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Being a good leader means creating a safe environment for your employees. Making sure that your team members and employees feel emotionally safe is crucial for having a successful, productive, and healthy team.

While it is common knowledge that people want to stay away from things that make them feel stressed and emotionally unsafe, what many leaders don’t realize is that their behavior directly relates to whether or not an employee will feel safe or unsafe.

The term psychological safety is gaining more attention in organizational development and contemporary discussion of workplace outcomes. Psychological safety is defined as the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. Research indicates that it is a critical factor in solidifying high-performing teams, and is related to factors impacting employee engagement and retention.

It’s highly important that leaders encourage feelings of safety and positive emotions in their team members if they want to have a highly functioning team.

Employees that don’t feel psychologically safe are more likely to:

  • have more conflicts
  • have mental health problems
  • be less productive
  • get more work-related injuries
  • get stress-related medical issues
  • make bad decisions
  • quit

Neuroscience is a tool that successful and high-achieving leaders use to create a safe environment at their workplace in order to ensure none of the above happens.

How to use neuroscience to create a safe environment

It is important to understand that our brains are constantly receiving, interpreting, and processing information. When your brain processes provoking actions such as an angry boss, confrontational coworker, unhealthy competition, or a dismissive subordinate it is downloaded as a life-or-death threat. As a result, the amygdala, which is the alarm bell in the brain, activates the fight-or-flight response, which hijacks the areas of higher brain functioning. While our fight-or-flight responses are useful when we’re being chased by a bear or in other life-or-death situations, it impedes the strategic thinking needed in today’s workplace. Studies show that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social, and physical resources. If we understand how the brain influences actions, we can then begin to use that knowledge to lead people to positive actions that benefit the team.

A very useful ‘tool’ for understanding which actions will spike which emotions and actions in your employees, is the SCARF model.

The SCARF model

The SCARF is a neuroscience-based model created by David Rock, that involves five domains of human social experience: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

The baseline of the SCARF model is that the human brain works in a way that makes us get away from threads, and go towards rewards.

So understanding each domain of human social experience can help you as a leader influence the right emotions, which then influence positive behavior.

Status

Status refers to our relative importance. It’s basically a feeling of our self-worth, and where we are compared to others.

A person’s sense of status goes up when they feel like they’re better than another person.

In the same way, if we get unsolicited advice or critique, we feel our status is threatened.

To ensure our team’s sense of status is in a positive state, leaders should practice giving positive feedback when they accomplish something, especially praising them publicly. Another thing you can do to increase the status reward is to pay attention to their improvement.

Certainty

Certainty is exactly what it sounds like – a sense of certainty about what the future holds for us.

To increase the reward state when it comes to certainty, leaders should set clear expectations, develop clear plans and goals, be open with their team members, and create well-organized project schedules.

Avoid dishonesty, being vague, unpredictable, and not transparent.

Autonomy

Autonomy is a sense of having choices – feeling like you have control over what’s going to happen. Rock says that lack of autonomy directly relates to stress and lack of productivity.

To provide autonomy to your team members, without having to let them take over the organization of the project, you can let them share their opinion, create their own schedules when possible, let them organize their workspace, and let them plan their own workflow.

The number one thing to avoid if you don’t want to increase the feeling of threat from uncertainty is micromanaging your team.

Relatedness

Relatedness refers to one’s relationship with others – looking at them as they’re a friend vs looking at them as they’re an enemy.

It also relates to groups people often form, and whether or not an individual is in a group, or outside of a group.

To ensure a sense of relatedness within your employees, you as a leader can encourage social connections. You can do that by creating small mentoring groups, small working teams, and practicing team-building activities.

Fairness

Fairness is pretty self-explanatory – it’s about whether or not a person thinks the work environment is fair.

To practice being fair and avoiding feelings of threat, a leader should have the same rules for everyone. You should establish clear expectations, and you should also make sure those expectations are fair compared to the work they can do.

By ensuring the reward state and avoiding the threat state in these five human domains, a leader will create an emotionally safe space for work, which can then result in better performance, productivity, decision-making, and communication.

The leader’s actions can significantly affect the way an employee is feeling (as we showed above), and therefore the way an employee is behaving.

By practicing and avoiding certain actions we talked about related to each domain, you will create a safe feeling amongst your team members, which will make your team much more efficient.

If you’re a woman leader needing support with advancing your leadership skills and creating a better workplace for you and your team members, and you’d like to learn more about neuroleadership, apply for a 30-minute consultation here.

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