What makes the workplace “safe?” I’m talking about emotional–not physical–safety here. Think back to your high school days. Can you remember a time when the teacher asked a question and you weren’t sure if you had the right answer? Did you spring out of your seat and throw out your best guess? If you did, you were one of the few. Most of us probably averted our eyes and hid, hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on us. We knew what was at risk if we got it wrong: teasing, ridicule, humiliation. Even if we got it right, we risked being pegged as a “teacher’s pet” or a “know-it-all.” We learn early in life to avoid potentially embarrassing situations. Most people are terrified of being made fun of or looking foolish; they just want to fit in.
The same is true in the professional world. Employees yearn for a sense of belonging. They want to feel accepted, appreciated, empowered and acknowledged. They want to take risks, but don’t want to feel bad or stupid when they fail. Even the best managers can make situations feel “unsafe,” and understanding how to avoid this pitfall is an important key to successful management.
How do you respond when a member of your team approaches you with an idea, a comment or feedback? Do you really listen and seek to understand? Does your response change if you disagree? Do you avoid the question and never get back to them? What “price” do they pay for their risk?
“Safe” and “unsafe” environments come in many forms. Are you always in a rush, forcing people to speak at an auctioneer’s pace to get their point across? Do you “spend” three minutes rushing the conversation? Or do you “invest” those same three minutes in your valued co-worker/employee? The time lost in both situations remains the same, but the disparate impacts on your co-worker/employee may be vastly different.
It often comes down to perspective. If you consistently feel the need to refute employees’ ideas or to offer your opinion on the subject, they might not feel safe coming to you.
Distinguishing the need for consensus from the need for resolution is a critical management skill. Consensus requires that more than one person is heard. Resolution can be achieved with the sound of one voice. The key then becomes knowing when that voice should be yours and when it should be theirs.
The next time you are approached by a co-worker or employee, check your reflexes. Your actions may have more impact than you realize.
Sales/Strategy, Odyssey Teams, Inc.