By Harjeet Virdee

The need to feel emotionally or psychologically safe in the workplace was never a topic of understanding during my corporate career. Even today this subject exists only on the fringes of psychological research or in the realm of TED talks. This is ironic given how important the feeling of being safe is for generating great performance, creativity and emotional wellbeing in work.

There’s a whole level of understanding about human behaviour and it’s response to the work environment that is missing in organisational education. It’s not a massive revelation to know that great bosses can take us to high levels of wellbeing and bad bosses can make life miserable but few understand the physiological and neurological consequences of these emotional ups and downs and how they effect performance. This gap in understanding means not only missing the golden keys to the ever sought after goal of employee motivation and engagement but also that workplaces – particularly leaders and managers - often contribute to human soullessness, diminished creativity and low performance of their people

This may sound strange in an era where shelves in bookshops heave under the weight of motivation theories in genres such as Popular Psychology and New Thinking.
However my own past corporate experience coupled with the case studies I collected for my book (Flourish – How emotionally whole managers are the key to high impact passion, performance and profits) showed that many workplaces today – small through to large corporates – still don’t understand the significance of the emotional undercurrents stirring underneath our human selves and how they, far from being halted when entering the workplace, can be triggered by the work environment, thus governing our behaviour for better or worse.

Feeling psychologically and emotionally safe in the workplace requires above all else three components; feeling supported, feeling cared for and having trust in your boss and colleagues.
Simon Sinek in his book, Leaders Eat Last refers to the Circle of Safety as our space of safety, care and support. He says as social animals we feel stress when we feel unsupported. This doesn’t just mean tyrannical bosses or the lack of positive words. Feeling unsupported can also come from people who are indifferent to us, show no acknowledgment, only interact when necessary or make us feel we don’t belong. When we work in such an environment, even if there is no major threat such as layoffs, people will suffer from what Sinek calls constant ‘low-grade anxiety’. It’s an environment where most people care primarily for themselves with no one going out of their way to protect another. In a similar vein Matthew Lieberman, Professor and Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab Director at UCLA says in his book Social that our brains are designed to connect socially and belong more than even the need for nourishment. When we feel social exclusion, for example when we haven’t been invited to meetings or events or we don’t feel we belong our brains register pain in the same way as they do with physical pain.

When a person feels supported and safe at work it generates a whole different level of output, energy and quality. The freedom to express oneself, contribute and perform is amplified manifold. Furthermore when people feel safe they become very resilient. In this state they can cope with mishaps, let downs and even strong correction or direction, treating it stoically as a learning and growth experience rather than a failure which diminishes their confidence and self-esteem. This is because they know their boss cares.

The role of the direct manager is critical in making people feel emotionally safe. She is the first point of authority and the one who sets the tone of the immediate environment regardless of the company-wide culture. Caring for, taking an interest in, including and backing her people are human drives which when embodied by the direct manager can create a strong safety net for her people, the assurance of which means they can thrive without inhibition.

What happens at a physiological and neurological level when people operate in or out of safety makes for fascinating reading and should be compulsory learning for developing people management skills.
It’s fairly well known that stress creates cortisol in the body. What is less acknowledged is what constitutes stress. Stress and anxiety have less to do with the work we do and more to do with weak management and leadership says Simon Sinek.
If we feel managers and leaders care more about themselves or the numbers than they do for us our stress and anxiety increase. In a study by University College London Sinek quotes the findings which showed that people who didn’t feel recognised for their efforts at work were more likely to suffer from heart disease.
Working in such an environment can mean a constant drip feed of cortisol which is dangerous to our health. This hormone was designed to be released in the body at specific times of stress and danger when it would divert all energy into your fight or flight ability and away from functions such as immunity and digestion until danger ceased. Our bodies interpret modern day stressors such as unhealthy workplaces as dangers and when we’re locked in such places day in and day out with constant anxiety, immunity is compromised ongoingly. This can have devastating and lasting consequences such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and depression. Is it no wonder that these along with cancer have become the prevailing sicknesses in the modern age?

What is less known is the flip side to this. This is when great things happen inside your body as a consequence of positive emotions emanating from safety, support and belonging. This is thanks to serotonin and oxytocin. Simon Sinek calls these the selfless chemicals that keep the Circle of Safety strong. These chemicals help to create bonds of friendship and trust and looking out for each other. In turn this generates security, fulfilment, belonging and trust. When feelings of safety are missing and these chemicals cease to be created our cooperation falters, we become more selfish and cease to look out for others too.
Serotonin amongst other things drives us to seek recognition from others and gives us the high when we get approval from our tribe and superiors.
Sinek makes a fascinating point about serotonin:

“Its because of serotonin that we can’t feel a sense of accountability to numbers; we can only feel accountable to people”.

This probably explains why an Apple manager when interviewed said the drive to never let Steve Jobs down was so strong, it formed a key factor in their work ethic – despite the fact that Jobs was hardly the model of a caring, compassionate boss.

Oxytocin is better known as the love hormone however it’s not just responsible for the love for children or partners - it’s vital to our survival instincts. Without it we wouldn’t form bonds of friendship nor have empathy, trust or social connections. Now here’s the rub – cortisol inhibits the release of oxytocin. In situations of anxiety and feelings of low safety the capacity to bond, support and look out for others as well as for the organisation is severely weakened. It makes us more selfish, less trusting of others and ensures we put our needs first. This isn’t good for our emotional and physical health and neither is it good for the organisation.
Unfortunately many of us have known situations like this. One of the worst managers I ever had would criticise his team with fierce attack and tell his least favourites to look for other jobs. There was little cohesion and trust among people in the team, everyone looking after their own survival. In contrast the best manager I ever worked for supported us, his team to the hilt. There was great camaraderie, trust and support among us too and we would often socialise together.

Dr Daniel Friedland an expert on the science of leadership, wellness and resiliency looks at the brain and the emotional states that both generate and inhibit creativity.
In my book I make the case for enabling people at work to flourish into their highest potential and how managers are critical to enabling this through their active support. In his book Leading Well From Within, Dr Friedland echoes this by writing:

“When you feel safe, you have more to give and feel more productive. You can more fully engage your capacity for empathy, love and compassion. And you can think more creatively and put yourself in a position to self-actualise your full potential and experience greater meaning and significance in your life”.

Using an adaptation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs Dr Friedland has mapped out the three parts of the Triune brain and their corresponding behaviour and emotional counterpart.
If we don’t have our needs met then we are constantly drawing resources from that part of the brain. For example, if we don’t feel safe in the face of an intimidating boss we are constantly engaging with our reptilian brain which is involved in flight or fight responses in order to seek safety, but eventually leaves us exhausted. Furthermore we cannot rise to activating the next part of the brain, the limbic to engage with feelings of love and belonging therefore forgoing our need to connect with people.
And finally we withdraw resources away from the neocortex and the ability to experience self-esteem and feelings of significance.
Is it any wonder then that an uncaring boss has huge power to diminish your sense of self-worth?
As your higher brain circuits also give rise to inspiration, creativity and good decision-making we can’t be fully innovative or creative when we don’t feel safe as all resources are being channelled into our survival reptilian brain.
The opposite is also true. When we have our needs for safety and belonging met from our environment then we have the capacity to engage with our higher brain and allow it to generate all the positive emotions and behaviours such as self-awareness, empathy, morality, compassion, decision-making, expression, creativity and emotional regulation. These are critical states for leaders, managers and also for the people being managed too. Thus all levels within an organisation must feel safe in order to fulfil their potential. A manager terrorised by his senior manager will be operating out of his reptilian survival brain, pumping out cortisol and unable to access higher emotional states, therefore lacking the capacity to provide selfless support for his people.

No doubt the power of emotional safety in the workplace will increasingly be understood and implemented. Ultimately it’s too powerful to be dismissed and costs nothing more than awareness and training. I look forward to seeing a working world where the notion of emotional safety isn’t just an expectation – it’s a given, embedded in the organisational DNA in respect for its people and the great things they can do.


Flourish – Why emotionally whole managers are the key to passion, performance and profits by Harjeet Virdee (to be published late 2018).

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

Leading Well From Within, A neuroscience and mindfulness based framework for conscious leadership by Daniel Friedland, MD

Social, Why our brains are wired to connect by Matthew D. Lieberman