Just How Safe Do You Feel?

I’ve written quite a lot¬†over the last few weeks about Safety in team discussions. What I haven’t really discussed is how to detect when the safety is starting to fail. Imagine you’re in a conversation with someone, at work or at home and they’re starting to feel unsafe. We know that this means they will stop sharing and will result is poorer group decisions. But how do we know if someone is feeling like that and what can we do to prevent it?

If you haven’t read it already I strongly recommend picking up a copy of the book Crucial Conversations. In it, the authors discuss that people generally go one of two ways when they’re feeling unsafe. They either go to silence or violence.

When someone goes silent they often stop talking or become very monosyllabic in their responses. Perhaps they want to shut down the conversation or move onto another, safer topic or maybe they’re only sharing certain parts of the story – the parts which support their argument rather than discussing the potential problems with it. However silence manifests it’s usually because the person doesn’t feel comfortable with the topic and wants to move on or gloss over the real issue.

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Other people tend to go to violence. I’m not talking about physical violence (at least I hope we’re not making people so unsafe they have to lash out). I’m talking about attacking an idea or, even worse, a person. Comments like “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” or “only a moron would say that” are attacks. People raise their voices and try to dominate the conversation through shear volume rather than calmly discussing the topic with someone else.

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It’s important to realise that both of these are natural reactions when someone feels insecure discussing something. It may be that you’ve said something which has upset them, or it may be that they’re worried about the whole topic of conversation.

In the example I gave a few weeks ago the developer had an idea which he refused to share with the group because he didn’t think the team would listen to his opinion. However, he could equally have turned to violence and tried to force his point on the group by making them feel unsafe challenging him. Both of these are defense mechanisms. It’s our role as colleagues, as human beings, to look for signs that someone is starting to feel unsafe in a conversation and to look for ways to reassure them so we can resume constructive dialogue.

Collaboration is hard, if we really want the best decisions then we need to hear all viewpoints and listen to everyone’s experience. We can’t do that if we bulldoze our view too firmly. The next time you’re passionate about an idea take a look around you and see how others are reacting to you… are they going to silence or violence? We cannot change other people’s behaviour but if we try and support other people’s confidence then we’re likely to get ideas and suggestions presented which we’d never have considered ourselves – after all, isn’t that the point of a team?

What Exactly is Safety?

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.