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Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work.

Wellbeing in the workplace has become a hot topic for executives and HR teams. From free yoga to gym memberships, mental health programs and innovative benefits offerings, companies are grappling with how to create healthier workplaces where their workers can thrive.

Workplace wellbeing is not just about massage chairs and kombucha on tap. These offerings could contribute to a healthier working environment and at least signal that an organization cares about its employees’ physical wellbeing. However, financial and especially mental wellbeing are two additional pillars that must be integrated to create and sustain a holistically healthier workforce. In this new world of work, where the pace of change is exponential and workers are stressed, overburdened and uncertain about the future of their jobs, how can we take accountability, collectively and individually, for the health of our organizations?

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The wellbeing of any organization starts with creating an environment where people feel comfortable being themselves, taking risks and speaking up, which was first identified in work teams as “psychological safety” by Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, in 1999. Psychological safety is the foundation on which a holistically healthy workforce is developed and nurtured. Without this foundation, organizations are at great risk of crumbling under the pressure of the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world in which we operate.

While organizations and leaders certainly have a role to play in creating the conditions and principles under which teams feel psychologically safe, application of these principles rests with all of us. As technology continues to take over more complex skills, emotional intelligence is a critical skill that remains fundamentally human. Continuing to develop and practice emotional intelligence empowers us to understand others’ viewpoints and behaviours, and ultimately to collaborate more productively.

Dr. Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of Permission to Feel, articulates a vision “to use the power of emotions to create a healthier and more equitable, innovative and compassionate society.” But haven’t we encouraged workers to make decisions with data and information, not with emotions? The key is to regulate emotions so that we can be thoughtful and responsive, as opposed to reactive. But “we can’t tame what we can’t name”, suggests Dr. Brackett, and most adults can’t name or explain their own emotions. Here are a few ways we can all work at developing our emotional intelligence and thus improve the psychological safety in our teams:

Give permission to feel

In many organizations today, workers still don’t feel like they have “permission” to feel. The trouble is, without permission to feel, workers can’t appropriately identify and therefore regulate their emotions, which ends up showing up in other, less-productive ways. Progressive organizations are implementing tactics to help start the conversation about emotions. As an example, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s “Not Myself Today” is a simple and effective program that enables workers to literally wear their emotions in the form of “mood buttons”.

Be an 'emotion scientist;

Dr. Brackett suggests that , to unlock the power of emotions, we must all take on the role of “emotion scientist” instead of “emotion judge.”

An emotion scientist:

  • Is open, curious and reflective
  • Views all emotions as information
  • Is in learner mode and investigates
  • Wants to get “granular”
  • Has a growth mindset

An emotion judge:

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  • Is critical, closed and ignores emotion (e.g., “emotions are bad and do not belong in the workplace”)
  • Views emotions as an “error”
  • Is in knower mode and makes attributions (e.g., “he must be acting that way because he’s an angry person”)
  • Clumps emotions as good or bad
  • Has a fixed mindset

Operating as an emotion scientist instead of an emotion judge empowers us to stay curious, ask “why” our own or others’ emotions are showing up and solve problems with more information.

Learn and refine skills

“Developing emotional intelligence is harder than learning traditional ‘hard’ skills – it’s life’s work,” Dr. Brackett told a group of parents recently. During this presentation, parents were asked to identify the difference between anger and disappointment, and none were able to do so. (He later said that disappointment results from unmet expectations whereas anger results from a perception of injustice.). If we can’t identify and name emotions such as these in ourselves and in others, we will continue to misunderstand one another’s intentions, perpetuating the lack of trust and wellbeing that exists in many teams today.

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