Trapped by the Need for Emotional Safety
It’s early 2000s. I was VP Strategy and Business Development for a $1B Division of a life sciences company. I had joined the company a few years earlier to build a strategic planning function. We moved from a time when annual revenue projections had little grounding in the market to formal processes and mechanisms for analyzing the strategic context—understanding threats and opportunities to the future of the business and ensuring robust plans and initiatives were developed to address them. My leadership impact was reflected in my promotion to VP.
I don’t share this to be boastful, but rather to set the context for my journey of strategic leadership. See at the time, I had not yet understood my natural talents for strategic thinking. I just assumed everyone thought about things the way I did. Naïve, I know. While I was creating meaningful value for the organization, there was room for greater impact. I consistently received feedback that amounted to “We need to hear your voice.” I was unwittingly hiding - behind a focus on process over content, and in a role that inherently had influence without decision-making authority - to stay emotionally safe.
A past client of mine, Nick, took the opposite tack to emotional safety. While I suppressed my voice, he over-expressed his. I dismissed and diminished my own, while he dismissed and diminished others’. Neither of us with conscious awareness of these choices. Both of us acting out of alignment with our values. These were our protective mechanisms in action.
Every leader has a habitual way of reacting and leading through challenges: with a bias toward conviction (clarity, assertiveness) or connection (inclusivity, collaboration). This bias is a part of our biological wiring for self-preservation. The challenge—our biology reacts to social and emotional threats with the same life-saving protective mechanisms as physical threats to our safety: fight, flight, freeze. And this instinct for emotional safety limits our leadership impact.
While my colleagues were asking to hear my voice more, Nick’s colleagues were asking him to hear theirs. Nick and I each understood that we would lead more effectively by balancing conviction and connection. Intellectually, the benefits of balancing both are clear. But putting that principle into practice is a whole different matter. Understanding was not enough. Changing our habitual response would require emotional courage to face some of our deepest fears.
Trapped by Our Clever Minds - Keeping Us ‘Safe’
With a bias towards leading with connection, my full impact may never have been expressed. Because let’s face it, strategic leadership requires us to lead with conviction - out on a limb, standing for a future that few can see. Risking criticism, rejection, failure. An edge of discomfort I couldn’t yet tolerate. My fear response? Avoid. So, my unconscious mind cleverly navigated me to leadership roles where I could unwittingly avoid my greatest fear (that my voice would not matter).
Nick, too, experiences the vulnerability of strategic leadership – risking criticism, rejection, failure. His fear response? Fight. Nick’s is a more familiar leadership style that we have come to tolerate, at times even celebrate, for the results achieved. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Carly Fiorina – an old Washington Post article wondered “Do Jerks Make Better Leaders.” The author believed we celebrate the “jerks” to normalize hurtful behaviors in all of us that none of us want to accept.
When we believe we must trade-off our negative impact on some people (employees) for our positive impact on many (customers), you can see how we have come to tolerate these behaviors. As our clever minds rationalize the way things are, we harm ourselves and others, and limit what could be. All in the unconscious interest of emotional safety.
Until we learn to over-ride our basic threat response, we remain at the mercy of it.
Trapped by Simple Stories – Limiting What We See and Believe
While we tend to lead with conviction OR connection, both are in all of us – the gifts and the downsides.
Nick led with conviction—and he had great connection to the future he envisioned. A future he strongly believed would benefit the employees and patients he served. When selecting his headshot for the website, he picked the one that communicated the most care so patients could feel it. His organization’s mission was personal – Nick had a deep connection to it.
My conviction was expressed in actions more than words. My tendency to lead with connection was rooted in great conviction for values of receptivity and inclusion. I wanted, perhaps needed, people to feel heard and respected. A bias that gained me a lot of influence, despite my lack of decision-making authority. As one colleague said, “Karin has tremendous influence over resources outside her control.”
The simple stories I’ve told about Nick and I quickly become more complex. Nick may have initially been perceived as a “Jerk.” And of my leadership – “lacks confidence and a point of view”—the death nail of any strategic leader. But dig a little deeper, and you start to see things differently.
Simple stories produce simple labels and judgments. When we live in that simplicity, we put ourselves and others in little boxes, limiting what is possible.
The Path of Liberation: Acceptance and Courage
We often give to others what we need most (me valuing the voice of others, because I feared my voice wouldn’t be valued) or unintentionally do to others what we fear most (Nick dismissing the voice of others, because he feared his would be dismissed). These are clues to our path of liberation and greater leadership impact.
Our habitual way of leading through challenges emerges from our deepest fear. That fear causes us to over-value one quality at the expense of the other, and in turn end up with the downsides of both. Me: inclusive at the expense of assertive. Nick, assertive at the expense of inclusive. Both of us without conscious awareness. How we showed up in different situations, a function of our body’s sense of emotional safety.
Our pathway to turning the principle of conviction AND connection into committed practice:
1. Awareness - of our habitual tendencies because we can’t change what we can’t see.
2. Compassion and acceptance - for our protective mechanism, including accepting the harmful impact to ourselves and others. Trust me, it can be a hard pill to swallow.
3. Belief– that we can learn to over-ride our biology and tap into the benefits of conviction and connection without the downside costs that we so fear.
4. Courage - to risk our emotional safety. To run experiments and begin to teach our body that, in this present moment, we are emotionally safe.
As I began to experiment with expressing my voice in the face of challenge or resistance, I had to accept that some of Steve Job’s dark-side is in me. Turns out my fear response includes flight and fight. Nick was learning through his experiments that his beautifully caring heart didn’t need to come at the expense of his voice, credibility, and dare I say – sense of value.
With committed practice, we are bringing conviction AND connection into a dynamically balanced system – as effortlessly as the dynamic system of inhale and exhale. A system that ebbs and flows – the balance evident over time more than any single moment. That’s the aspiration, at least.
An Invitation to Liberate - From the Limits of Emotional Safety
The reality is, my voice has been with me all along. When and where I express it remains a function of how emotionally safe I feel. What once was an edge of discomfort that I couldn’t yet tolerate is no longer. Instead, I’m leaning into my next edge of discomfort – like, being fully open in this article. And with each act of emotional courage, more becomes possible.
As I look back, I wish I could have seen sooner how my biologic need for emotional safety had trapped and limited me. I could have stayed in my more “backstage” role and continued to be an impactful leader. And yet, what has become possible for me has been truly transformational.
I am in awe of the good we can create, even when we’re still subject to our fears, insecurities, and reactive tendencies. And how that good can grow into something even greater when we’re willing to put ourselves out there and face our deepest fears.
The choice is yours – when you can see it. For years, decades really, I was blind to how much the fear of asserting my voice had me in its grips. I had to transform from the inside to be able to lead more impactfully on the outside.
I offer my experience to perhaps reveal, sooner than I was able to see, the choices available to you. An invitation on the journey to game-changing strategic leadership.
Leading with conviction and connection is vulnerable terrain to navigate, but so much becomes possible when we commit to the practice. It’s an honor to partner with my coaching clients through these steps of liberation, often with me holding compassion and belief for them until they can. There is nothing more rewarding then when a client says, “I really didn’t think I could change in this way.”
What possibility is awaiting on the other side of your fear?