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Pete Shrock

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Why you need to nurture Emotional First Responders in the workplace


What is an Emotional First Responder? And how can these individuals bring emotional stability to workers, particularly in uncertain times?

Wherever there are people, there are emotions. This extends to the workplace, even though we often don’t like to admit it. Our offices are filled with intricate, interpersonal dynamics like hurt feelings, excitement, and fear, and these emotions are heightened during times of change, transitions or uncertainty.

Managers often think of an emotional workplace as a liability, but it can actually be an asset. At my company, Legacy Navigator, we have intentionally developed a culture of emotional awareness, openness and healthy questioning by identifying Emotional First Responders (EFR). Embracing the emotions in the workplace has made us a stronger business.

I’ll explain how.

What is an Emotional First Responder?

An EFR is someone who identifies and carries the emotionality of the workplace. He/she is particularly skilled in empathy, and brings awareness to workplace emotions by speaking up and articulating them. This culture invites others to share their own feelings and concerns.

“I know everyone is emotionally drained from pushing through these extra meetings this week,” an EFR might say. “Completing this project will be gratifying, but remember to build in some down time to recuperate.”

Think of an EFR as your company’s thermostat, gauging the temperature of the office and primed to let management know when emotions are heating up.  

Emotional First Responders in practice

As a manager, you don’t want everything to be an alarm, but you do want to feel the pulse of those around you. EFRs believe in building systems, not sirens.

Why? Because being in touch with others builds a team with a strong sense of camaraderie among employees who truly care. In a team with tight bonds, co-workers are tuned in and responsive when people make a sudden shift.

For example, an EFR is the person who reminds others that Brenda is vulnerable today because she’s anxious about her husband’s surgery. They will encourage Rodney to apply for a promotion he’s been dreaming of. They often ask the question that everyone in the room is thinking, but nervous to say.

In an EFR culture, you know what excites and energises your team, and also what scares them.

EFR employees share feelings that can help create more clarity about stressful corporate events like acquisitions and layoffs. An EFR will ask, “Help me understand what happened, how this came about, and if more change is likely to happen.” Questions like this can encourage management to build better emotionality when delivering news to the company.

After a layoff, for example, “We are sad to lose these employees, but as an organization, we are making a choice to re-allocate our resources. Here’s why.” With clear, compassionate and transparent communication, employees spend less time and brain space on worry, speculation and gossip and more time in their commitments to the company.

EFRs bring emotional consistency to the workplace and to volatile circumstances.

Why do emotions in the workplace matter?  

The reality is, emotions are already in the workplace whether we like it or not. Work is based on relationships. I may be your manager, but if I don’t understand you, believe in you and invest in you, you won’t care at all about me and my goals.  

As a manager, your job is to influence people to perform their best. If you don’t know what moves them emotionally and connects them to their work, you are not yielding the best result. In an EFR culture, you know what excites and energises your team, and also what scares them.

Knowing how your employees feel allows you to tap into their hidden capacity. People who feel nurtured invest more of their creative selves and energy into the workplace – they have a deeper commitment to the company.

You can screen for EFR traits with personality testing, seeking out those who are empathic and conscientious. Look for those who are self-reflective and aware of what others are feeling. 

Emotional safety also leads to physical safety – people can express how they feel, and trust that they will be treated with respect. But if I speak about an emotion and then I’m ostracised or minimised, it’s clear this is not a safe environment to express frustration, or fear. Employees will equate this to not being valued.

That’s why we see many workplaces now where employees have not felt heard, or haven’t felt empowered to call out harassment or abuse. The culture says, “We don’t talk about how we feel, we just get the work done at any cost.”

How to spot and develop Emotional First Responders

To inspire an EFR culture, lead from the top, and by example. Once you identify an EFR in a company, find a way to help them elevate and institutionalise the concept. For example, many workplaces today have a Chief People Officer, like me.  

The more EFRs interact at a management level, the more phrases like, “I feel X or Y” become normalised within the company. It permits the language of feelings to be used, and accepted into business conversations.Individuals can start to emote, and that creates a more transparent culture and team.

You can screen for EFR traits with personality testing, seeking out those who are empathic and conscientious. Look for those who are self-reflective and aware of what others are feeling.  

Know that EFR skills are not naturally coupled with top management skills, and that’s OK. Company leaders are necessarily focused more on metrics than emotions. At Legacy Navigator, our CEO intentionally partnered with me because he recognised that he wanted more EFR skills in the company.

Empowering management for emotional success

To support and empower your EFR in this challenging role, management must hold that position in the same regard as revenue-generating positions. Trust me, that’s not a mythical connection.  

I’ve seen the financial connection first-hand at multiple Fortune 500 organisations. Workplace cultures that ignore employee emotions have high attrition rates, with concurrently high recruiting and training costs. Employees develop a culture of secrecy, often withholding information.

Enhancing the emotional awareness at your workplace may feel scary in today’s results-oriented business world, but that’s exactly why you need it. Emotional First Responders will strengthen your company culture. They will improve retention and increase profits. And ultimately, they make everyone just feel good about being on the team.  

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