The importance of safety

You can listen to my podcast on this subject here

I am currently approaching my second decade working full-time in some form or another. With the passing of my father this last year and the challenges facing many and myself I have been privileged and motivated to reflect on my journey from that naive teenager thrust into adulthood into the father and manager I am today. Fair warning about what comes next, I am going to ramble. I will not stay 100% on topic. Lastly I am not an expert so take my words with a grain of salt. I hope by now you have learned to search for the meaning and truth behind what is said and avoid blindly following anything.

I have reflected on a number of areas and have decided to start writing and sharing more so that if my words help one person be better (even if that person is myself) that it will be worth spending the time I have here between the blinks of my eyelids doing this. The first area I want to talk about is safety in the workplace. The feeling that everything will be ok and that you are not under attack within the place you work and that you can bring your full self to work to solve the problems at hand facing you and those you have chosen to spend such a significant part of your life with.

Safety boils down in many ways to trust as its bedrock. This foundation leads to what you need to facilitate the right environment to have crucial conversations about what is facing you as teammates, a reporting relationship, or you and the business. To have safety you must avoid any potential emotional hijacking of the situation as much as possible and you need trust and that feeling that it is safe to talk about that hard thing to combat that possibility. Emotional hijacking is when our emotions override our ability to think through our responses and our subsequent actions almost become involuntary. Emotional hijacking can be very valuable as you can react faster than you can think to an incoming threat but with work being so far removed from physical threats we have to be vigilant that we do not perceive a conversation, or a display of emotion as a threat in the same way. 

So why am I sharing this? How can safety possibly impact our ability to avoid emotional hijacking? I think it is based on how an unsafe environment stifles and saps at your mental strength. When where you work feels unsafe you are more prone to reading other people’s intents incorrectly and you will spend more time fighting about controversially important things, such as your team name, where your desk sits or even the color of a given part of your product. Those choices have little to no impact on the success of you, your team, and the business but they are often an area where we spend significant amounts of time resolving conflict. These things are important to a degree but the conversations around them often devolve into politics and unsafe practices and safety can help keep the conversations positive and resolve the natural friction more easily. Lara Hogan, my former executive coach, shared an excellent post about why desk moves can be so hard here and I encourage you to go and read it. The one thing we can all not get more of is time. So, time spent solving problems that help you and yours be more successful are better than putting energy into things that do not help as much with those challenges. There is some complexity here that I want to unravel as I share more of my thoughts.

Basically, if you do not feel safe at work, you and those around you most likely are more prone to have moments of emotional hijacking than not and your attention will be spent fighting versus solving the problems and challenges that are facing you in your life (work being a place of some of those challenges). In the professional context that could be coming up with your slides for your next board meeting or trying to focus on and review yet another pull request. If you don’t feel safe at work you’re not able to bring your best self to your work. I think this has always been true, but at least because of everything that’s happened for the last year or so I see more of a desire to improve this situation for people than I’ve ever seen and I for one am happy to see some positive momentum towards improving the way we work.

When I started my career or even at this time today the desire or encouragement of safety has sometimes been construed as a weakness. I find that shortsighted. I think being vulnerable shows more courage and showing the need to feel safe is important. However, safety can come in a number of ways and I do not want people to misconstrue what I am trying to say here today so I’ll try and narrow the focus a bit. I want to focus on the role of a manager in creating safety on their team by doing the things only they can do to help facilitate a better environment with less emotional hijacking and more crucial conversations that lead to solving real tangible problems that improve the team’s chances of success in the long run.

As a manager your title makes you responsible to many people. But your people make you a leader. So as a manager you first must feel responsible to establish safety and you must be willing to hold your people responsible for keeping everyone safe. As a leader you must set an example of how to do that and embrace the hard parts of making safety real for you and your team. There is no easy path to safety and trust.

As a manager you may ask yourself: what can I do to increase psychological safety for my team? I believe the first critical step is to actually get to know your people. That might be controversial in some quarters. You reports need to understand that every time you talk with them it is not about status updates or the ongoing fires or that you need things from them. Set aside some time just to talk with them. Come with some thought-provoking comments or questions, share yourself with them. Resonate with their interests as best as you can but let them talk about it. Let them talk to you. In a management relationship power is always asymmetrical. What that means is even as you build a relationship with someone you will never get away from the fact that you are technically their boss. You cannot be their friend all the time even though you should strive to be friendly all the time. Sometimes you have to deliver hard news and they have to be able to hold you accountable because they’re being held accountable as well. We cannot let each other slide from impropriety or actions that threaten safety. 

If you listen to your people, and get to know them I promise you that their day will improve, their optimism for the future will increase and that their stress will decrease. Every single person is trying to make their life work and it helps them tremendously to know that the person who’s responsible for them at work knows them, cares about them, and will listen to them. That is what I want, I have to assume others want that too. In fact, that is a pretty good rule that I learned in the past. If I am feeling something, I am not so special to have divined some unique insight about what is going on and maybe I should facilitate bringing those feelings to light. Yes managers, you are not any more special than the people you manage. People always remember how you made them feel much much longer after you interact with them and the contents of the conversation fade in their mind.

The second thing that you can do to increase safety is to protect it and to encourage it through feedback and taking action. Allowing sexist, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic comments, or behaviors is unacceptable and as a manager you are responsible for the impact on your teammembers because you have the authority and accountability for what happens on your team. We cannot control everything but we can control how we respond and are accountable for our response. Feedback is a useful tool to facilitate that accountability for your team members and yourself. There are a number of tactics with giving feedback and I am not going to be exhaustive here today. Myself, I tend to lean towards SBI, or Radical Candor frameworks as well as facilitating crucial conversations. There are a few in my tool box because I feel they are effective based on my own experience and even if the pattern is familiar each time you give feedback is slightly different. If people want I can dig into each approach more effectively and deeply in another post so please comment or talk to me over Twitter.

The gist of feedback really boils down to people choosing to change based on what they have heard. As a manager you share an observation, discuss the possible changes and then you hope that people will listen, or better yet hearken and actually change their behavior. This is where trust which you begin to establish by getting to know people is critical for your success as a manager in helping people hearken to your feedback. When you listen to them then when you need them to listen to you they will be more likely to.

That’s great Ross, thanks so much. What does feedback actually look like?

Well, a simple example of contrived feedback follows. Note this is 100% fake.

Establish context and impact

Dad – “Son do you remember yesterday when I asked you to take the trash out?”

Son – “Oh shoot, yeah Dad I remember”

Dad “Well, we are not going to be able to get to the mountains to go riding today because I had to take care of the trash last night and was not able to repair your bike like I promised. I am frustrated because I feel like I have to break my promise to your siblings or stay up late and break a promise to myself to keep myself healthy”

Remorse and apology

Son – “I am sorry Dad, I forgot and went and played with my sister instead”

Dad – “I understand and forgive you, we all sometimes forget.”

Setting expectations and accountability to each other

Dad – “What do you think we can both do better next time?”

Son – “I could have written it down on my board so I would be reminded next time I went into the kitchen”

Dad – “I could have let you know why I needed it done tonight so we would not have been behind this morning on getting to our family fun. I am sorry I did not let you know why it was important and that I was upset about it this morning. Next time I ask something can you try to remind me to explain why it is important? And if you say you will do something will you try to remember to do it?”

Son – “Yes Dad, I forgive you for being upset with me. I will try harder to do what I say I will do”

This isn’t a perfect example. In fact I find it somewhat unnatural. However, contrived or not I do believe it illustrates a few key things about making sure that people understand what went wrong, the impact it had without creating guilt and then laying out steps and expectations to improve the situation in the future going forward. It also creates an opportunity for people to explain or provide their own feedback that it’s not just the loud voice, the Authority coming down hard. You can force people to do a lot of things, but if you want to be a leader you have to understand how to bring out the best in them so that they choose to walk along the path that you want the group to of their own accord.

The third thing that will help increase safety on your team is transparency. Transparency is critical for your business to truly know the inputs that are going into your decision making process so that you get the right outputs. I have sat in rooms with executives talking about how people quote” can’t handle the truth”. I’m here to tell you that the downsides of being anti-transparency is that you are also not getting the benefits of any innovation that you need to solve the problems that you are facing. Transparency does not mean no privacy and that not everyone knows everything about everyone and each part of the business. That would create a significant amount of noise that would distract from the signal that actually helps people. As a general rule for myself if I think people can help with the problem that I’m facing  but I feel it is reasonable to let them know I have a problem or project that they could help me shape or form a solution to. Being transparent is not an excuse to funnel stress to your team And make them try to fix something that maybe only you can fix. In simple terms for me stress often happens when people know about a problem and are not able to help fix it.

So an example of where you can be transparent. You can be transparent that you are thinking or going to change organization structure. Involving people in that process earlier on will enable you to address any concerns with any plan that you may have actually come up with sooner than just handing down a new structure in a big meeting with no opportunity for feedback or consent. Again, sharing problems, or potential projects should only happen if their feedback can actually be incorporated into the solution. When I was handed a list of people who were going to be let go attempting to be transparent and solicit feedback with my staff when the decision had been made would have been transparent but also trust breaking if they were not aligned against the plan that they had no power, even I had no power to change. 

A key word comes to mind when thinking about transparency. Consent. Consent is part of transparency because in a business we are all consenting to be part of an organization and that we are going to work together towards a common goal. We do have contractual obligations to each other that are legally enforceable but really there is a relationship between team mates that is a very human thing. To quote one of my favorite workplace movies “my only real motivation is not to be hassled; that, and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” Consent can be ignored but knowing what and why you are where you are and what it means to you on a personal level is the core of making an informed decision to stay where you are and consent to exist in that role or that job. Transparency facilitates making informed consensual choices between you and others about how you spend your lives.

So what you have to look out for are the diet sodas of transparency. The types of transparency that taste close to the real deal but are actually fake. The struggle is that for most of us, we have never had the real deal. In our personal lives or professional ones. Myself, I have only ever had real transparency and the accompanying safety on a handful of teams at a handful of companies. 

Management often says that the organization can’t handle real soda. However I challenge that as being more indicative that management does not actually trust people to solve the problems that they can solve. So, if you trust your people, and they can trust you then what are you afraid of? Innovation happens in a number of ways but a way to facilitate it materializing is by letting people know exactly what they’ are up against. A classic example of innovation is the cobbling together of CO2 scrubbers from parts on hand because people were going to die. They didn’t build a Gantt chart, they didn’t talk about a SWOT diagram and how they were going to dominate Market. They simply said here’s a number, here are the consequences, these are the resources you have and this is how much time you have left to come up with a solution that needs to do this. And in that particular case, they figured it out and saved lives.

Another example of the importance of transparency and its relationship with safety is the impact it has on people willing to be part of your organization in the hiring process. If you are at a startup or interviewing with a startup and they are not comfortable talking about runway or funding then you are probably not in a high transparency organization and it will not be safe to build real consent and trust. If the people you talk to when you are interviewing are not able to share valid criticisms of the organization you are probably getting the diet soda version of reality. Now, I am not suggesting that everyone share all the horrible things that exist or use this as an excuse to complain but would ask people to be realistic about the challenges facing their organization and have optimism and enthusiasm that they are going to be able to solve them. That is leadership. Here is a problem, we need to solve it, we can solve it, lets work together to solve it. 

No company is perfect, no company is wholly terrible, no one single dimension defines any organization. However, if you do do not feel comfortable asking a hard question, about diversity or inclusion or equality when you have almost nothing to lose during an interview process other than the possibility of working with these people then how are you going to have the courage to do that when you are actually there and you rely on them for your income and the stakes are so much higher? Probe for transparency during the interview or while you are at work and then seek the level you need to be happy.

The final thing in this blog that will help increase safety on your team is if you lead by example. You have to first ask yourself the hard questions and hold yourself accountable to your higher standards before you ask that of others. Are you building trust? Are you giving and receiving feedback and hearkening to it? Are you being transparent? Nothing makes things less safe faster than the old saying “rules for thee but not for me”. 

Being a manager is hard for a number of reasons. Top of mind for me is that it can be so messy, emotionally, constant context changes, demands that rapidly change but fundamentally the challenge truly lies in that there are the expectations that you will do it perfectly and yet there is nothing to help you achieve that. I hope some of this helps someone understand how we can help each other create safety. Support your manager, or support your people in facilitating the conversation on how to increase safety on your team. Fundamentally, I believe treating the people we work with together as fellow humans who are worth more than the sum of how much the company is spending on them is a moral thing to do and will lead to good outcomes. 

So I’ll leave you with one final thought about management and safety. If you are a manager, ask yourself, am I doing right by my people? As someone who has a manager ask yourself am I doing right by those who I support and try and follow? Taking a moment to reflect can provide you with the time to listen to your own subconscious about what the next step should be to help you and the people you work with have some more safety in a world full of consistent chaos. In conclusion as I often say this advice, these words are worth as much as you paid for them. Thank you for taking time to listen, to read and hopefully you will take time to think because that is my goal at the end of the day. Can we all take a moment to ponder how to increase not just our own happiness but the happiness of those around us. Farewell and good day.

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