Creating Safe Work Spaces For Greater Connection & Freedom
It happened in less than five seconds. One moment I was climbing into bed in the top of our camper van; in the next I’d broken my arm. It was a short fall, but nevertheless damaging; I’d shattered the end of my right radius. I am generally a strong, healthy person, very active and rarely sick. So breaking a bone was a unique moment of feeling physically fragile and vulnerable, and an unpleasant reminder that even seemingly innocuous situations can be unsafe.
I’ve written previously about vulnerability in the creative process. In order for us to be vulnerable with our ideas and our work, to allow ourselves to be exposed and open, we need to feel safe. For vulnerability to flourish as a method of meaningful human connection, it must happen in a safe environment.
If we look behind the old axiom "people do business with people they like," we can understand that one of the reasons we enjoy a relationship is because we will not be ridiculed or unfairly judged when we share ourselves and our ideas. Likable people, those we want to live and work with, are safe people to be around.
Safety engenders trust which leads to respect, and trust and respect are the foundations of all successful relationships. You do not learn to trust another person or company without there first being a sense of safety.
What does it mean to have a safe environment in our businesses? How do we create the kind of place where our clients, our customers, our partners and coworkers can feel comfortable admitting their fears, sharing their truths, discussing sticky issues, and diving deep for answers and solutions to problems?
Start by being dependable and expected. Doing the expected seems like it would run counter to being creative. Yet returning calls and emails, responding promptly to inquiries, and showing up when we say will be there are small but impactful ways to build a sense of security. And then there are bigger things, like taking ownership when we mess up and fulfilling the promises we make, most especially the ones that are public and upon which we have positioned our businesses and our work.
Create a sense of safety by providing information. In all of our communications, we should be thinking about what questions people might have and then work to address those preemptively. It's easy to find out what the common issues are that trip most people up. We can talk to our clients and customers, solicit our sales and customer service people, run surveys, run analytics. People shouldn't have to search hard for the answers they're looking for when they are thinking about doing business with us. And most people appreciate truth and transparency in conversations between a business and its customers.
Be cognizant about any fears or concerns others may have. What would help minimize the risk for someone to work with us? Of course, we need to do what we can to minimize any perceived danger prior to an engagement or sale. But it's just as important to reduce the risk in a client's or customer’s mind after they’ve agreed to do business with us — assuaging any buyer’s remorse — and then throughout the life of the relationship.
Be specific when sharing ideas, explaining next steps and giving feedback. Whenever and wherever you can, remove the ambiguity from a situation. This isn't always easy because sometimes we know something so well that what seems obvious to us is not to our coworkers and customers. Whether it's project planning, instructions for product use, or outlining a program offering, run things past your colleagues before you make it official or public. Being specific about how things are going to work conveys that you have done this before and you know what you are doing. This is reassuring. When people feel assured, they can relax. They'll let their guard down and you'll have access to what is truly real and important to them.
Demonstrate compassion and empathy. It's really hard to put yourself out there, especially if your ideas feel undefined, emotional or contradictory. For most of us, our harshest critic is ourself. Let's not compound this problem by being harsh with others. Certainly there is a place for constructive criticism in our work — we really can't improve without this kind of feedback. But in order for it to be helpful, it should be delivered with positive intention and gentleness. Recognizing the commonalities amongst ourselves, and that all of us feel vulnerable from time to time, helps us to feel empathetic when we recognize moments of fear and hesitation in others. When someone feels protected from undue judgment and ridicule, they will approach situations with a degree of fearlessness — and that’s empowering.
Creating a safe environment should not be confused with playing it safe. Playing it safe is not the way to create the kind of space we want to play in. Playing it safe is standing on the sidelines in a position of fear, afraid to say what needs to be said, afraid to do what needs to be done. Fear is the antithesis of safety. We need to be bold in the midst of confusion, unafraid to be the clear voice. We need to be pleasant yet unapologetic about delivering hard truths. We need to push deeper so that we can root out the core issues and really problem-solve. And we need to ask the same of our clients and colleagues.
Besides building trust and respect, safety in our businesses and work life ultimately leads us to a place of freedom. When everyone we’re interacting with feels secure about sharing ideas and opinions, we are allowed to stretch into who we really are and do the kind of work that’s gratifying to both ourselves and others.