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Fostering Emotional Safety as a Leader

David Pearson

Sr. Engineering Manager at Square

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Loss of Confidence Within Your Team

There's a quote by Maya Angelou that has stuck with me ever since I heard it: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

This perfectly sums up one of the biggest lessons I learned on people management over the years: the importance of your impact on others. Because sometimes, as a leader, you'll come across a situation where a teammate will need your help. And the course of action you take will reflect on you and your team. So developing the proper rapport and being supportive, albeit in a professional context, is very important.

Here's an example: Some time ago, one of my engineering managers was going through a tough time. One of their performance review conversations didn't go as intended. After a candid conversation with one of their direct reports, the EM reached out to me. They shared their feelings of failure. They were distressed and disappointed in themselves. They felt like they hadn't been able to express the main points during the review adequately. They attributed all this failure to their lack of experience and started to doubt their skills.

Communication and Support in Times of Distress

I'm passionate about managing people the right way, learning from them, and growing from these experiences. Circling back to Angelou's quote, I paid more attention to how I made people feel. I put a more significant focus on helping people— more than that, I wanted to make them feel excited and proud about the work they were doing, even about the things they did outside of work. I firmly believe that this should be a primary purpose for a people manager. So, how can you achieve this as a leader?  

Effective communication is crucial. Listen to your teammates' struggles and worries. Make them feel heard. When my EM was stressed about their performance review, I made them realize that while important, one review isn't everything. Sure, they could have better expressed themselves; they could have performed better. But I made them feel like it wasn't all that bad. I reminded them that it's all part of the learning process. Making mistakes is inevitable, especially in the early phases of management. As a leader, I chose to reassure my EM and motivate them to do better in the future instead of letting them dwell in the past. After all, we are all far from being perfect!  

Reassuring Your Teammates

  • Don't focus on the micro— look at the macro. And encourage your team to do the same. Remind your teammates that their careers aren't defined by one small thing but by an accumulation of small things.
  • Create a culture where it's okay to fail sometimes because everyone makes mistakes. Reiterate the value of embracing failure and growing from those experiences. Share your own failures publicly, and own them.
  • When you have difficult conversations with people, focus on how you make them feel rather than the words you speak. Listen to what they're saying and respond by echoing their feelings. It's so easy to stay factual, but that's not what's essential when hearing someone out. Setting clear expectations for your team while paying attention to how you make them feel can have a more considerable effect.

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David Pearson

Sr. Engineering Manager at Square


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