5 Leadership Practices for Nurturing an Emotionally Safe Workplace

Leadership | Engagement

Most businesses experienced massive disruption this past year, having embarked on, as Time Magazine described it, “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment.” The adaptation was, in many ways, a great success. Workers established routines for attending to home, family and work responsibilities. A majority of workers would now prefer having a mixed, company and home-office work schedule.

Business leaders now face the new challenges of resuming onsite operations, a hybrid model, or whatever their new normal looks like after a decentralized pandemic year.

Describing the difficulties of resuming onsite operations, David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president for real estate and workplace services, told The New York Times, “It seemed daunting to move a 100,000-plus person organization to virtual, but now it seems even more daunting to figure out how to bring them back safely.” 

Workplace safety is top-of-mind for many leaders. According to a recent Gartner survey, most businesses are taking critical steps to create physically safe workspaces, including limiting face-to-face meetings, providing personal protective equipment, and modifying physical workspaces to reduce potential virus exposure.

But fostering safe, productive onsite teamwork will also require behavioral modifications to support both emotional well-being and physical health. 

Supporting everyone’s emotional health is a mission-critical task. For leaders wanting to create an emotionally safe workplace, here are five practices to jump start your efforts.

#1 Check in with Yourself

After a uniquely challenging and disruptive year, leaders are burning out at an alarming rate. One study found that 60 percent of executives “feel drained and exhausted at the end of the day,” and only 20 percent of executives feel they led effectively in a virtual environment

Healthy teams are led by emotionally healthy leaders. Take the opportunity to listen to yourself, to pause and reflect on the pandemic’s impact on your life as a leader. What life lessons have you learned? What have you started, or should start, that give you greater perspective on your situation and ability to adapt. This practice will help you engage others in the upcoming organizational reset. 

Facilitative leaders provide their teams with the same opportunity by asking questions, listening to responses, and responding to input. 

Here are a few helpful inquiry questions:

  • What have we learned over the last year about maintaining work-life balance and emotional well-being?
  • What was the biggest surprise over the last year? Why?
  • What have your team members told you about their experiences? How does their experience inform actions you need to take in order to increase emotional safety?    

#2 Revisit Your Team and Company Mission and Values

During the year, teams may have disconnected from the company’s mission and values. When resuming onsite operations, review these guiding principles to reconnect people with the purpose and ideas that bring you together.

The pandemic experience may call you to alter your team’s mission and strategy. That can be a good thing. With an open conversation, cornerstone principles can be brought back to life, inspire innovation, and renew workplace commitments.

IA's Facilitative Leadership® provides seven leadership practices that are the framework for improving the effectiveness of team, project, and organizational leaders.

Learn More >

#3 Update Communication & Collaboration Norms 

Pre-pandemic communication and collaboration norms need to be updated for today’s operational environment. Understanding that employees have experienced a deluge of 24/7 workplace communication and engagement, companies can promote emotional safety by creating new best practices that promote holistic employee well-being. 

For instance, the workday expanded during the pandemic, further eradicating the distinction between their personal lives and professional responsibilities. Rebalancing these priorities and developing new norms can help foster emotionally healthy teams. At the same time, many people are anxious about returning to physical workspaces. Take time to listen, understand, and respond to these concerns.

#4 Pay Attention to the Relationship Dimension of Success.

People want to feel like they are doing a good job. Cultivating an emotionally healthy workplace includes measuring the metrics that matter most. While these metrics look different for every team, facilitative leaders know that sound processes and collaborative relationships are critical factors for successful business outcomes. Consider measuring relationship (e.g., levels of trust and collaboration) alongside other harder business metrics. This effort will help team members balance task and people-oriented time, and set a goal post for emotional well-being.

#5 Balance Persistence and Patience 

If the past year is any indicator, the future is anything but certain. With your eye on the prize (persistence), make sure to give yourself and others room to experiment and reflect on your lessons (patience). We are human, after all, with needs for encouragement, perspective, and appreciation. With a little help from your friends and colleagues, you can guide your team or business to sustainable success.

Fostering an inclusive and emotionally safe culture is big task., You don’t have to navigate this mission alone. Interaction Associates provides live-online and in-person training in Facilitative Leadership and Managing with Impact that can help you develop confident, self-aware, and productive leaders.

About Barry Rosen

The CEO of Interaction Associates, Barry consults with company leaders on how to empower people and teams to work across functions and other boundaries to get important things done. He leads the assembly of IA's collaboration tools and learning content, including programs on facilitative leadership, inclusive teams, and task-focused group facilitation.