Managing Safe Spaces

There is this concept that has followed me around from team to team as long I’ve managed, coached, or otherwise led people. The description of the concept changes team-by-team—”shit umbrella”, “distraction barrier”, or (currently) “human meat shield” to name a few—but the core idea remains constant; a key attribute of my leadership style is that of preventing the enormity of the weight of the organization from ever falling on the heads of those I lead.

I’ve never given the concept a ton of thought despite the fact that I consider it to be among my most important job functions. It always just seemed like an obvious thing to do; so much so that it has always been endlessly frustrating when I don’t see it happening in my leadership. What it didn’t seem to be is particularly universal; it simply seemed to be a thing that I found important—a quirk of mine, if you will.

Recently, I was listening to a talk that reframed my thoughts on this. The act that my teams refer to with their colloquialisms are my attempts to create safe work spaces for my team members. The fact of the matter is, I know (apparently intuitively) that I do my best work when I feel safe to do that work—when I feel comfortable taking risks, when I don’t feel continuous and uninterrupted stress, when I know that my bad work will be allowed to be a learning experience, when I’m actually freed to do my best work. One of the easiest ways to sour my relationship with a company is to make me uncomfortable taking risks and doing what I do; to make my work space a non-safe space.

I had legitimately never considered this before in quite this way.

So, the reality is that my true goal as an ablative meat shield is for my team to feel safe to excel at what they are doing. There are a lot of ways to feel unsafe—in fact, there are many more ways to feel unsafe than to feel safe in the workplace—so the task of creating that safe environment is non-trivial. Some mechanisms that I, upon reflection, find that I use include:

Reward the taking of risks. It’s not enough to reward those risks that pay off, it’s important to reward the risk-taking behavior in either case, especially when taken with planning and forethought. I seek ways to highlight when risks work out, but also to point out smart risks that are taken and don’t work out.

Prevent punishment of risk taking behavior. This seems obvious when factored in with the rewarding of risks above, but it’s not. If corrective action needs be taken because of poorly planned and poorly mitigated risks, I ensure that corrective action addresses the planning and mitigation aspects of the failed risk, not the risk taking itself.

Teach the team how to take risks. This is an area in which I struggle, because most of my risk mitigation planning is intuitive—which merely means I’ve been doing it for sufficiently long that I don’t have to actively consider each of the steps. It is important to ensure that all members of my team have an opportunity to learn those steps along the way. It’s hard to feel safe when you aren’t sure you understand what you’re doing. That said, I try to teach my teams at a high level that their job is to take risks, their job is to plan for those risks, and that if they avoid making the same mistakes a second (or third) time, they will be alright.

Appropriate and constant feedback. There is an inherent safety in knowing that mistakes are not going to result in the loss of the ability to put food in your family’s mouths. At a very basic level, my team needs to know that they aren’t one or two bad decisions from losing that ability. My method of managing that is through constant and continuous feedback. Nobody on my team has to guess how they are doing; I casually and with minimal fanfare inform them when they are not meeting expectations (typically by trying to find out how I can help them catch up) and I make an effort to let them know when they ARE doing well. I know all too well the fear of being in a feedback vacuum where the only input you get is when you stray from the path.

Make work life safe. I am not an optimist. Further, I don’t feel comfortable feigning happiness about something with which I disagree. I consider myself a realist, and have no problem cheering positive news, but I am not good at being chipper about less-than-positive news. I don’t think that’s completely to my team’s detriment, though. Honesty is as important—no, honesty is more important—than being a cheerleader. My team knows (I hope) that I would not stay in a situation where I’m repeatedly forced to ruin the working lives of my team, so when I’m forced to deliver bad news, any positive spin I convey is spin that I truly believe—I’m not likely to bullshit about such a thing. I equate it to having a doctor who tells me exactly what is going to happen rather than warning me of a “little pinch” before causing tremendous pain for an indeterminate period of time. I trust my team to get through periods of discomfort if we all believe there’s something better on the other side.

Make work culture safe. This is the area in which I struggle the most. The tone for your team is set by you, the manager. It is set by your actions, by your words, and by what you allow to go on. I am sarcastic, I joke a lot, and I tend to foster an environment where that is fairly common. I also find it important to keep an eye on how individual members of the team are doing and making sure that we aren’t accidentally breeding a hostile, cynical environment filled with all snark and no care. I don’t always know if I do a great job of that. I struggle daily here. There is an entire blog post in discussing how I try to ensure that we don’t slip into cultural toxicity within my boisterous, snarky, jokey team.

Obviously, the above is an incomplete list. I am sure that there are many things I do that I’m not even thinking of in these terms, and almost assuredly there are numerous safety-building mechanisms that I don’t employ at all. I’m interested in learning more about both categories as I explore this idea further.

It is interesting to think about something about which I’ve been so blithe and cavalier for so much of my leadership career from a different perspective. The “shit umbrella” concept has long felt like an “important to me, but probably not to ‘real’ managers” thing, but from the perspective of building a safe work space, it genuinely seems like a broadly important act that I have been working on for a really long time. Maybe I’m not as bad a manager as I usually think I am…