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Emotional Honesty, Emotional Safety in Organizations

A lot has been written about both honesty and safety on the job, but not much is said about emotional honesty or emotional safety. Using a few simple examples, this article will give you something to think about on these topics.

Imagine your first day on your new job. You new boss comes in and says, "How is everything going?"

You respond, "Very well, thanks. The only thing is that my computer seems to be a bit slow."

What if your boss were to reply, "Well, I guess you will just have to work a little faster then, won't you?" And then he slaps you on the back, gives you a big smile and walks out.

Or what if he were to say, "Oh, so you haven't even been here one day and already you have found something to complain about?" And then he shakes his head and walks out.

Or what if he says, "Oh, I doubt there is anything wrong with it. We just had all the computers checked last month. You probably just aren't used to it yet." And then he walks out.

How understood would you feel?

How emotionally safe would you feel to tell him anything else is wrong?

So let's say that you are sure there is something wrong with your computer. So you tell a colleague about it. Your colleague says, "Well, that's just the way it is around here. Get used to it. I have my own problems."

Now another scenario.

The scene starts out the same way. You tell your boss about your computer. He says with obvious interest and concern, "Oh, yeah? It does?" So you say, "Yeah, it does. Do you have a minute to take a look?" He replies with a friendly, "Sure. Let's take a look."

Or what if your colleague were to say, "Oh, yeah? Do you want me to take a look to compare it to mine?"

Or what if he were to say, "Hmm. What is it doing exactly?" Then you explain that even when you first start it up it takes 5 minutes to come on. He might say, "Wow! Five minutes! You have a sick puppy on your hands. Let's go talk to the computer gurus."

Another example:

Say you work in the accounting department. You are figuring up the quarterly results. Your boss comes in and says, "How are the numbers looking?"

You say, "Not too good unfortunately."

He says, "Well you better find some way to make them look good."

How will you feel?

Try to put a label on your feeling with one precise feeling word. Think about how this feeling affects you and your desire to do your best and give your all for this manager or this organization.

We often try to ignore our feelings, but they contain valuable data. I often say that "feelings are facts." They are reality. Just because they can and do change does not mean they are not a part of reality. They might change more quickly than the weather, but when they are felt, they are real, just as rain is real when it is raining. Whether we want it to be raining or not, it is still raining when it rains.

Suppose your boss is out of town and is flying in later that day. He wants to play golf after he gets back. He calls you to ask how the weather is. You say it's raining. What if he were to order you to make it stop raining?

Ridiculous, isn't it? He is trying to change reality; trying to change nature. But when he tells you to change the numbers he is doing the same thing. He wants you to change reality. Similarly, if wanted you to change your attitude, or in other words, your feelings, he would be trying to change reality. You might try to do it, but at what cost? What toll might it take on you or your family if you tried to constantly change, or hide, your true feelings at work?

How we are treated at work affects us. As we see in the example about the new employee with a slow computer, there are many different ways of responding to the same situation, each with different emotional outcomes.

Here is another example. Say that after a few weeks your new boss says, "How are you getting along with everyone in the department?" You say, "Really well. They are a good group of people. There is just this one guy who seems to like to intimidate everyone."

Your boss asks, "Who would that be?"

You tell him it is "John Iverson."

Your boss says, "Iverson? No, he doesn't mean to intimidate people. That is just his style. I am sure you are just taking him wrong. Why don't you talk to him about it?"

You reply, "Well, I am a little afraid of him to be honest."

Your boss says, "Afraid!? Come on. Grow up. Just talk to him. He can't be that bad. Besides, you need to be telling him, not me. I have other things I need to be doing." Then he walks away.

That would be one way he could respond, leaving you with a certain set of feelings.

Here is another way he could respond:

He could say with genuine concern, "Oh yeah? Like how so?" Then if you explained a bit he could say, "Yeah. I understand. You aren't the first person who feels that way. I've been concerned about it for a while now. Thanks for telling me. You probably weren't sure whether you should tell me, huh? Like how I would react..."

You reply, "Well, yes I was a little afraid of telling you, but now I am glad I did. Thanks for being so understanding."

In this case you will feel much more free to share things with your boss, even things you are a little afraid to tell him. This is the kind of environment in which people feel safe. Safe to be honest and safe to be themselves. When people feel safe, creativity flourishes and problem solving is simplified. Issues are addressed on a timely basis rather than being swept under the rug or put off till they become crises.

Hopefully, these examples help you see that feelings matter, that what people say and do can have vastly different emotional results and that there is real value in creating an atmosphere of emotional honesty and emotional safety in an organization.

S. Hein
April 2003

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