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Safety First for a Positive Culture

Safety First for a Positive Culture

  • 16 May 2018
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

"Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe here." That says Daniel Coyle in his book The Culture Code. (Thank you for the excellent summary, fellow author and consultant Steve Gladis!) A jerk on your team even reduces performance by 30-40 percent! A leader who neutralizes that player by creating safety changes the game. That's exactly what we practice in the online Positive Culture Academy, what my books are about, and how you can guide a culture workshop that makes a difference.

Strong cultures make teams work better and produce higher profits, according to a Harvard study, about 7% more a year. A healthy culture is comprised of three critical elements: Safety, Vulnerability, and Purpose. Safety for people, vulnerability practiced by leaders (showing up as who they are, admitting mistakes or not knowing, thus enticing people to be authentic as well) and shared purpose (the big Why of our work).

No one will die, haha

Safety is crucial and it's not a luxury. Whenever I lead a workshop we start with the rules of dialogue to establish basic safety. Depending on the current culture of the client I work with, I've heard joking or mocking responses: "Hey, man up! No one is going to die here. How's that for safety, haha."

That says enough. It means we need to work on operational safety and trust before we can accomplish anything.

If you want results, your first step is to establish safety. Without safety, people might hide, be defensive, or attack, mask, manipulate and engage in other role-play. With safety, people tend to open up, learn, engage, lean-in, and create real results, change, and innovation.

Julia Rozovsky, an analyst with Google, analyzed data from more than eight hundred teams to find out what makes a team successful. The conclusion: Who is on the team matters less than how team members interact, structure their work and view their contributions. The interaction among members shapes a team’s performance more than anything else and leaders play a vital role. Safety counts triple for leaders because our ancient brains scan for safety and what authority figures do…. It’s like Parker Palmer said: A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to project on other people his shadow or his light. 

Scanning for safety

We continuously scan for safety. We instinctively watch leaders for signals what to do next, what is valued, and what gets approval. We also watch others for clues how to behave, what is normal, how to fit in.

Safety is a property of the social space where it is okay to “expose” yourself and take interpersonal risk. There won’t be sanctions like negative judgments, losing face, being ridiculed or excluded.

What can you do?

That sounds beautiful but how to achieve it in everyday life with less-than-perfect people? First, your being as a leader enhances safety. Make sure that you are authentic and “humble.” As Kim Cameron and Emma Seppala write in Harvard Business Review: 

“Encourage people to talk to you – especially about their problems. Not surprisingly, trusting that the leader has your best interests at heart improves employee performance. Employees feel safe rather than fearful and, as research by Amy Edmondson of Harvard demonstrates in her work on psychological safety, a culture of safety i.e. in which leaders are inclusive, humble, and encourage their staff to speak up or ask for help, leads to better learning and performance outcomes.”

Second, establish clarity and fairness in rules, norms, and expectations. No one is above the law. Show that you conform to the norms as well and that rules are equally applicable to everyone.

Third, intervene and respond!

Keep it safe

Above all, you must be “aware and awake.” Always respond to what happens in the room - that is the golden rule of safety. That's what I call an "Interaction Intervention". Your response, even if it is clumsy, gives a powerful signal: “I’ve got this. I am aware, and I intervene. I care. You, group members, are seen and protected, if need be.”

If you ignore jokes at the expense of someone, gossip, complaining and blaming, condescending or dismissive comments, or other disrespectful and judgmental behaviors, you give the signal: “I don’t have your back. I’m not aware. I join the strongest Ego in the room when I am scared or impressed. I cannot look after you. It’s every man for himself when things get tough.”

This goes for leaders but also for all associates at work. What do you do when safety is at stake...? Read my book to learn more about Interaction Interventions!

I invite you to check my book Developing a Positive Culture where People and Performance Thrive. It's now available on Kindle (and today, it's the #1 New Release in the category HR, woohoo!) and that's convenient and cheap. Spend $8.28 and see what you can do to develop a more positive organization where safety is the norm!

  • On a scale of 1-10, how safe is your team or organization? 

© Marcella Bremer, 2018. All rights reserved.