For a company to grow and thrive, it needs to have a culture that encourages innovation. That can only happen if employees feel that it is safe for them to take risks at work.
What is emotional safety?
People feel emotionally safe when they feel comfortable being themselves and showing who they are. Emotional safety refers to a person’s perception that it is safe to take interpersonal risks and to be vulnerable — that they won’t be mocked or penalized for making mistakes, asking questions, or coming up with new ideas.
Emotional safety and psychological safety
Emotional safety is often called “psychological safety.” The two terms refer to the same thing.
What is emotional safety at work?
Emotional safety at work refers to an employee’s perception that it’s okay to make mistakes, bring up problems, discuss tough issues, and ask for help. In an emotionally safe workplace, employees believe that their unique talents and skills are valued and will be used, and that their co-workers won’t deliberately try to undermine them.
This is very similar to personal emotional safety, except that to feel emotionally safe at work, employees need to believe that they won’t face work-related consequences for taking risks — that they won’t be thought less of, sidelined, ostracized, kept from working on desirable projects, or even be demoted or fired.
[Read More: Microaggressions in the Workplace]
The importance of emotional safety at work
A few years ago, Google conducted a large study to find out what made teams effective. The researchers found that emotional safety was “by far” the most important dynamic for team effectiveness.
The study found that employees who felt the most emotionally safe were rated “effective” by the company’s executives twice as often as other employees and that these employees generated more revenue for the company. Emotionally safe employees also were more likely to stay at the company and more likely to get full use out of their coworkers’ diverse ideas.
Another study, this one conducted by Gallup, found that only three out of 10 workers in the U.S. “strongly agreed” that their opinions counted at work. The importance of emotional safety in the workplace was underscored when the researchers found there would be tremendous benefits to organizations if twice as many employees (six out of 10) believed their opinions mattered. In that situation:
- Productivity would increase by 12%,
- Turnover would drop by 27%, and
- Safety incidents would be reduced by 40%.
How to create emotional safety at work
There are several things that every employee can do to help create an atmosphere of emotional safety at work:
- Be open about your own fallibility. Don’t pretend that you are perfect or that you never make mistakes.
- Be openly curious. Ask a lot of questions. Try to be a role model for others who may feel reluctant to show that they don’t know everything.
- Discuss your work in terms of it being a learning process.
How to improve emotional safety at work
Managers can enhance the emotional safety of their teams by:
- Validating comments
- Recapping agreements
- Focusing on solutions instead of assigning blame
- Being approachable
- Expressing gratitude
- Soliciting and acknowledging employees’ input and opinions
- Modeling risk-taking
- Being engaged
- Being open about their own work preferences
The link between emotional safety and diversity
Even when an organization hires a diverse workforce, the company’s culture may not be as diverse as it could be. That’s because employees who don’t look like top management may not feel like they are included or that they truly belong in the organization. Emotional safety enhances feelings of inclusion and can help employees of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and cultural backgrounds feel that they belong. When all employees feel included, then the benefits of diversity can be fully realized.
[Read More: Diversity Training Programs]
Emotional safety survey and questions
To gauge current levels of emotional safety at work, management can ask employees:
- Do you believe you are penalized for your mistakes?
- Are people here sometimes rejected for being different?
- Are you comfortable bringing up tough issues?
- Do you feel safe taking risks?
- Is it difficult to ask for help?
- Is anyone trying to undermine your contributions?
Final thoughts: emotional safety at work
Emotional safety at work has significant proven benefits. It increases productivity, revenue, and employee retention. It enhances diversity efforts by helping all employees feel included, and it promotes a sense of belonging. Emotionally safe organizations gain access to the full range of their employees’ unique talents and skills.
Everyone in an organization can help promote emotional safety. Management plays a role, but so can every individual employee. You can increase your own sense of emotional safety and encourage your coworkers to feel the same by practicing and modeling being more open, acknowledging mistakes, being present and engaged in meetings, asking questions, and framing work problems as learning experiences.