The Essentials of Teamwork Series, #4 Preserve the Emotional Safety of Other People in Each Moment of Each Gathering

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 19, Issue No. 3b
July 15, 2020

By Dan Coughlin


Warning #1: You may feel this article is about fluff.

Warning #2: Ignore this advice at your own peril.

If you want to be effective inside of any team environment, it is crucially important that you establish your priorities before entering any meeting or group discussion.

Here are four choices for you to consider:

  1. Articulate your perspective clearly in order to move the group in the direction you want it to go.
  2. Be prepared to support your perspective with data.
  3. Be willing to support another person’s presentation who is in alignment with your perspective.
  4. Always be very honest with the group about how you feel about a topic.
  5. Preserve the emotional safety of the other people in the room.

If you selected #5, then you are the big winner.

If you want to be effective as a team member and as a leader within the team, then the top priority at all times needs to be the preservation of the emotional safety of everyone in the conversation.

At this point, you might think this is all fluff. Let me explain why it is not.

Why Emotional Safety Needs to be the Top Priority

When people feel they are emotionally under attack, they will react quickly in an emotional way. They might get scared, worried, angry, or protectionary. If you are the person creating that feeling within them, they will work to ignore you, disempower you, stay away from you, or protect other members in the group. They may even work to ridicule you. The trust between the two of you will be greatly reduced.

When that happens, you will not be in a position to be an effective team member or leader.

A team is a group of individuals who support one another to fulfill a meaningful purpose or achieve important outcomes. Leadership is the ability to influence how other people think so they make decisions that improve results in a sustainable way.

If people feel that you are threatening their emotional safety, you will not be able to support them or influence them. If your top goal is to get your perspective supported and the group moving in a certain direction, you will fail every time by making that your top priority.

In every moment of your interaction with these people, you need to always make their emotional safety the top priority. If at any point in time you forget that priority, you might very easily slip into one of the many ways to threaten the other person’s emotional safety.

How to Threaten Another Person’s Emotional Safety

The quick way to explain this is for me to recommend that you read, Social Thinking At Work, by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke. This is a magnificent book on how to maintain a strong relationship with the people in your group meetings and how to destroy those relationships. This all revolves around the many nuances of communication, which include:

  1. Your objective for the discussion.
  2. Your understanding of the culture of the group and what is expected.
  3. Your thoughts about the other people in the group.
  4. Your body positioning during the interaction.
  5. Your facial expressions.
  6. Your eye movements.
  7. The topics you comment on.
  8. The timing in that given situation.
  9. The words you use.
  10. The tone and volume of your voice.
  11. Your engagement during the conversation.

This is an amazing book that is filled with practical tips and suggestions. I definitely encourage you to read it. I will focus on just one main point.

If you want to avoid the many, many ways to ruin the emotional safety for the other people in the room, then always keep the emotional safety of the people in the group as your number one priority. If you do that, then you will naturally interact with people in ways that preserve their emotional safety. In doing so you will build trusting relationships with the people in the room.

When that happens, you increase your chances of being able to support them and influence them in the future

A Moment of Honest Reflection from Me

This book hit me right between the eyes. My advice to you is not being served up from an ivory tower. Instead I’m offering this advice about making the preservation of emotional safety your number one priority in group settings from my own failures.

This month completes the first 35 years of my career. I really wish I had read this book on day one of my career. It would have had an enormously positive impact. As I read it, I thought about dozens and dozens and possibly hundreds of times throughout my career when I potentially damaged the emotional safety of the other people in a group setting. This didn’t happen very often when I was serving as a business teacher or as an executive coach, but rather when I was a peer on a committee, council, or board, or in a faculty meeting.

Whenever I was in those situations, my primary objective was always to add value to the group by offering my honest perspective on whatever topic we were discussing. I thought that was the best way for me to make a valuable contribution to the group. Wow, was I wrong about that.

Over and over and over again, I came on so strong in trying to support my perspective or point of view that I made other people feel emotionally uncomfortable and possibly emotionally unsafe. I didn’t use foul language or belittle people. However, I became very intense and persevered in arguing a point over and over. And then I was bewildered why I so often was ineffective at getting support for my point of view. In my brain I thought I was doing a good thing for the group by being honest about my perspective, but now I realize that I was being remarkably ineffective.

If I could redo the last 35 years, one thing I would redo is to make the preservation of emotional safety for other people in group settings the number one priority at all times. If I had done that, I think I would have been able to build much better trusting relationships with those people on those boards and committees, and I could have had a much more effective influence at certain moments and on certain topics. More importantly, I could have been much more effective at supporting the efforts of the team toward achieving the desired outcomes.

My big learning is that the tradeoff is not worth it. Working to make a point or win a point is not worth hurting a relationship with another group member if you really want to help the team succeed. You might win in the moment, but it will hurt your impact over the long term. You will not be able to influence others once the emotional safety has been broken. People will avoid you if they feel emotionally threatened.

This is why I provided my Warning #2. Ignore this advice at your own peril.

A Moment of Honest Reflection from You

Go on a trip down the memory lane of your team interactions. Think about your priorities going into various meetings.

  1. Were you focused more on your personal agenda and arguing for your ideas, or were you focused more on preserving the emotional safety of the other people in the room?
  2. How effective was your approach?
  3. If you could do anything differently in group settings, what would you do to improve the next 10 years in terms of your effectiveness as a team member and as a leader?

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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