skip to main content

Innovation & Emotional Safety PART II

Acxiom Last Updated June 12th, 2020
Innovation & Emotional Safety PART II

In my last post, I spoke about two topics – the quiet I in “Teiam” and the need to create a work environment that is emotionally safe. The former rewards individuals for expressing their unique creativity within the larger team – “I” had this cool idea that made the team successful, not “we”. Creativity is not a “we” act; it is an “I” act and needs to be valued as such. The latter allows individuals to feel comfortable taking the reputation risks involved in being creative and inventive. I also promised to explain actions you can take as a manager to create an environment that provides for both of these features that are key to creativity in teams, which is the focus of this post.

So what actions can you take as a manager to create an emotionally-safe environment? Here are some specific suggestions:

1. Create a No-Judgement Zone

Obviously, the world of the organization is no different than the world at large. People judge us and that judgment impacts how well we succeed. Sadly, we have to be self-conscious and self-editing to thrive.

So the way to create a safe place in the work environment and allow workers to practice acting without self-suppression is to create a “no-judgement zone” for your specific team. It can be a work area, an outdoor space like a basketball court or ping-pong area, or a daily activity like a team walk or ride. Lay out the rules in that space – any idea is a good idea; it’s ok to be a little crazy, you can say anything and no one will laugh at you, only with you. It has to be a space that the team enters into and engages each other as vulnerable individuals. But it has to be a space that the team enters into every day.

And people who enter that space – like a senior manager – need to be told that it is a “no-judgment zone” and that they need to suspend their normal judgment of people and processes if they really want your team’s best creative ideas.

2. First, Be Vulnerable

There is an old saying that I utterly adore: “I cannot hear what you are saying because your actions are deafening.” If you want your team to be emotionally vulnerable, then you have to be first. I tell people, “if you are looking for the perfect leader, then go find someone else to follow, because I am one of the least perfect people I know.” Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know. Say how things make you feel, not just what they make you think.

Let me stress that last point. We are taught that emotion has no place in business. That when something happens you disagree with or that impacts you negatively, focus on the process, not on your feelings because, frankly, no one cares and your feelings are irrelevant to the decision.

Would someone please tell me who invented that rule? If there is one thing I know, how people feel about work is the most important factor in how much passion they bring to their job. We say we want passion in our employees, when in reality we want enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is safe and manageable; passion is intense and overwhelming. But enthusiasm is only a kissing cousin of passion and isn’t enough. Only the intensity of passion provides the power to overcome all obstacles to birth a new idea – to dig through all the mess to find what is “true”. It is the raw material for invention. Stifle emotion in the workplace and you can kiss great invention goodbye. That’s why a no judgment zone is so critical. It provides a space needed to free individuals to be passionate about what moves them that is accessible every day. But for it to work, you as a manager must be the first to express how you feel. First, be vulnerable.

3. Be Human

My teams know that they can come to me and talk about anything for as long as they need to. That includes personal topics, because we make no distinction between personal and work. My concern is as much for my team’s personal and family health as it is for their satisfaction with work.

Why? Simple. What motivates people to be passionate about what they do? Their own integrity around delivering what they promised? Sure partly. But many people are motivated by the things they cherish most – and among those is family. Why do I stay up until 2:00am to deliver on a goal for the company? Pride of ownership? Sure. But how about making sure my children can have piano lessons, or can go to a great college so their future is secure? How about making enough money to care for my aging parent whose medical bills are beyond their ability to pay? Our families – the people we cherish more than anything in the world – are our inspirations. Put a barrier between home and work and you lose a critical precursor to creativity.

Moreover, it has been my experience that creative blocks are not about a problem a team member has at work. Creative blocks usually come from the fact they had a fight with their spouse, or they were up all night caring for a sick child, or their father is pissing them off (yes, mom’s do that too, just to be fair, but we all love our moms anyway, don’t we?). If I don’t deal with those, allow my teammates to come into my office and talk about this part of their lives for as long as they need to, then I can’t help them unblock. And I won’t get their full creativity because, one again, they fear being criticized.

One part psychologist, one part mentor, and one part accepting friend. That’s my recipe for building truly innovative teams. For being human.

4. Set Your Manager’s Expectations

Let your manager know that you are setting up a no-judgement zone and that different rules apply there. This not only protects your team; it protects your career future. Your manager needs to understand there are two yous. The first is the rational, mature business person who is careful about what they say and how they act in public. The second is the overgrown kid who is playing in their special no-judgement sandbox. In your sandbox, or in brainstorming mode even with top execs, they get the kid. But when it comes to the bottom line, communicating that to the press, other managers, or investors, they get the mature, well thought out and highly presentable business person.
The challenge for you as a leader is being able to jump back and forth between these personas on demand as the situation warrants. Much easier said than done.

My next post will deal with the difference between emotional safety and performance safety, lest anyone confuse me for a “touchy-feely” do-gooder. Creativity requires emotional safety but actually decreases with performance safety. Moreover, employees don’t expect performance safety. More on that to come.