Creating Safe Teams

by May 29, 2021Organization Development

An important key to having great teams and organizations is their sense of safety. Their members do not fear censure should their all-too-human egos and emotions become evident. They feel free to speak, to dissent, to be radical, and even outlandish. This freedom is key to having high levels of productivity, engagement, and creativity. In so many organizations and teams such freedom has been stifled. When team members sense risk, uselessness, or ennui ‘why-bother’ cultures and norms of group think, unobtrusiveness, and submissiveness emerge. What a waste of human capital, of human energy, of human beings!

Here are two ideas I’ve found useful toward creating an environment of safety in teams and organizations. Both level the playing field where those involved see each other as human beings rather than boss and subordinate, sales and manufacturing, or some other form of more power and less power.

Leaders Must Lead the Way

Stylized bird leading other birds

The leader of the organization or team must be willing to show herself or himself as a human being with all the feeling, warts, and fallibility that all human beings have. Many leaders are reluctant to show their humanness at work. However, in my 45 plus years as an organization development practitioner, I’ve yet to meet a leader who wasn’t eventually willing given enough coaching and support. The importance of the-leader-goes-first stems from the tendency for people to follow their leaders for better or for worse. A leader who is willing to be without the artifice of position or authority with his/her people will find their people willing to be without artifice with them. The leader who only feels safe behind some particular image of superiority will be followed by people who also minimize how they will present themselves.

I was working with the CEO of a good-sized behavioral health organization who wanted her executive team to be more proactive and creative in responding to the ever-changing vagaries of government regulators and funders. “They’re always look to me for what to do rather than coming with their own ideas,” was his complaint. He suggested that I work his team without him present believing that would be a key to their opening up. Instead, I suggested that  he not only needed to be present but also must be willing to acknowledge that he was part of the problem, asking his team what he needed to do to be a more effective leader. He was quite taken aback: “Won’t they lose respect for me if I admit to that?” I suggested that he imagine how he would feel if his boss asked him for how she could improve her leadership. He said he would admire and respect her for that. I sat with him until he grew accustomed to that idea. Then, we did have to work through his concern that the meeting would turn into a bitch focused on him. Notice his safety issue surfacing. After assuring him that my job included not allowing that to happen as well as supporting him to stay focused if his defenses went up, he agreed to see if his being more open would support his team in being more forthcoming.

The meeting we scheduled with his team to do this work was typical in its progress. He was open and honest about the team he wanted them to be and his sense of having failed them. As agreed, he requested feedback about how he could be a better leader since his own ideas had fallen short. The request is met with a profound silence.

I facilitate such silence in a couple ways: One is wait it out until some extravert or courageous person breaks it. What they actually say doesn’t matter more than getting the ball rolling. If the wait gets too long even for me, I point to someone and say you first, then we’ll go around the table until we’ve heard from everyone. That invariably get us started albeit slowly. The pace picks up as it is noticed that those that have spoken up have been listened to and respected. Conflicts that have been around for a while surface and are safely worked through.

Gradually the meeting turned into an open conversation as they negotiated what they wanted from him and what he wants from them. My facilitation focused on keeping them listening to each other, moderating the pace, and checking for consensus. The more people felt heard, the more the more they felt respected as human beings rather than positions or roles with their attendant power dynamics. When we are heard and respected as a human being, we listen to and respect others as the human beings they are. In a dysfunctional team or organization, it is the leader who must go first.

The Big Share!

Stylized people icons connected to each other

I learned this exercise from Edie Seashore. I often use it prior to the leader-goes-first exercise to make it easier for everyone. The seven questions below are the heart of the exercise. I may add other questions relevant to the team at hand, but the seven are sacrosanct. It takes five to ten minutes a person when used with an intact team of ten or so people. In stranger groups where the risk is less two to three hours can be needed. Interruptions and questions are not allowed. I also suggested everyone be conscious about what they choose to share and not share. Finally, I admonish them not to share anything they want no one to know­

  1. Where were your ancestors from? What impact is it still having on you?
  2. Where were you born? Raised? What impact is it still having on you?
  3. What was your family like? What impact is it still having on you?
  4. When was the 1st time you realized you were different in some significant way? What impact is it still having on you?
  5. What have been your milestones of your life?
  6. What are your ambitions?
  7. Other important things you would like us to know about you?

The stories increase in personal depth as the process unfolds. To get off to a good start, I suggest that the leader go first after having coached him or her to do so. The questions support the team members in sharing a version of their life’s story in ways that are often moving and emphasizes the humanity that is shared by all. Thus, they level the field. I highlight this by asking the group after everyone has had a turn, what impact did hearing the stories have on you personally and on the team as a whole. They recognize that trust increases as we are willing to be open and vulnerable. From there working through whatever issues the team has is facilitated by the trust that has been built.

We’ve used this exercise at the highest levels of organizations in the corporate world as well as the military. Feel free to put away any concerns you may have about groups not wanting to do this exercise. If the leader is willing and sets the stage, the others will follow.

Much of the dysfunction of teams come from the uneven playing field of win/lose power dynamics where position, department, race, and gender determine who the winners and losers are. Experientially leveling the playing and building trust through vulnerability allows for the compassion and listening that are at the heart of good collaboration and consensus-building as well as high levels of engagement and performance.

These two ideas help move teams and organizations toward the sense of safety needed for engaging, synergetic, and creative teams. Of course, there is always more to learn about creating great teams and organizations. One way to really deepen your understanding and skills for working with organizations and teams is to sign-up for either or both of our Master Class programs: the Nine Disciplines of Leadership & Self-Mastery and the Seven Core Actions of Effective Change.