Why Emotional Intelligence Is the Key to Psychological Safety

Psychological Safety in the Workplace

We’ve all been traumatized by the pandemic.

So says Adria Horn, a lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserve and an army veteran who served five tours of duty overseas between 2003 and 2010, in a recent article by McKinsey. She noted that what we are experiencing—anxiety, depression, a search for meaning—are identical to what soldiers feel when they return from combat. Thus, what we are feeling is normal and to be expected.

To varying degrees, we have been in a combat situation, or if you prefer, have experienced sorrow and hardship because of the pandemic. Dimyas Perdue, TalentSmartEQ’s Director of Military Solutions and who served 6 deployments– two in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom–during his 22 years as a United Stated Marine says that “absent shots from enemy combatants, the relationship between what troops have experienced in combat and what the world has been experiencing throughout the pandemic has its similarities–specifically in terms of friction, uncertainty, and loss of control.”

Friction, Perdue explains, encompasses the contextual elements that impact what happens on the battlefield; the battlefield–in this case–of the mind. This combat context, he says “makes the simple difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible”. This phenomenon is likely why simple tasks, like deciding what to eat for dinner for the 87th day in a row, felt overwhelming, if not downright daunting.

The uncertainty of wartime conditions or “fog of war” speaks to the incomparable number of unknowns and reminds us of a hard truth–we don’t always know what we don’t know. The level of ambiguity during the pandemic has had unparalleled impact on work and school contexts, family and community life, and our inner emotional and cognitive worlds. Many of us have recalibrated to this heightened level of ambiguity, impacting our overall wellbeing and resilience.

The appeal of control is the ability to create order out of chaos and to systematically manage that ambiguity or “fog of war”. War, as were many experiences during the pandemic, was (and for many, still is) inconsistent, complex, and dynamic. Perdue describes that “no plan survives the first shot of combat” as a reminder that it is human nature to attempt to control and influence as many factors as possible, and that in such an environment communication fails, mistakes are common, and there is natural disorder.

Now, like troops returned home, we are trying to regain a sense of normalcy and manage the friction, uncertainty, and loss of control we experienced over the last 2.5 years. Simple proof is that employees’ stress levels are at a historic high. The Great Resignation is just one way these feelings have manifested.

The collective trauma of COVID-19

Addressing Collective Trauma from COVID-19: Integrating Trauma-Informed Practices in the Workplace

Secret Weapons: Emotional Intelligence and Psychological Safety

Feeling comfortable about trying to regain a sense of equilibrium at work–whether your organization is returning to the office, embracing a fully remote experience, or experimenting with a hybrid work plan–is directly related to psychological safety. Researcher Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as, “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. Simply put–psychological safety is a perception that we operate in a safe space, especially with our leaders.

The skills that make up emotional intelligence (EQ) are essential for leading inside organizations. They’re especially vital when faced with challenges like returning to the office post-pandemic or normalizing a new hybrid routine. But there is some good news–leaders who leverage EQ can meet their people wherever they are.

Here are some simple things for leaders to consider amidst the challenge of building psychological safety in an already turbulent environment.


Self-awareness is foundational to emotional intelligence. Everyone—from leaders to individual contributors—benefit from becoming more self-aware. It is the key to emotional regulation. Being a mature human starts with having an objective perspective of our actions

One of the first ways to accomplish this is to pay attention to our bodies. They are always sending us data that we translate into emotions. Our stomachs, face, hands, and feet are sensitive antennas. We need to listen to what they are reporting to us.

From there, we need to determine how these feelings are impacting our behavior. How is it affecting the way that I speak to my partner? How is it impacting the work I do in the office? How is it affecting my ability to collaborate?

We should also know that emotions are contagious. They have a high potential to infect others. If we are angry, others are likely to “catch” it and the result is a harmful ripple effect.

Appropriate strategies can help us can self-manage our feelings. This can be as simple as getting the exercise you need, cleaning up your workspace, looking after your sleep hygiene, and counting to 10 before you send that e-mail. They work wonders.


To be in a leadership role means that your success fundamentally depends on the success of others. Leaders are judged on the work done by their teams. Good leaders can take a pulse of their people’s emotions, and then actively take control of what they say and do. This is a world apart from simply reacting to whatever emotion they are feeling in the moment. Research shows this is even worse than simply working for an unfair or unpleasant leader. Researchers from Michigan State University, published in the Academy of Management Journal, showed that employees with a consistently unfair boss were less stressed and had more job satisfaction that those with an unpredictable boss.

Self-management starts with a commitment to continuous learning. Leaders need to be in the business of continuous learning, instead of just continuous managing. That means leaders should stop and ask what their direct reports about how they are feeling and be curious about their perspectives of work. Leaders high in EQ then act on what they hear. When they do this, they build trust, receive valuable feedback, and create the conditions for what Edmonson calls, “safe interpersonal risk-taking”.

Modeling self-management is also important because more junior people imitate the actions of more senior people. A leader who is skilled at this will set an example that others can follow.

Developing social competences is also a part of self-management and increases emotional intelligence. A sensitivity to timing is critical. For example, what is the right time to have a difficult conversation with the direct report? When will people be most receptive to an important message?

One way to ensure your timing is correct is to regularly check in with your people, see how they are doing on any given day, and then decide if it is the right time to share information or wait until a more opportune moment. Acting this way also reinforces the impression that a leader is calm instead of alarmist. Since emotions are contagious, doing this is invaluable.

Relationship Management

Relationship management may be the most important of the EQ skills. It is the cornerstone of successful leadership. One of the reasons we use that suffix in the word leadership is because it requires a relationship between people. No one can lead in a vacuum or in isolation.

One paradoxical strategy for relationship management is to get mad on purpose. Leadership is not about people being happy all the time. It’s not just about being nice, polite, or politically correct. It’s about being effective. Sometimes leaders must demonstrate seriousness or anger if they are to truly lead in challenging situations. Leaders need to be authentic; hiding emotions and pretending everything is fine can be perceived as disingenuous.

But there is a difference between saying and displaying emotions. It takes courage to say, “I am angry I didn’t know this information” or “I am frustrated how behind schedule we are” but it might allow for a necessary, difficult conversation that produces better alignment moving forward. Alternatively, screaming at someone during a zoom call or throwing something across the room during an on-site only demonstrates low self-management and impacts your ability to build psychological safety and subsequently, trust. EQ is not only about the what, but also about the how; how you choose to “get mad” matters.

One of the core tenants of psychological safety is that employees feel safe to make mistakes. A leader’s challenge is to let individuals know that everyone makes mistakes, they are still safe at work, and that performance is still important. Leaders must walk a tightrope of sorts. They need to be frank with their employees when there is an issue yet let them know that it is still important to take chances and fail. if people are afraid to fail, there will be little innovation and creativity.

From Insights to Action

Psychological safety is essential to create high-performing teams, to create authentic communication that drives innovation and productivity, and to engender inclusive environments where people feel seen and heard. Emotional intelligence is at the heart of all behaviors required for psychological safety.

For more easy-to-implement strategies to improve your team’s emotional intelligence and build a culture of psychological safety, purchase our book Team Emotional Intelligence 2.0.

To learn more about emotional intelligence training and TalentSmartEQ’s programs and solutions, please visit: https://www.talentsmarteq.com/contact/ or contact TalentSmartEQ at 888-818-SMART.

By Maggie Sass Ph.D., EVP of Applied Research &  Josh Rosenthal, TalentSmartEQ’s Director of Training

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