EPowerment Principle #2: Emotional Safety

emotional-safetyLast week I presented the first of the five principles to achieve EPowerment (empowerment through EQ, enabled by the e-connections that allow for unprecedented 24/7 access to new people, new communities, and new knowledge sources – any combination of which can foster truly never-before-seen levels of empowerment). The first learning principle to achieve this was the Extended Learning Model. The second one is Emotional Safety.

A recent study of over 40,000 participants asked people to rank ten places from an emotional and personal safety perspective. On the list were bars, homes, workplace, gyms, airports, etc. It was noted that the workplace ranked amongst the bottom of list — even below bars. In other words, people feel emotionally safer in a bar than they do at work. Though this may seem odd, it really should not. The researchers inquired why and respondents cited the workplace as a place where they had to be on their best behaviors, in their best clothes, and at their best performance or else the consequences could be fairly severe and ranging from losing your job to being stereotyped to simply having others getting cherry opportunities and promotions in the future. 

It never quite occurred to me, but just think of the effort that goes into preparing to go to work each day — wearing the right clothes, showing up and leaving at specific times, balancing work and life needs, and being constantly “on stage” in front of others co-workers, bosses, or customers/clients. At times such as these, when more and more Americans are spending longer hours at work than ever before, both physically and mentally, then work can truly be an emotionally exhausting place. Contrast this to a bar where you show up and leaves whenever you want, you leverage the alcohol to loosen up the nerves and take a little more risk with the opposite gender, and perhaps even yell, scream, and groove to the music – and suddenly it becomes clear why a bar rated emotionally safer than one’s workplace.

This begs a profound question – do people perform their best when they feel emotionally safe or when they feel vulnerable? This question, fortunately has been answered in numerous studies. The answer is, performance goes up when people feel emotionally safe. So how can it be that this basic tenet is continuously, and in many cases, atrociously ignored by managers and leaders? Do you feel safe to say things like: I don’t know, I am confused, that’s a bad idea, I am afraid of that. Most of us don’t. And yet, these are the very attributes of a high-performing person and team since they lead to fundamental diligence of tasks at hand.

There is additional research suggesting that the culprit in creating emotionally unsafe environments are not just the employer or leader, it is the human being himself, too. All of our external characteristics, as it turns out, such as what we look like, what our title is, where we work, where our office space is, what we know and don’t know – all these external characteristics are actually barriers to substantive learning. Studies repeatedly show that the only attribute required for substantive learning is the ability to simply share what is truly on your mind. External characteristics cause us to revert to the instinctive fight or flight mode in lieu of emotionally safe and intellectually rational modes of learning. This fight or flight mode acts as a deterrent to high performance. Working adults today have built up enough defense mechanisms and shields to protect nuclear weapons! And think about how much effort it takes to be in a constant defensive mode versus a creative and high performing mode. A very good friend of mine is a former NFL player and he has a great perspective: Our coach used to tell us that if we’re not on the offense, someone else is moving the ball forward on us. Those with higher EQs are unquestionably moving the ball forward as they have figured out healthy balances between risk and reward and can intelligently leverage their skills to promote their gifts and talents.

To get to empowerment, the role of emotional safety cannot be overemphasized or underscored enough. It is critical for a learner to feel emotionally safe while acquiring and practicing new skills so that old thinking and habits can be replaced with newer and better ones.


8 responses to “EPowerment Principle #2: Emotional Safety

  1. Just came across this while working on a piece on workplace bullying. Actually, there is significant research that shows that in bullying workplaces, productivity is NOT affected in terms of quantity or quality — in fact people may work harder because they want to avoid being bullied. What does diminish is the “extra” stuff that comes with engagement — like being nice to customers, engaging in humanizing behaviors with colleagues, etc. I was surprised to follow this line of research and have my own belief that safety was directly tied to productivity debunked, especially because so many advocates declare the connection between the two so authoritatively. See f/i the work of Bennett Tepper at UNC and Harvey Hornstein of Columbia.

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  3. Kurt Stephen

    Thank you for your work:

    I work as a corporate development and training specialist, my work brings me across these areas a lot, but for years I just couldn’t put my finger on it… …what it was, a label that really that fit the issue/product.

    My work/research with phenomenography sent me down the road of understand how we experience phenomena as an organisation or indeed as an individual.

    Recently, after a long organisational study, a review of the data [from a qualitative perspective] it hit me, the people don’t feel safe, the issue is ‘SAFETY’, the fact is, when you think about it, this phenomena is experienced across all organisations to one degree or another.

    After doing some research, I came across your work and another good article, Belief and Feeling: Evidence for an Accessibility Model
    of Emotional Self-Report
    Michael D. Robinson
    North Dakota State University
    Gerald L. Clore
    University of Virginia

    It’s worth the read. Thank you for this platform, it’s good to be involved in something that is all too real and goes beyond the notion of the other…

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