The Importance of Emotional Safety in the Workplace

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Culture Code" by Daniel Coyle. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does it mean to say someone feels emotionally safe at work? What happens when emotional security is absent in the workplace?

When employees feel emotionally safe at work, they feel secure and are comfortable speaking out. When emotional safety is absent in the workplace, performance and efficiency drop drastically.

Read about the importance of emotional safety in the workplace and what happens when it’s missing.

Emotional Safety in the Workplace

In an emotionally safe work environment, employees are willing and able to speak out, regardless of the hierarchy of the company. This means that even the low-level intern has the ability to speak to the CEO, which makes them feel secure in their importance to the team. Though they may be a small cog in the machine, they are essential to its operation.

In an emotionally safe environment, team members feel valued. No one wants to feel like they’re not appreciated. Emotional safety lets team members

The Consequences of an Emotionally Unsafe Environment

Consequence #1: Negativity infects the workplace. When emotional safety is absent is the workplace, people work with a lingering sense of insecurity: Do I belong here? Is my work any good? Do other people want me here? These insecurities lead to the development of negative behaviors such as:

  • Arguing with team members 
  • Providing little to no effort 
  • Negating the energy in the room

Negativity is contagious. It spreads quickly between employees and disrupts productive workflow.

The Bad Apple Experiment

Forty 4-person groups attempted to develop a marketing plan for a startup. An actor was placed within each of these teams with the task of disrupting performance by injecting a negative behavior into the group (aggression, laziness, or depression). In almost all of the teams, the actor’s bad behavior corrupted the other team members, often leading the other members of the group to behave in a similar way to the actor.

On the sole productive team, a leader figure managed to defuse the actor’s negative behavior by responding to his hostility with non-biting humor and by navigating the group back to the task at hand. They managed to excel thanks to the leader’s ability to preserve the emotional safety of the workplace as the actor disrupted the volatile behavior.

Consequence #2: People make mistakes. When emotional safety is absent in the workplace, people will make mistakes in a number of ways:

  • Employees feel overwhelmed or stressed by the weight of expectations and start cutting corners to produce.
  • Employees no longer care about the position in which they are working. They do not feel heard or appreciated, and their work ethic drops quickly as a result.
  • Employees see no future with the company, and, therefore, have no incentive to go above and beyond.

You may try to fix these mistakes with aggressive, proactive discipline. However, discipline without connection creates resentment. When emotional safety in the workplace is absent, discipline in this manner demoralizes the workplace and makes even the most capable employees ineffective.

The Minuteman Missileers

The Minuteman Missileers oversee the protection and day-to-day upkeep of some of the most powerful weapons in the world. Despite their dangerous and powerful position, the Missileers have regularly made significant errors within recent years, including (but not limited to):

  • Leaving nuclear missiles unattended on runways.
  • Dropping rocket boosters into a ditch after running a vehicle off of the road.
  • Failing to meet proficiency standards to the point of being deemed “unqualified.”

What is causing some of the most well-trained members of the military to fail so regularly? The answer is simple: there is no emotional safety in their workplace culture. If you look at their company culture within the framework of belonging cues, the reasons for their mistakes become abundantly clear:

  • No Connection: The team works in almost total isolation in a dilapidated structure with little to no opportunity for physical, mental, or emotional interaction.
  • No Indication of Future: After the Cold War, the missileer position became less prestigious as nuclear tensions declined. Now, a job in missiles provides no long-term incentives. With no upward mobility in sight, officers feel stuck in the program rather than seeing a future because of it.
  • No Security: From proficiency tests to readiness reviews, officers are expected to take near-impossible exams with inhuman accuracy and punishment for failure of any kind is swift and harsh. Therefore, many within the missile program feel the need to cut corners or seek out alternative methods in order to avoid reprimand or, worse, expulsion from the program.
The Importance of Emotional Safety in the Workplace

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  • Why safety, vulnerability, and purpose are at the heart of a healthy group culture
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  • How one of the largest unsanctioned cease fires came one Christmas Eve during WWI

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