Leading Edge: Creating a Safe Space for Employees

A “safe space” is the office Vegas—what happens there stays there. The space at times becomes a think tank, a place to brainstorm and hatch ideas, or it can be used as a garbage bin to dispose of unwanted burdens that prevent members from focusing on the task at hand.

Have you as a leader had difficulty in motivating employees? Or have you ever wondered why team members can’t put aside personal issues to get the work done? Or have you wondered what exactly Human Resources is talking about when they say employee engagement?

As a leader, I, too, have been in these and other frustrating situations where I have found it difficult to engage team members. Even with the sagacious advice of management gurus and great books, I could not find personal fit with the advice proffered. It often seemed that I had to become someone else to be a good leader.

I have seen enough examples of leaders who were condemned because of a private act that came to public attention, or others whose work suffered from ignoring a personal situation, to conclude that there is no separation between my personal and professional life. As a result, I wanted a leadership style that honored my intention to be a good leader and would allow me to make mistakes and recover as I went along.

When I became a Certified Coach, I found the language for what I used in leading teams. I was creating safe spaces for both myself and the people I lead, so we could honor all of whom we are every day in the workplace.

What Is a Safe Space?

A “safe space” is the office Vegas—people enter, take a break from work or other life’s challenges, and express themselves freely with all the attendant emotions, and when they are through, they leave with their dignity intact. What happens in the safe space stays in the safe space; therefore, members agree to be confidential. This is a space of no judgment, all thoughts and questions are equally important—members can think aloud, have incomplete ideas, and can ask stupid questions

The space at times becomes a think tank, a place to brainstorm and hatch ideas, or it can be used as a garbage bin to dispose of unwanted burdens that prevent members from focusing on the task at hand. Other times, the space offers a cocoon that protects and nurtures thoughts and dreams. Whatever the need, in the safe space, leaders provide team members with the necessary support.

Setting Up the Space

Since the space is shared and used by all, both leaders and team members set up and maintain the space. Rules for the space often emerge from open discussions about what members need to feel safe and what violates safety for them. Once all agree and understand the rules, each commits to the rules.

Benefits of the Safe Space

In the space, leaders have the privilege of lifting the veil, as members share what motivates them, their passions and their fears. As a result, leaders can align personal ambitions with the organizational needs and assign tasks and projects to either build on existing skills or to develop additional skills. Members begin to understand the purpose of tasks and how these further their personal/ career objectives.

As members begin to trust the space and feel seen and heard, they will take risks and be more creative and “bigger” in their thinking. Members learn to reframe failure as a learning opportunity as leaders help them to understand why they failed and, more importantly, how to mitigate future occurrences. As members lose the fear of failure, they think bigger and take more risks, and the team, the member, and the leader reap more rewards.

The space offers transparency, each member knows the importance of his or her work, and how it contributes to the team’s objectives, while serving the individual’s purpose. By extension, the work of other team members is understood to be equally important.

In this space, team leaders and team members plot projects, develop career paths, or plan exit strategies. Over time, the members mirror the leader’s behavior and provide support for each other.

The space works when the leader is clear and honest about why he or she is providing the space and shares his or her motive with the team. Be warned that motive does not hide and the team will reject the safe space if there is nothing in it for its members.

Pitfalls of a Safe Space

Feeling safe promotes warm fuzzy feelings in teams. This does not mean all is well. Leaders need to continue teambuilding work. Also, the focus on the individual can run counter to the team’s agenda. Leaders need to remind members of the team’s objectives and how each other’s work contributes to those objectives.

Sharing opinions in the space and having the team discuss ideas does not absolve leaders from making decisions nor leading the team. The buck stops at the leader; therefore, the leader needs to maintain the final authority and responsibility for decision-making.

Leader’s Responsibility

The leader has a special responsibility for the safety of the space. The leader needs to ask, “How? and “What” to help members frame thoughts. He or she needs to be consistent in his or her treatment of people and in the application of the organization’s policies and procedures. He or she needs to be honest even when this includes saying, “I don’t know.”

Most of all, the leader needs to acknowledge his or her humanity, accept failings and make amends for them, and move on. The leader provides the mirror for the team.

I am still experimenting with the safe spaces and invite others to use the concept with their teams. I have received feedback from other leaders that it works, and team members share that they have taken the concept into their homes.

I can only imagine how powerful our teams would be if all team members felt safe at work.

Maxine Attong (www.MaxineAttong.com) has been leading small and large teams for the last two decades—both in organizational settings and in her private coaching and facilitation practice. As an Aon Leader, she has helped organizations come to consensus, overcome the perils of ineffective leadership, redesign processes to suit changing environments, and manage the internal chaos inherent in strategy implementation. She has been trained as a Gestalt Organizational Development practitioner, a Certified Evidence-Based Coach, a Certified Professional Facilitator, a Certified Management Accountant, and is a former Quality Manager. Attong is a graduate of the University of the West Indies, and divides her time between the Caribbean and the United States. Her latest book is “Lead Your Team to Win: Achieve Optimal Performance By Providing A Safe Space For Employees.”


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