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Blog | 29 Apr 2021

Emotional Intelligence - An Essential Element for Building Psychological Safety and Enhancing Inclusivity in Teams

This opinion piece forms part of our IMPACTxAsia blog series

Emotional Intelligence - An Essential Element for Building Psychological Safety and Enhancing Inclusivity in Teams

Last year, Community Business published an IMPACTxAsia blog piece on emotional intelligence as an essential skill for creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. In that piece, I argued that “emotional intelligence will work as a lubricant to help people work together smoothly, not only facilitating the better management of feelings, but also an acute perception and acknowledgement of other’s feelings.” This speaks to the critical role of emotional intelligence in managing emotions at the personal level, as well as at an interpersonal level, such as in a team setting. What needs further exploration is how emotional intelligence helps team members of diverse backgrounds, and/or thinking styles, work together. In this follow-up piece, I propose that emotional intelligence plays a critical role in building psychological safety and enhancing inclusivity within a team.  

 

What is Psychological Safety? 

Psychological safety is defined as the “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” by Harvard Business School professor Amy Admondson. Specifically, psychological safety is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”  

The term was popularised among the wider community when Google published results from their research, code-named Project Aristotle. The researchers observed that the main difference between successful and mediocre teams lay in the group norms, the behavioural standards or unwritten rules that dictate how we behave as we gather together.  

The teams that underperformed were those that tended to have one person, or a small group of people, speaking for most of the time in meetings, and whose teammates scored low on the sensitivity scale. On the other hand, teams that performed well gave everyone a chance to speak and included members who scored high in the area of sensitivity. The researchers ultimately concluded that creating a team environment that makes people feel safe and enables them to speak freely without the fear of being penalised, is essential for a team to succeed.  

 

Why is Psychological Safety Particularly Important in a Team Setting? 

As different markets in Asia move towards knowledge-based economies, it is especially important for companies in the region to solicit creative and innovative ideas so as to drive growth. However, when global companies operate in Asia, they often hit a wall when they ask their local employees to speak up and express their ideas. Culturally, self-expression is not being encouraged in Asian cultures, but that does not mean that local colleagues are not creative and innovative. Results from our upcoming research on Cognitive Diversity in Asia suggest that employees in Asia tend to build ideas upon one another, instead presenting multiple brand-new ideas, which may suggest there are fundamental cultural differences in thinking styles between the East and the West. It is also possible that global companies might not be creating the optimal environment or system for local colleagues of different backgrounds and/or thinking styles to express themselves, while expecting what is being practiced in the West would also work in Asia.  

Local employees may not be used to expressing their thoughts and ideas verbally. Or lay out all their ideas on the table.  Asian Employees in Asia tend to be very sensitive to norms and hierarchies, and some might be concerned about the optics and consequences of speaking up before their line managers do so. They may fear that their opinions might differ from their bosses and lead to conflict, which would ultimately undermine their own career development within the organisation. With all these concerns in mind, creating a safe space and reinforcing commitment to enabling colleagues of different backgrounds and/or thinking styles to feel safe to speak up comfortably, could be a way for locally based leaders to facilitate the process of ideas solicitation.    

 

How to use Emotional Intelligence to Create a Psychologically Safe Team? 

Lead with Authenticity and Vulnerability: Authentic leaders who are willing and able to let down their guards and be vulnerable in exposing their worries and fears, showing their staff that they are also human beings, could deliver a signal to the wider team that the organisation is a safe space for everyone to let their guards down and be their true self.  

Lead with Empathy: As testified by Google’s Project Aristotle, the ability to empathise with your teammates and tune into their emotions constitutes one of the two main factors in creating a psychologically safe team. 

Understand Oneself Better: If leaders and colleagues alike are better at understanding their inner world how their emotions influence behaviors which ultimately shapes wider team dynamics, this could contribute to a mindset that positively impacts how each and every person behaves within a team. 

Be More Deliberate in Decision Making: Sometimes it is easy to react to both positive and negative ideas quickly. With higher level of self-management comes a buffer time for everyone in the team to be more thoughtful, pause, and regulate their emotional responses to certain ideas.  

Use Emotions to Inform Your Decision Making: Referred to as the ability to use emotions as information to make decisions, teams who are open to including feelings as part of the decision-making process might be able to make more expansive and creative collective decisions.  

Influence Your Team Positively: Teammates who positively influence other’s feelings are empowering to work with. Leaders and colleagues who could boost each other’s feelings might be able to reap the benefits of a psychologically safe team. 

 

For a more detailed definition of emotional intelligence, please revisit the previous piece on emotional intelligence as an essential skill for creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. Companies that are interested in promoting emotional intelligence among their general staff to build psychological safety should engage with our consulting and training team to learn more about the options available to them. Community Business offer a wide range of bespoke consulting, training and facilitation options. Find out more on our website

 

About the Author: Michael Chan, Manager, DIAN Learning and Engagement at Community Business