How Empathy unlocks Safety

Robin Wong
10 min readFeb 24, 2021

The ability to connect with people and understand what drives their negative emotions is the most effective technique you can apply to create stepping stones towards a culture of safety and from there a culture of innovation.

I always tell people I coach that Innovation starts with Empathy.

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

Empathy is like having x-ray specs that reveal hidden negative emotions.

Those emotions are the mental records that our primitive brains keep to remind us of the bad experiences we’ve had. It’s only by finding these hidden secrets and following them to their root causes that we can expose opportunities that are worthy of being improved and doing something that’s different.

That’s what we mean when we say an experience is differentiated.

It stands out from the competition.

That’s Innovation.

Without empathy, it’s very hard to truly understand someone’s experience and what causes them frustration or confusion or fear. Really, you can only guess what might be causing a problem.

The companies behind successful products and services recognise this and many of them use technology to help them find better ways to learn about their customers — whether that’s through gathering analytics, market testing or direct conversations. Just think of how companies like Google and Facebook rose to prominence. It was through building a deep understanding of the path of least resistance for their customers and exploiting that to offer more relevant search results or content.

But there’s a secret that the most successful teams have realised.

It’s a secret that gives them the ability to unlock everyone’s maximum potential.

That secret is to apply this same approach i.e. finding hidden insights about people using Empathy, to how you work with your colleagues. Doing this allows teams to continuously work on creating working conditions that feel safer and less constrained, thereby unlocking the full capacity of every team member to think, collaborate and contribute value.

In this article, I’ll explain why you will struggle to innovate without a culture of safety and take you through a few experiments you can run in your team to help remove threats to your team and help create a culture of safety.

Hijacking your Brain

In Alla Weinberg’s great short book A Culture of Safety, she has an astonishing quote that has stuck in my brain for the last week.

“The primitive brain is strong enough to override our thinking brain whenever it senses real or imagined danger. If the primitive brain registers a threat, our rational brain quiets down and our operating IQ drops to between 50 and 70 points. This is half of our operating IQ… Half.

Far back in time, when we had to fend off predators or avoid poisonous insects on a regular basis, this finely tuned evolutionary instinct for “fight or flight” was incredibly useful. But, when we’re sat comfortably in an office and a colleague who has disagreed with you walks in, the instinctive urge to feel threatened is not conducive to collaboration or useful for the situation.

When we feel under threat, and our primitive brains take over, we have very little mental processing left to collaborate or deal with complex situations. Under threat conditions, we are more likely to make mistakes and we are much less likely to be able to innovate, which should make safety a major priority for any organisation staffed with knowledge workers.

Luckily for us, Alla shares a tonne of tips to help improve 3 levels of safety, where each level corresponds to a different part of our brain.

Physical safety — which is monitored by our primitive brain and in the modern context is all about being valued, respected and included.

Emotional safety — monitored by our mammalian brain and soothed by knowing that our emotions are valid and expression of emotions are welcomed.

Psychological safety — considered by our rational brain, where people believe they will not be punished or embarrassed for making mistakes asking ‘stupid’ questions or sharing ideas for discussion.

To cover off each level of safety and to keep things brief, I’ve taken the liberty of adapting some of Alla’s tips into experiments that you can run to improve the culture of safety where you work.

Experiments to improve Safety

#1 — Reflect on what safety means to you

Before you start working with others to improve safety, it’s useful to reflect on what you personally need to feel safe.


As a Leader, I believe that I should first learn to reflect and appreciate what I need to feel safe before I can help others reflect on how to create and sustain a culture of safety


To test this, try identifying which behaviours and principles you consistently need to feel safe.

Step 1. Try and think of a group of people you felt safe working or interacting with. Ideally, this would be a group that managed to work together to overcome something and achieve a good outcome whilst working within a culture of safety

Step 2. List the behaviours and principles that made you feel safe in this group

Step 3. Pick 2–3 other groups of people you interact with and ask if they exhibited the same behaviours and principles and whether you felt safe with them or not

We are right if

You can identify and articulate common behaviours and principles across the groups you felt safe with, which were not present in the groups you didn’t feel safe with.

Here’s a quick example of the kind of thought process you could go through. In this example, Groups 1 and 2 shared many of the same behaviours that made them feel collaborative and enjoyable. Both are what I consider to be safe environments where you don’t worry about asking questions, help is always offered and accepted to help achieve common outcomes and risks and concerns are flagged and dealt with rather than being left to fester. Groups I’ve worked with who exhibited these types of traits have been able to achieve great outcomes in record times.

But Group 3 on the other hand, shared none of these characteristics and struggled to agree on what to work on with little input or questioning about why something was important or how the work would be carried out.

#2 — Reflect on physical boundaries

Moving on from your own sense of safety, it’s important to start to understand and appreciate which aspects of physical safety are important for those around you. Where do people’s boundaries exist?

In her book Culture of Safety, Alla defines boundaries as “what is ok and what is not ok” for people in a group.


As a team member, I believe any time there is a significant change to the membership of the team or to working conditions that by sharing what’s ok and not ok and making improvements we can improve team satisfaction


To test this, every quarter, or every time there is a major change get everyone to make and share two lists

Step 1. In the first list, write down what’s ok with you eg. “I am happy to have my camera on during team video calls”

Step 2. In the second list, write down what’s not ok with you eg. “We have too many meetings, I can’t get work done”

Step 3. Talk through your lists, grouping similar issues into themes

Step 4. Vote on at least one thing that you’re collectively happy with and celebrate that over the next quarter

Step 5. Vote on at least one thing that’s not working and make a plan of action to avoid this from happening

Step 6. Measure your team’s satisfaction with regards to ways of working every month and why they felt that way

We are right if

You can measure an improvement in team satisfaction, and you get bonus points if someone comments on the specific change you have made

If you work using Agile principles, you’ll recognise this type of activity in the retrospectives that you run, but you may not have considered using the lens of physical boundaries before, so maybe give this a try next time you inspect and adapt with your team.

Here’s an example that illustrates themes that a team have found around boundaries, what they’ve celebrated and an action they plan to take to avoid stepping over shared boundaries.

Experiment #3 — Reflect on your emotions

Talking about emotions in a work context can sometimes feel alien which makes it difficult to express your emotions unless you have permission to do so. This experiment introduces an easy way for your team to share how they’re feeling and why they feel that way. This helps make it more of a natural part of your routine to share your emotions in a non-cringe way and gives team members insights into what could be improved to improve emotional safety.


As a team member, I believe that sharing how I feel and why on a regular basis will help identify and resolve issues that may lead to stress


To test this, create a list of emotion words like “angry, happy, sad, frustrated, concerned, confused” and pictures that represent each word that people can use to express how they feel.

Step 1 — at the start of your regular team catch, ask people to choose an image that expresses how they feel

Step 2 — note down the reason why someone feels that way

Step 3 — consider actions to take around issues that drive negative emotions

Step 4 — measure stress levels on a monthly basis

We are right if

You can measure an improvement in stress levels

In one of our team meetings recently, someone conducted a poll on Microsoft Teams with a selection of emotional farm animals to choose from, and everyone quickly selected which one they felt like and explained why. It made it a bit more light-hearted and easier for people to share their feelings and why they felt that way.

Experiment #4 — Q&A

To create Psychological safety you need to help people feel safe to share ideas or ask questions and not worry about making mistakes. In fact, if you’re trying to create a culture of experimentation and learning where you can innovate, it’s essential you create this sense of safety because experimentation requires failure to learn what doesn’t and doesn’t work.

The more you can get your team to share their ideas and invite others to have healthy debates about those ideas, the more you can focus on collectively solving problems and addressing opportunities rather than who is the most right or wrong. What’s more, by engaging people outside your team who may a part in enabling the success of your team, you get even more perspective on an idea and you help others feel included and share in your success.


As a team member, I believe that by encouraging regular and healthy debate about ideas that we will be able to test and learn faster


To test this, run a demonstration on a regular basis of your latest work and the value you have created and invite your team and anyone who supports them to achieve their target outcomes. In the background measure the cycle time of how quickly ideas go from discovery to delivery.

Step 1 — explain to attendees that you’re looking to test and improve on ideas and that you’re looking for questions, concerns and feedback from anyone in the room.

Step 2 — get your team to briefly present their ideas, it might be a new part of a digital experience or a trial they’ve run and learned from.

Step 3 — invite the attendees to find weak spots or blind spots that they may not have visibility on

Step 4 — encourage healthy challenge and curiosity whilst encouraging people to explain their thinking behind the idea rather than defend the idea itself

Step 5 — capture any outstanding questions or concerns that go unanswered and revert back to everyone with answers, conclusions and mitigating factors

Step 6 — at the end of the session, measure everyone’s confidence levels in the ideas presented

We are right if

You can achieve improvements in cycle times from discovery to delivery by virtue of having inclusive and healthy debates on ideas.

You should also be able to note an increase in confidence levels if the debate has been healthy. It will likely be low if some parties have not been engaged or have not felt safe to contribute their point of view

If you run team demos, then this is also going to look familiar, but again, you may have attendees that are new to demos and may not be familiar with how your team runs them, so it’s always worthwhile explaining the rules of engagement at the start.

Further reading

If you’ve found this useful, I would wholeheartedly recommend reading Alla’s book, A Culture of Safety, not only is it from one of my favourite publisher’s Sense and Respond Press, but it’s also short, to the point and full of useful tips.

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Robin Wong

I help people turn ideas into human- and humanity-centric ventures. Global Head of Service Design at BT.