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  • Writer's pictureGinny Telego

Creating Emotional Safety For Your Team

Gia with hand-quote

Have you ever been in a meeting that just “felt” uncomfortable? You know – where you could feel the tension among the participants? This could be the result of participants who do not feel that they can express their ideas without a fear of negative response. In other words, he or she does not feel emotionally safe in the group.

There are many reasons that people may not feel emotionally safe to speak honestly in a group. These include:

  1. One or more members of the group tend to dominate the conversation, “convincing” others that their ideas are best;

  2. Members of the group criticize comments or ideas irregardless of whether they think the comments or ideas are worthwhile contributions;

  3. Unresolved past experiences continue to affect what’s happening in the present;

  4. Unhealthy relationships outside the workplace may impact relationships inside the workplace.

There can be a plethora of reasons that someone does not feel emotionally safe in a group – these are just a few that seem to be commonplace.

The common theme with any unhealthy dynamics is that there generally is some kind of power differential involved. That power differential may be real or perceived — but in either case, the person who feels unsafe emotionally is going to respond to that feeling in a way that he or she believes is necessary for survival. This happens because the response of not feeling emotionally safe triggers the lower part of our brain, which is where the survival instinct lives. Depending on emotional intelligence skills, a person who feels emotionally unsafe may respond in one of the following ways: Fight, Flight or Freeze. Let’s look at these responses.

  1. Fight: This response is pretty straight forward. The person who feels emotionally unsafe will lash out at whomever he or she feels is posing the threat. Unfortunately, this response may sometimes show up as passive aggressive behavior, where the person feeling attacked uses submissive tactics to punish the person or persons who they believe is threatening them. Passive aggressive behavior is just as damaging as aggressive behavior in a relationship and can actually escalate a situation as opposed to making it better.

  2. Flight: This response is unfortunate as an organization may lose valuable team members who feel their only recourse to an emotionally unsafe work environment is to leave. But this response is an opportunity for both parties to reflect on what led to the departure and whether any other solutions could have been implemented.

  3. Freeze: This response can be somewhat puzzling to team members. In this situation, the person who feels threatened just gets stuck — unable to have any movement that might impact the situation. Think of a horse that won’t move its feet. When this happens, the horse is not being stubborn — he or she is stuck in a thought process of truly not knowing what to do in a situation. Fighting may mean more danger; flight may not be an option. So the horse freezes – in effect just letting the situation continue to happen without responding in a way that could make a difference.

So what can you do if this is happening in your organization?

Well, if you are the person who is causing others to feel emotionally unsafe, take a look at why you might be creating that environment. While some people don’t realize they are making others feel emotionally unsafe, many people do it for control. Again, it’s a power dynamic in play and we need to understand why we have a need to create that. In reality, the person who is creating the situation may in effect actually be in fight mode themselves – responding to a perceived threat.

If you are the person who does not feel emotionally safe in your team, again, take a look at why you might be responding the way you are. Is it based on the actual situation or are there other factors and/or past experiences coming in to play? None of us likes to feel emotionally unsafe. It creates a multitude of other issues, primarily stress, that impact our ability to accomplish what we need and want. A wise person said to me recently “I understand your frustration but you do not have to choose to live there.” Step back from the situation and ask yourself if you are in fight, flight or freeze mode. Next, explore whether the threat is real or is there some other thought or belief that is causing you to feel emotionally unsafe in the group. Research shows that the brain is hard-wired to be 5 times more responsive to a perceived threat than to something that is familiar to us. With this in mind, we can better understand why people behave the way they do when there is a perceived threat.

It’s easy to get caught in thinking we can’t do anything to change the situation when in fact, we always can do something to change the situation.

  1. Find someone you trust that you can talk to about the situation. I recommend someone objective — who is not part of the group. Someone completely outside of the organization may be best as he/she has nothing to gain by siding with either party. Present the facts as you know them. Often times if we are talking with someone who knows how to use appreciative inquiry, the questions they pose back to us can help us see the situation in a way that we did not previously look at it which can provide new solutions.

  2. Ask for what you need. If the group you are in is not completely unsafe emotionally, try stating what you need in order to feel like your contributions are valued. This is something that too many people don’t do. The reality is that others in the group may not realize why you don’t feel emotionally safe to share your ideas and comments. So when you disconnect, they don’t understand why – which may lead to further miscommunication between team members.

  3. If you determine that past experiences in other similar situations is impacting your ability to ask for what you need, think about why you are holding on to that past experience. Is it serving some purpose for you now or is it preventing you from being empowered to move forward? “The past is a place of reference, not a place to reside.”

  4. Don’t go to other organizational members to create innuendo about the group you feel emotionally unsafe with. While it may make you feel better to have supporters saying “Yeah, those people are awful and shouldn’t treat you that way,” ultimately you are then becoming someone who is going to make others feel the same way you do – emotionally unsafe. This is not constructive in building a healthy functioning team as it only exacerbates the lack of trust within the group. Instead, find a way to encourage your team to find commonalities and build trust. Take time to help team members get to know each other better on a personal level. This can be done in a number of ways, through some formal team building or even just through sharing of stories at the start of a meeting.

One exercise I really like to do with my community leadership development classes is a story sharing exercise that is done early in the program when the class is in the beginning stages of group development. I give them a list of topics such as: Adventure, Beach, Birthday, Broken Promise, Business, Camping, Car Accident, Recital…. and each person gets 3 minutes to share a story about themselves related to one of those topics. It’s amazing to see how quickly a group of people start to see their commonalities as opposed to their differences. Once we get to know someone, it can make it easier to understand them and maybe even have a difficult conversation with them to say “I need to let you know that the reason I’ve seemed disconnected from the team is because I haven’t felt emotionally safe with the group. Here’s what I’d like to ask in order to feel like I can contribute more fully.” By stating your concern, followed by what you need, you are taking control of the outcome and not letting others determine the outcome for you.

Gia with hand-quote
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