No employee should feel like they have to hide part of who they are when they come to work, but the reality is that many do. When employees feel at ease bringing their "whole selves" to the workplace they're more confident in sharing their ideas. A layer of vulnerability unlocks, and they're more likely to share their hopes and aspirations, as well as their fears and insecurities. Experts refer to this as "psychological safety." Leaders who understand how to lead with empathy and understanding can increase psychological safety within their teams and the company, which can help reduce turnover and improve an employer's brand.
Becoming that type of leader starts with emotional intelligence (EQ) - one of the most important qualities a leader brings to the table. While EQ comes more naturally to some people than others, it's an area that can be developed. Let's explore what EQ and psychological safety look like at work and how companies can boost both.
What is emotional intelligence?
Researchers define EQ as, "The ability to carry out accurate reasoning about emotions, and the ability to use emotions and emotional knowledge to enhance thought." In more practical terms, that means understanding and managing your emotions and the emotions of the people around you. According to author and psychologist Daniel Goleman, the key personality traits for increasing EQ are empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills (like active listening), and motivation.
Leaders can't remove their own emotional responses from situations that crop up in the office, but they can identify what they are feeling, or what their team members may be feeling, and calibrate their responses to be empathetic rather than reactionary.
How to develop emotional intelligence
Sure, "lead with empathy" sounds like a great plan, but it requires a lot of practice. We all get frustrated or upset at work; emotionally disciplined leaders know how to work through those feelings and reframe them in a way that furthers their agenda, instead of indulging in raw emotions.
The first step is naming emotions. Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist whose work centered on a concept called nonviolent communication, recommended a basic formula for this: "I feel ______ when you do/say _____." Rosenberg specifically discouraged the phrase, "I feel like…" because it reflects the speaker's judgment instead of an expression of the speaker's feelings.
Let's apply these two approaches to a scenario in which an employee repeatedly misses deadlines.
- Judgment: I feel like you don't take deadlines seriously.
- Feeling: I feel frustrated when you don't turn in work on time.
When leaders start by processing their own feelings, they can more effectively manage their teams.
Next, leaders should solicit feedback on what they can do to support their teams, whether through direct queries or skip-level meetings. Sometimes, employees will have negative feedback, and it's important not to take it personally. Collectively, those responses can help leaders build a culture around their teams' values.
What is psychological safety?
Amy Edmondson, a leadership and management professor at Harvard Business School, describes psychological safety as an absence of interpersonal fear. It grows out of team members feeling comfortable and safe enough to be open and honest with one another.
"When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content," she explained. That honesty helps teams identify problems faster and deliver results more efficiently.
Traditionally, the everyday act of walking around the office has been one of the most effective tools for building psychological safety at work. Face-time and casual conversations give employees an informal outlet for chatting about what they are working on, what they need from managers, and obstacles. The shift to remote work, however, has made those check-ins more challenging.
"With tools like Zoom, communications have become more explicit and structured; leaders must ask direct questions about what's working and what isn't," Edmondson said.
Building psychological safety for remote teams
At Hubspot, ranked #11 on Glassdoor's Best Places to Work 2023 list, leaders are fostering psychological safety remotely with simple tech adjustments to remote-work tools like Slack and Zoom.
Hubspot Engineering Lead Matt Sumner says he's minimizing Slack direct messages in favor of channel discussions to build more inclusive work spaces and open discussion. When deciding whether or not to send a direct message, he asks, "If I were in the office and about to say this out loud to someone, would I first invite them into a private space? If the answer is no, then try posting your message in a public channel."
Sumner also recommends turning off self-view on Zoom. "Turning this off is a way to lower your guard, display vulnerability, and communicate your thoughts and feelings more effectively."
Finally, Sumner emphasizes the importance of non-work-related gatherings. "We regularly set time aside to do something non-work related together," he said.
To create more engagement around these team hangouts, Sumner's team assigns a Chief Fun Officer to plan each activity. "I have been blown away by the activities people have organized, from virtual puzzles together to scavenger hunts in our homes. At the end of these hangouts, the final responsibility of the CFO is to nominate their successor."
The ways that we interact at work are constantly evolving. Changing technology, environments, and workplace demands push leaders to assess how they can be more effective in their roles. Practicing emotional intelligence and focusing on psychological safety are two of the most effective strategies leaders can use to ensure a team's long-term success.
Check out Glassdoor's Employer Branding Report for more ideas to improve the workplace experience for your employees.