Few people come to work with the intention of doing damage to their company — in fact, quite the opposite. And yet, in a culture where an employee doesn’t feel safe, disengagement is likely to set in, and the employee starts to produce substandard work that has the effect of sabotaging the company. Ethnographer and author Simon Sinek talks about the importance of creating a safe environment in his expert class, “Starting with Why: Build Trusting Teams.” Sinek means two things when he uses the word “safe.”
Safety from judgement
In a safe environment, each person has a sense of being trusted, and trusts everyone else up and down the chain of command. This sense of security encourages one to do only their best work, which means the freedom to fail now and again. If, on the contrary, employees live in fear of judgement, it only makes sense that they’ll eventually fall into the habit of regularly bypassing the best choices for the safest ones.
Safety from management indifference
The second meaning of “safe” that concerns Sinek is the kind that occurs when an employee has the sense of being valued, and not just being one more faceless number in a head count. “When we do not feel safe in our own companies, when we feel that our leaders would soon as sacrifice us to save numbers, rather than sacrifice numbers to save us, the human response to those conditions is cynicism, paranoia, mistrust and self-interest.”
What you can do to build a feeling of trust and safety
As Sinek says, “Trust is a feeling. You cannot tell someone to trust you. No leader can just tell their company, ‘Trust me.’ It doesn’t work that way.” In his expert class, he proposes two simple things you can do to earn your employees’ trust.
1. Empathize and encourage – don’t threaten — when there’s an issue.
When an employee is having performance issues, your primary goal is restoring that person’s effectiveness, and Sinek says the strategy you choose to deploy makes a difference.
While it’s true that fear can be a motivator, it’s not a good one — it ultimately causes its victim to close off and shut down. As Sinek points out, when a manager says, “You’ve missed your numbers for the third quarter in a row. If you don’t fix them this quarter, I can’t promise you a job,” it’s the opposite of inspiring.
Meanwhile, approaching the issue with empathy and an eye on reaching toward a positive result rather than a punishment stands a better chance of getting the outcome you seek. Consider the supportive and encouraging messages communicated by an inquiry such as, “You’ve missed your numbers for the third quarter in a row. Are you okay? I’m worried about you because you’re not working to the standard I know you’re capable of.” There’s empathy, there’s concern, and it ends with a compliment.
2. Model vulnerable behavior by admitting your own mistakes
Nobody likes to be thought of as incompetent, and we fear being seen as weak. While these are reasonable concerns to have, the fact is that you lead by example, and by being unwilling to acknowledge your own missteps — and we all make them — you’re implicitly telling others that they should hide theirs. This is an insidious form of sabotage, since, as Sinek points out, “if no one is admitting mistakes, those mistakes will compound. If people are doing jobs that they don’t know how to do and they’re lying, hiding, and faking, that means the output will be weak.” He adds, “The irony is when people hide their fallibility, their humanity, it actually makes the company weak.”
A better way is to be forthright about your own fallibility. “When we create environments in which people feel safe enough to say to their boss, ‘I need help,’ or ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ or ‘I made a mistake,’ says Sinek, “The amazing thing is that actually makes the organization stronger.”
And isn’t that exactly what we want?