Emotional Safety

The Key to Great Leadership

In my last blog I highlighted what my 35 years of experience and education showed me in regard to what is most important in leading people and the organizations they create. Today I want to focus on the most important element of that leadership model which is “emotional safety.”

I use the terminology “emotional safety” to highlight the raw and essential elements that make up human emotions. My past company had a difficult time understanding what emotional safety is and converted the concept to a more sterile and academic phrase called physiological safety. I’d point out that emotional safety involves more than just the brain, it involves the heart. So I’ll stick with the terminology of “emotional safety.”

What is it? It’s what many executives in today’s world lack an understanding of, or at times fake it. It’s a topic that’s taboo because so many corporate executives and board members were raised in a “dog eat dog”, “show up well in the board room” leadership style and they truly don’t understand what emotional safety is, and yet emotional safety is the key to everything.

Emotional safety is the freedom and comfort to raise issues or have discussions that may be controversial while not being concerned if you’re going to lose your job for raising a specific issue.

Emotional safety is the freedom and comfort to raise issues or have discussions that may be controversial while not being concerned if you’re going to lose your job for raising a specific issue. It involves being a professional yet at the same time expressing the deepest emotions of your heart while listening to others and growing together. Emotional safety is not weak. When it’s strong it enables a culture that can talk about any topic to anyone in a respectful and constructive manner that helps to truly move the needle.

Emotional safety invokes fair accountability of our behaviors while at the same time encouraging employees to speak up. It recognizes we can’t fix a problem that is not raised. It trusts employees and assumes all are intending to do good each and every day. Emotional safety is not naive. While assuming the best, it uses facts to understand behaviors and never “tells stories” about individuals. Emotional safety awards people for superb behavior that creates an emotionally safe atmosphere, and at the same time holds individuals accountable who are disruptive, manipulative, and counter productive. Emotional safety produces results when it comes to performance while creating a culture where people give you their hearts and not just their hands.

To create emotional safety, what must we do? In short, my experience tells me to “encourage the heart, enable the team,” and “establish processes that results in excellence that endures.” In my previous post, I highlight our model and specifically explain how to establish these key elements. For this blog I’d like to focus on a few things to avoid when establishing “Emotional Safety.” I have broken this blog down into three parts:

1. Board Members Must Do Their Due Diligence

First, board members must do their due diligence when considering internal promotions and external hiring involving senior executive positions. So often Board members spend very little time reviewing the full picture of the candidate they are promoting. It typically boils down to a few board meeting appearances, recommendations from their outgoing predecessors, and words on a piece of paper. I’ll never forget a recent personal experience when I hired on to a major utility. One board member said, “I hope you are as good as you look on paper!” Really? A paper bio exercise? When I was promoted to President and CEO of a company back in Texas, I was thankful that prior to those promotions board members came to my office and kicked the tires. They embedded themselves in the organization I was running and observed how I did business.

Board members, do your due diligence. Get out in the field beyond the board room. Talk to people who those prospective candidates manage and get first hand experience that can be discussed and vetted with fellow board members with the proper allotted time to make the right decision. Your choice of leadership is vitally important. To create emotional safety please do your homework by promoting leaders who are knowledgeable and supportive of a strong safety culture.

In my next post, I’ll share the second part of what is required to create emotional safety. Stay tuned!