Optimize Team Collaboration and Productivity by Fostering Emotional Safety at Work

Riding the train to work this morning, the man sitting next to me on the train decided he’d use the pole as his personal foot recliner while leisurely chatting up a storm with his buddy. Intrigued by his brazen behavior, I decided to put my book away and looked around to see if anyone else was taking notice of this spectacle. Scoping the scene, I came across an older gentleman who seemed to elicit the same reaction as me. I watched him stare the young man down, judgement spewing from his eyeballs.

I too was judging and couldn’t understand why he’d think his behavior was was normal?! Didn’t he realize that his dirty shoe was on a poll that other people besides HIM held on too? I shook my head, rolled my eyes, and let out a defeated sigh. It then occurred to me that he must have been completely oblivious to his actions.

And that’s how most people live their lives; going through their day on autopilot, not thinking, feeling, or being present (I’m guilty of this too sometimes). Then I realized that none of the passengers eyeing him suspiciously (including myself) said anything, even though the contempt was written all over our faces. I was over here, boldly judging him in my mind yet I couldn’t have the courage to make a comment about what I believed to be “wrong” or rather, an inconsiderate and selfish gesture.

I thought about how this experience relates to the environment at work and how often employees are afraid to express themselves because there’s a presumption that being forthright will lead to condemnation. How many of us feel this way on a daily basis? How many of us are scared to speak up because we don’t feel safe to speak our truth? Or we are simply afraid of being judged, condemned, or ostracized? I know I battle with this all the time. And in my mind, I’ve created a narrative that reads along the lines of “I might offend someone if I speak up” or better yet, if I speak my truth, I won’t be accepted, liked, or the worst of all, I fear that I won’t belong.

At work, when our very basic need of feeling safe is not met, it leads to distress, disengagement, and distrust. It’s especially tough when it is coupled with a leader that lacks self-awareness and a disregard for the feelings of his/her team. So how can we, as leaders, foster a sense of emotional safety in the workplace so that employees feel comfortable to be their true authentic selves? You can start by working on your self-awareness and then lead by example. Be forthcoming about your mistakes and show empathy, especially during more challenging situations. Use your unique position to create a positive atmosphere where employees are not only encouraged to be honest, they are supported and guided throughout, especially when obstacles arise.

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