Bridge Insights

Building an Emotionally Safe Workplace

Jan 5, 2022

The modern-day workplace did a complete 180 from what it was even two years ago. Despite these changes, employees still need a level of psychological security and emotional safety from their employer. And the number of workplaces where emotional safety is successfully cultivated is concerning. A recent study by Quantum Workplace showed less than 40% of employees are comfortable being emotionally transparent around leadership.

That means that 3 out of 5 professionals don’t.

If emotional safety is so highly coveted, why is it missing from nearly 2/3rds of all office places? What can leaders do to build it and why is it seemingly so hard to cultivate?

What is Emotional Safety?

Emotional and psychological safety manifests a little differently in the working world than in our personal lives. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, psychological safety is the belief of not being embarrassed, rejected, or punished for speaking up regarding ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

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What Does Emotional Safety in the Workplace Look Like?

In the workplace, the biggest hurdle employers must overcome in building emotional safety is combatting the fear that there will be negative repercussions for constructive feedback. This fear is not something that can be allayed overnight. Furthermore, building that trust is done wholly through actions.

So, how can leaders in the workplace make their employees feel psychologically safe at work (even when they are working from home)?

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Encourage Your Employees to Speak Up

If you want your team to speak up, you need to encourage and ask for your team’s input. It may be easier said than done, but it ultimately is that simple.
If your business currently struggles with a reputation of an emotionally unsafe work environment, don’t be surprised if you get no response or hot air the first few times this is implemented. To overcome this, start by encouraging feedback about situations that have little to no professional stakes or perceived wrong answers.  An example might be, “What would you like to see at the next potluck?” or “Are there any NFPs you think we should explore for next year’s Holiday Donation?”

How you frame questions also has an impact on creating emotional safety and the type of feedback you’ll receive. “What feedback would you give me as a supervisor?” and “What do you need from me to be successful?” address the same concerns, but do so in very different ways.

Remember building a rapport takes time, and trust is a fragile tower. Start slowly and have patience. Most importantly, however, when you do receive feedback, take action and follow up. Close the loop with the individual who voiced their opinion. Communicate the actions you took and the results (if any) achieved, because of their feedback. Most importantly, express your gratitude for candor.

Build Authentic Relationships

Productivity and communication are built on a foundation of strong intraoffice relationships. While this doesn’t mean leaders must know every detail about their employees’ lives, it does mean approaching these relationships with compassion and authenticity.
Showing genuine interest and details about your team is a great way to start this process. Asking questions like, “How was your weekend?” and, “What do you like to do for fun?” are simple but effective ways to get to know your employees on a more personal level.

If you see a team member who doesn’t seem like themselves or is experiencing a productivity drop, act with compassion and ask them how you as a person (not supervisor) can help. Approaching from a place of commpassion instead of accusation will not only serve as a microcosm for the emotionally safe culture you’re trying to build, but it also could yield critical information about your processes and the current state of your team as a whole.

Furthermore, getting to know your employees helps you understand how they learn, work and handle feedback, which can be beneficial when it comes to setting expectations and how to approach PDPs. Some people embrace coaching conversations; others beat themselves up. Familiarizing yourself will help you keep your team feeling emotionally supported, and help you build that internal team trust you seek much faster.

[blockquotes] In all steps to cultivate an emotionally safe workspace, you’ll notice a common thread: communication.[/blockquotes]

Failure Leads to Success

Even the journeys of great corporate titans are not without their setbacks. Take Walt Disney, for example. Although he built arguably the strongest global brand, success didn’t come easy. He was rejected over 300 times for the idea of Mickey Mouse and his theme parks.

Your team is no different. Everyone handles setbacks differently. While some may crumble over rejection, others can feel empowered to try again. As a leader, it’s important to know where you and your employees fall on this spectrum.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to build an environment where your employees know failure is not synonymous with poor performance. When people do something incorrectly or it doesn’t yield the expected outcome, they fear they will be reprimanded by their boss. If someone “fails”, encourage them to talk about it and how they can learn from their mistakes or avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

Create a Safe Space for Anonymity

For some people, the prospect of giving constructive feedback can be uncomfortable regardless of how safe a space you create. That does not mean, however, their ideas are without merit. For the individuals on your team who have concerns that they may not feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, opinions, concerns, etc., having a place where feedback can be given anonymously will go a long way. Creating a resource line, online suggestion box, conducting a regular survey, the added anonymity will go a long way in creating a trusted, neutral, safe space for your employees to voice their opinions.

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Incremental Change is Meaningful Change

In all steps to cultivate an emotionally safe workspace, you’ll notice a common thread: communication. After all, safety is built on trust, and at the core of that is open and honest discourse. If you want to enable your employees to speak up with any questions, comments, concerns, opinions, etc., they have, the onus is on you as a leader to extend the olive branch through meaningful action to show that that trust can be given. Embrace your team’s constructive feedback and thank them for their opinions –even if they may be tough to hear. While these steps individually won’t make a psychologically safe workspace, they are the building blocks that pave the road to it. Use these blocks, build on this, and know the future you’re paving for your team is bright.