Openness and vulnerability – developing a culture of emotional awareness and creativity

Whatever industry, sector or business size you work in, how people feel at work will determine their ability to perform at their best and deliver results. So why do so many organisations use fear as a motivator, when it has such a negative impact on people’s emotions and therefore their ability to perform well and be creative? Why are openness and vulnerability seen as weak or ‘fluffy’ traits that should be avoided at all costs.

In this article we’ll explore the argument for better emotional awareness when building a creative and open culture, before taking a look at the science behind how the brain works and what impact this has. And finally, we’ll look at why these things are important and how they should be taken into consideration by any business that wants to develop more agile and creative staff.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence refers to our ability to be aware of and regulate our own emotions; and to be aware of other people’s emotions and respond accordingly in order to build effective relationships. It is:

The ability to understand your emotions, the ability to listen to others and empathise with their emotions, and the ability to express emotions productively. To be emotionally literate is to be able to handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and improves the quality of life around you. (Steiner, C. 1997)

Many people believe that they are not in control of their behaviours – their behaviours are something that ‘happen’ to them as unconscious reactions, rather than conscious responses. Part of being emotionally intelligent is therefore recognising the choices that we have in how we respond and behave in relationships and situations and becoming more flexible in the way we choose to respond and communicate.

What gets in the way?

The reality is somewhat different. In order to develop their consciousness about emotions, people need to be willing to be open and vulnerable – to explore their own experiences of emotions and to clearly articulate what they are feeling. Unfortunately in many organisations emotions are seen as a weakness. Therefore, rather than openly discussing emotions and how we are feeling, people feel that they must suppress their emotions and be ‘strong’. This in turn leads to poor behaviours developing as people unconsciously ‘react’ rather than taking the time to understand how their emotions are driving their behaviours and making a choice about their response.

Emotional Intelligence refers to our ability to be aware of and regulate our own emotions

So why does this matter?

In organisations where emotional openness is not encouraged, we see evidence of destructive behaviours developing – people don’t communicate well, they become defensive or aggressive, they shut down to the possibilities of doing things differently and they stop noticing the impact that they have on others. All of this can lead to the creation of a culture based on fear. Fear can be insidious and is triggered in lots of different ways, for example, a lack of clarity about expectations, unrealistic targets and goals, change, too much to do, poorly handled appraisals, poor leadership – the list goes on. Fear costs organisations huge amounts of money every year from issues such as stifling creative thinking and work performance through to more extreme costs such as people burning out, suffering from stress and anxiety, and ultimately ending up off work sick. And the result? Companies that are inefficient, non-competitive and uninventive.

Why does fear have such a negative impact?

In his book ‘Coherence’, Alan Watkins describes how our physiological responses to different situations are the ultimate drivers in how we feel, think and behave. Our body responds unconsciously to a given situation – our heart rate may increase; our breathing may become more rapid. Our emotions are how these physiological signals and experiences come together. They become feelings when we become aware of them and we can start to describe the feeling that we are experiencing. Our feelings then influence our thinking, which in turn drives our behaviours. Finally our behaviours determine the results that we get.

The relevance of this cascade effect becomes clear when we start to consider how the brain works and what triggers the different motivational centres of the brain. Research from Neuroscience around the Triune Brain shows how the brain has evolved from the reptilian brain, which houses our autonomic functions (breathing, heart rate, temperature), to our limbic or mammalian brain, which houses our emotions, to our neocortex or thinking brain, where we reason, make decisions, ruminate and imagine. For simplicity we will refer to the reptilian and limbic brain as the ‘old brain’ and the neocortex as the ‘new brain’. Within the old brain, our amygdala governs our responses to fear – our fight, flight or freeze responses. When we are faced with threat or fear our old brain takes over and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system that floods our bodies with cortisol, a chemical that inhibits our ability to think clearly and over a prolonged period can have detrimental health effects. In animals the old brain’s fight, flight or freeze response takes over when a threat is detected and then shuts down again when the threat goes away. In humans, our threat response can get stuck in a loop with our ‘new brain’ where we start thinking about the threat, imagining what could have happened, ruminating over why something happened and making connections that don’t exist. Essentially we get stuck in a threat-based loop where damaging and corrosive chemicals continue to circulate.

Recent research by Dr Nelisha Wickremasinghe has identified three main ‘motivational centres’ of the brain – the threat, drive and safe brain motivators. Her research indicates that most of our problems in the workplace arise because our body and mind is over exposed to real or imagined threat. People often respond to threat by moving into a ‘drive’ based response – working harder, seeking to win, striving to achieve. In the short term this can work and people deliver results against the odds. However in the longer term, this behaviour isn’t sustainable and leads to stress, anxiety and burnout. Instead people need to engage the ‘safe’ brain motivator or response, which is associated with calmness, emotional connections, safety and security.

Leaders need to support their employees to notice, understand and regulate their threat response in order to stay centred when experiencing, for example, work load pressure, performance anxiety, disruptive global trends, team conflict and rapid change. By cultivating our safe brain we increase individual and group resilience and with it, the potential to thrive and succeed in today’s VUCA environments. (Wickremasinghe, N. 2017)


In any business that values creativity and innovation, people need to be aware of how to engage the ‘safe’ brain. People who are in ‘threat’ brain have narrowed thinking ability – no one comes up with brilliant ideas when they are experiencing fear, pressure or anxiety. Creating an atmosphere of support, openness and nurturing allows people to relax, to build connections and to free up their safe brain where broad thinking and imagination flows. Creating a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes, where leaders understand their impact and can make positive choice about how they behave, and where fear doesn’t dominate will help drive towards positive environments and create organisations that thrive rather than just survive.


Steiner, C. with Perry, P. (1997) Achieving Emotional Literacy. London: Bloomsbury.

Wickremasinghe, N. (2017) ‘It’s not my fault but it is my problem: the role of self compassion in a VUCA world’, The Dialogue Space Review, p. 1

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