger in people, it fails. People who feel these reactions are not likely to work at peak performance.

Even more serious, many organizations withhold information from workers. Sometimes leaders don't know what's coming, or what to say, or they just reflexively don't like to tip their hand to anyone. But keeping people in the dark is not a way to unleash their emotional energy for higher performance. It's a way to keep them nervous and uncertain.


In contrast, the best working environments never let communication be the problem. Leaders are transparent with what they know and see coming. Successes are shared widely and often.

Even tough news is communicated in ways that keep people safe to express their reactions and come to terms with what they're just learned.


It's no surprise that the best "crisis managers," the people who can consistently come in and turn around troubled divisions or operations, tend to be outstanding and committed communicators. They turn the lights up bright so no one is in the dark and everyone can contribute to solving problems.

If you want to test the quality of communication in your organization, ask the members of your team individually to tell you what their job is. Ask for details, such as their top three to five priorities and strategies for achieving them.

Compare what they tell you to what you think they're supposed to be doing. If the alignment is high, communication is effective. If the alignment is not so high, you're in the same situation as many businesses: people aren't sure what their job is because it has not been communicated to them successfully.


Another easy test of communication - particularly for measuring people's level of emotional safety - is to ask them for some candid feedback. (Of course, you have to be prepared to hear some things you might not expect or like.) Ideally people respond comfortably with honest positives and negatives.

They're confident they won't get punished for responding authentically to your request. They actively appreciate the opportunity to share their impressions with you, because they're doing it in service to the team and the organization. If they duck the question, or become obviously uncomfortable, the level of emotional safety is low.


You really want that feedback, by the way, because feedback is the third leg of the stool for emotional safety.

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The fact is that humans are wired for connection with each other. We're emotional beings, and the reactions we get from others give us the most fundamental information we can get: whether we're accepted and safe with those around us, or we're not.

People need this feedback at work, just like they need it from their spouses, partners, kids, and friends. When people can give and receive feedback, they can relax. They know where they stand with each other. And when they can get feedback that helps them improve their performance and develop their careers, they move beyond safety - they get excited or inspired.

They feel they can take greater risks for greater rewards. And if the risk doesn't pan out, they know it will be utilized as a useful lesson for the organization, not a personal failure for them.


It should be clear why the three elements of emotional safety -accountability, communication and feedback - are interdependent.

Accountability means knowing that people will follow through with what they say they will do, so it ensures a base level of trust for everyone.

Clear communication ensures that we are in fact saying what we intend to do, or what we need others to do, so it's essential for maintaining accountability. Even when things are tough, feedback that is clear, complete, and non­judgmental enhances confidence and trust. And out of that confidence and trust come more creative ideas, more willingness to collaborate, more passionfor progress in positive directions.

When you have the foundation of emotional safety in place, people can naturally give more of themselves and the workplace evolves effortlessly, as if by itself. You have the foundation for people to be more creative at taking smarter risks, and for your business to be healthier and more prosperous.