Work is never going back to "normal," and teams will never be the same. This new era of work presents us all with an opportunity for our teams and our work to be better than before. Some teams have stayed productive and inspired throughout this perhaps uncomfortable and forced transition to a new way of teaming. Still, most, however, saw a lack of engagement and motivation, which eventually led to "The Great Resignation." According to Gallup's 2021 State of the Global Workplace report, 80% of employees across the world are not engaged in the workplace. And, engagement is unmistakably vital to achieving organizational goals—according to the Corporate Leadership Council, work engagement improves employee performance by up to 20 percentile points.
Luckily, researchers have identified the factors that support employee engagement the most. Evidence from the peer-reviewed Mindfulness Journal shows a predictor effect of EI on work engagement. The 2015 study looked at more than 300 employees from the U.S. and Australia and found that higher emotional intelligence is significantly related to higher work engagement. From a separate study focused on teams, “the research findings demonstrate that a high average level of individual emotional intelligence of team members predicts stronger team performance.” Even in a hybrid or fully remote landscape, it is possible to support individual team members' well-being and group success—with emotional intelligence being the crucial foundation to developing trusting and thriving teams.
What is the EQ-backed secret to building a sustainable, high-performing team? Luckily, Google did that research back in 2016 with their Project Aristotle. After a year-long study of 180 internal teams, researchers determined what key factors contribute to team effectiveness. The result showed that it wasn't the mixture of skillsets, qualifications, gender or nationality that contributed most to team success. Rather, the most critical factor in determining team success was psychological safety.
As Harvard organizational scientist Amy Edmonson describes it, psychological safety is "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." In this environment, team members feel safe enough to be vulnerable, take risks, and be authentic without fear of retribution.
So, what does emotional intelligence have to do with psychological safety?
Emotional intelligence is a skill set that includes both the ability to understand and manage one's own behaviors, thoughts and emotions, as well as the ability to interact skillfully (and compassionately) with others. These two areas are both essential to creating psychological safety in teams.
"High levels of emotional intelligence, our research showed, create climates in which information sharing, trust, healthy risk-taking and learning flourish. Low levels of emotional intelligence create climates rife with fear and anxiety."
— Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee in Harvard Business Review
Let's explore some examples of what might get in the way of creating psychological safety on a team to understand how emotional intelligence can help.
- You are on a team where the leader frequently threatens your employment when you make a mistake.
- → Result: You will probably be less likely to take risks, suppressing your creativity and hindering group innovation.
- You feel isolated because you are a minority in the group (based on gender, race, nationality, religion, etc.), and your colleagues are not welcoming or inclusive.
- → Result: You may be less likely to be your true self, trying to blend in with the group, when the diversity of backgrounds and opinions is actually an essential strength in teams.
- Each time you have a group think, one of the team members shoots all of your ideas down.
- → Result: You may be less likely to share your ideas and speak up, and the team will miss out on a potentially great idea. Feeling unappreciated, you may look for work elsewhere.
- You have one colleague who tends to end up in unnecessary conflict with every person on the team.
- → Result: This perpetuates a lack of trust between team members, with some actively avoiding conflict by refusing to engage with the combative team member, hindering progress.
What often hinders our ability to work well with others is our own thoughts, emotions, influences and biases, and our learned biases are often so subtle that it's easy to deny they exist. Yet all of these internal experiences influence hiring decisions, trust between colleagues, treatment of team members and, consequently, group psychological safety. With greater self-awareness, you can begin to notice how your thoughts, emotions and biases impact the team's work and cohesion. Once you see clearly how these may get in the way of a safe environment, you can use self-regulation tools to manage your emotions and intentionally cultivate a more open and inclusive attitude.
When it comes to directly managing challenges with others, emotionally intelligent teams don't shy away from the difficult emotions that might arise during conflict. Teams that have strengthened self-awareness and self-management skills have a greater ability to notice what they are feeling and express it in a healthy way while regulating their stress response. Cultivating empathy may seem like an abstract idea, but helpful tools like the research-backed practices we teach in our programs can grow your capacity to be empathetic. When managing conflict with a colleague, empathy is a crucial skill that can help diffuse over-personalization, mischaracterizations or inaccurate assumptions. When you can meet challenging moments with care and openness, you strengthen relationships within your team, making you more resilient to the challenges ahead. Conflict and difficult conversations then become fertile ground to water the seeds of trust, connection and psychological safety.
So what can my team do right now to increase psychological safety?
1. Increase your mindfulness
Mindfulness is the foundation for growing and developing both the intrapersonal and interpersonal domains of emotional intelligence. It also helps you to cultivate an attitude of curiosity and openness, which will help you during conflict or when addressing challenges as a team. The more you practice mindfulness, the greater your self-awareness becomes. As we shared above, self-awareness can help you identify how your thoughts, behaviors, and actions impact others and the team dynamic.
2. Try an appreciation round.
At SIY Global, we start most of our all-hands meetings with an appreciation round. This is a moment when anyone can raise their hand and take a moment to share their gratitude to someone else on the team, either for a way they helped out a team member, something they accomplished or simply appreciating how they brought a smile to their face. Appreciation rounds can turn down any "threat-sensors" that may be on at the beginning of a team meeting and build instant connections through expressing appreciation. Don't forget to celebrate the small wins; they are just as important as the big ones!
3. Determine (or recreate) group norms and write them down.
Call a meeting, or mark a transition in the team (such as a new hire) by writing out a team "manifesto." On it, you can include your team vision and, asking for input on what the operating 'norms' should be. Let this be a co-created experience so that each team member feels they are a part of this collaborative process, ensuring their needs and hopes are shared. This can be an excellent moment to remind team members of preferred contact methods, reiterate the importance of going fully offline while on vacation or welcoming all ideas (even the wild ones) during ideation processes.
The great thing about psychological safety is that you are "freeing two birds with one hand," so to speak—you are acknowledging and taking care of some of your team member's needs and supporting their well-being while increasing performance and effectiveness at the same time. Creating psychological safety on your team will not happen overnight, but by beginning to implement practices now, you will start to lay the vital groundwork for a thriving team environment.
Attend our program, Effective Teaming, to learn more practical tools to increase psychological safety and build thriving teams.