When I first heard about someone taking about safety in the workplace I assumed that it was part of an anti-bullying campaign, a Health and Safety initiative, or perhaps some huggy feely thing from someone in HR. It took a little while for me to realise that not only is safety everyone’s responsibility, it is perhaps the most important component of an effective team.
To try to illustrate what safety is I’m going to give you a fictional scenario.
I dropped in on the last few minutes of the team’s planning session. As their manager I’m not strictly required to attend but I like to join occasion to keep up to date with what they are working on.
One of the developers was up at the whiteboard, pen in hand, and he was gesturing enthusiastically at his design. The rest of the team nodded, some eagerly, others showing the fatigue so typical towards the end of a long meeting.
Seeing that the group were wrapping up I caught the eye of one of our senior developers. We had a 1:1 scheduled and I wanted to get started quickly so I wasn’t late for my next meeting.
A few minutes later, coffee in hand, he had just finished telling me about the new data access module he’d created for one of our legacy products. After giving him the appropriate thanks I shifted the conversation onto the upcoming work.
“So it sounds like planning went well?” I asked.
He shifted awkwardly in his chair, obviously not enamoured with the change in topic. “Yeah… but I’m really not sure it’s going to work.” He muttered “I tried something similar a few years back and it just got way to complicated too quickly, the code became unmanageable and we had to abandon the whole thing.”
My blood ran cold. There was a lot riding on the next piece of work. Deadlines, client expectations, the team’s reputation. Forcing calm into my voice into my voice I asked the most obvious question.
“Did you mention this in the meeting?”
“No…” he said “I didn’t think they’d listen to me…”
I’ve deliberately tried not to give extreme an example here. It’s all to easy to discuss nuclear reactors or operating theatres when taking about safety but that implies that the requirement to feel safe only matters in life or death situations. That’s not the case. The more confidence people have the better our teams will function at all times.
So, let’s talk about the problem here. The team has decided on a particular design for a piece of work. One of the developers believe that the solution is doomed to failure and has failed to share that concern. It’s very easy to blame the developer here, or the guy holding the pen for not listening, but in truth it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that people feel they can contribute important, and often unwelcome views without fear of reprisal.
But where does this fear come from?
Unfortunately it’s hard coded into our DNA. Based in the same rational as our irrational terror of public speaking the fear of speaking out and voicing unpopular views is grounded in our history as a tribal species. Millennia ago, if a member of the tribe appeared weak, either because their view had been successfully challenged or if they’d lost such a confrontation then they risked being ostracised from caveman society. We are programmed with a strong herding instinct not to challenge dominance or listen to viewpoints which may make us appear weak or incorrect. Unfortunately in the modern workplace these fears put projects at risk of failure.
Team members feeling safe enough to voice their ideas is crucial if you want your team to reach its highest potential. We need to build teams where everyone, not just those with fancy job titles or big egos feels safe to voice their opinions.
I plan to write more about safety over the next few weeks, however if you’re interested in learning more I highly recommend Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek and Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson.