Use This Simple Habit to Create Safety

Your behaviours as a leader affect the level of psychological safety your team feels, and thereby the outcomes they achieve.

In the context of work, safety refers to the risk of engaging where others are involved. What does it look like when folks feel safe? Or more personally, what does it look like when you feel safe?

When you’re safe, you get a second chance if you mess up. You don’t have free license to be negative or critical, but you can offer dissenting opinions. You manage your behaviors, but you don’t have to be guarded. You communicate with more senior people about issues and risks with minimal filtering, but you won’t lose your job if you do so with the interests of the company at heart.

That’s what the people you lead should feel.

If you want to adopt behaviours that contribute to safety, it helps to create habits around them. The following habit is powerful yet easy to create:

Before you take an action, pause, and ask yourself: “How might I be reducing safety?”

Here are examples of putting this habit into action:

  • Are you thinking of nudging teams to improve their performance by sharing every team’s “percent delivered vs. committed” metric in the next cross-team meeting? When I conducted an assessment for a client that did this, a team referred to it as public shaming! Assuming that teams keep using this metric, replace the open sharing with safer alternatives. For example, ask teams to take time in their retrospectives to analyze the root causes of trends or lower-than-expected percentages.
  • Would you like to start joining daily team meetings, even as a silent observer, to show that you’re involved? Some teams might doubt your intention and start censoring themselves in your presence (on each person’s turn to speak, they’ll say that everything’s fine). Instead, consider having informal check-ins with team members. When they report issues that block them, work visibly to remove those impediments.
  • Suppose that a project’s status is regularly green. One day, a team member approaches you privately and shares their concern that the project is going to fall flat with customers. What might you say to them? Which of your reactions would dissuade the person from sharing other concerns with you in the future? And if that person is right, which of your reactions would make things unsafe for their colleagues?

This kind of safety takes time to build and little effort to destroy. But there’s a silver lining, or an insurance policy if you will. If you’re visibly intentional about creating safety — you’re explicit about your intents, you demonstrate vulnerability, you really trust people, you take feedback respectfully, and so on — it will be relatively easy to recover from missteps. Use those missteps as an opportunity for creating or upgrading norms.


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