Why Creating Emotional Safety at Work Builds Trust

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Unicorn Project" by Gene Kim. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you show your employees you have trust in them? How should you create an environment of emotional safety at work?

Trust at work goes a long way, especially from employers to employees. When an employee feels that sense of trust, you’re encouraging them to speak up when problems arise and work on solutions together.

Find out how to create a feeling of emotional safety at work, according to The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim.

Candor and Safety

A vital step toward productivity is to create an environment of intellectual and emotional safety at work. Employees need this to feel safe and encouraged to give and receive honest feedback, and also to alert their teams and supervisors when problems arise. Here, we’ll turn to books by other management experts who agree with Kim about openness in the workplace, but they make it clear that creating a culture of safe, honest feedback requires leaders to demonstrate caring, trust, and vulnerability. 

When errors were discovered during the Unicorn team’s first test run of promotional emails, the team held a meeting to diagnose and solve problems, not to find out who was “at fault.” In this kind of environment, the person responsible for an error is free to admit their mistakes without fear. Kim says that the purpose of these evaluative meetings shouldn’t be to punish errors but to find a way to prevent them from repeating. Ideally, admitting a mistake should be rewarded. When treated as learning experiences, mistakes can make the whole company stronger. 

Feedback and Vulnerability 

As Kim shows by depicting the IT department’s boost in morale, feedback does more than correct mistakes and improve productivity. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott argues that when leaders and workers commit to openness, they create a culture of mutual guidance and support. That openness has two sides: caring for others and challenging them. Caring means taking an interest in your colleagues that goes beyond their contributions at work, whereas challenging them means being ready and willing to have tough conversations about solving problems—conversations that go both ways. Before giving feedback, a leader builds trust by asking for guidance and setting an example of how to respond appropriately.

Doing so requires that a leader be vulnerable, which Parts Unlimited’s CEO finds difficult but necessary. In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown insists that allowing vulnerability in the workplace helps companies thrive. Brown defines vulnerability as exposure to the risk of failure or emotional harm. While some people think that showing vulnerability is a weakness, being open to vulnerability makes difficult conversations more productive by demonstrating honesty and reducing defensiveness. Acknowledging and dealing with vulnerability can help an organization recover more quickly when something goes wrong. After all, the emotional fallout of failure can be worked through more quickly if it’s not bottled up.

The digital studio Pixar is a dramatic example of a real-world business where candid feedback fueled remarkable growth. In Creativity, Inc., Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull describes the practices that fostered Pixar’s brand of flexible, collaborative artistry and creation, including frequent feedback meetings where everyone can be heard, setting clear boundaries to keep people focused, allowing safe spaces for experimentation, and holding diagnostic sessions like the ones Kim describes so that lessons can be learned after projects are done without assigning blame or punishing mistakes. These practices bring about a beneficial cycle in which the mistakes of one project lead to success and improvements in the next.
Why Creating Emotional Safety at Work Builds Trust

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  • Why the work of IT services must align with a company's goals
  • How an IT department can turn itself around after failure
  • The three pillars of IT management: workflow, feedback, and constant improvement

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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