Making employees feel safe

Gary Vaynerchuk make a safety comment in a video I was watching the other day that struck me to the core. It made perfect sense but I hadn’t really thought about it from quite the angle he came from.

While I’ve always tried to listen more than I speak (thanks Dad) as well as “praise in public, scold in private” and work within a number of Jim Rohn / Stephen Covey “seek first to understand” ways, I have found that there’s a line that you can cross when managing people that can stop the flow of accurate information from them to you – and perhaps from you to them.

The deadly part is that once you cross that line it’s really hard to erase the line or cross back over it into the nice little town of Truthville. That’s the place where Gary’s comment provided some clarity.

How do you make them feel?

What Gary said was “When you make them feel safe, they start telling the truth”.

He wasn’t accusing people who don’t feel safe of being liars. He’s saying that until they feel safe around you, within your business and its culture, you aren’t giving them the option to tell the truth. Up to that point, you’ve only given them the option to tell you what you want to hear, or perhaps the “safe” part of the truth.

When people don’t feel safe, it damages every conversation. It isn’t solely about the critical, strategic discussion you’re having this afternoon. It will affect every discussion, because they aren’t comfortable where the danger zone is.

As a result, they will often say nothing, as if they have no opinion, have nothing to add, and agree with whatever’s already been said. The reality is likely that they might have something quite valuable to share, controversial / challenging or otherwise, but they don’t feel safe sharing it. Unless you’re sensitive to what you’ve done, or more accurately, what you haven’t created for them – they might appear ambivalent, stupid, shy, unthinking, not insightful and many other things that you might see as negative.

How is this costly to your business?

The obvious problem is that your people tiptoe around and say only what they feel safe saying, instead of offering their most brilliant ideas and insightful opinions. Those things are rarely going to be middle of the road safe, so they are muted. This will change the appearance of that person and their attitude.

You might even think about getting rid of them because they aren’t intellectually contributing to important conversations at the company. Who wants an employee who doesn’t care one way or the other, or who doesn’t think about the big questions the business needs to discuss, or never has an opinion?

What could be happening is that you’ve not yet created an environment that allows them to feel safe sharing the most intelligent, valuable things on their mind. When your staff members intellectually shut down, or self-arrest before providing their most creative ideas and insights, you lose.

Eventually, you may lose them but in the meantime, you have a team of folks doing their work in an environment where they are afraid to take risks, speak their mind, share their insights (right or wrong) and take ownership of a situation. If someone doesn’t feel safe, they’ll never take ownership of something because claiming ownership means they agree to be responsible when management comes calling.

Happy, safe employees take ownership

I saw a Facebook post from an acquaintance the other day. He was getting home from work at 11:30pm on a Friday night – and all he could talk about on Facebook to his family and friends was how excited he was to work for the company he works for. While I suspect his management doesn’t want him doing that every night, I’ll bet they appreciate that he recognized something that needed to be done, done right then, and that he stuck to it till it was complete.

People take responsibility when they feel safe. Ownership matters to them. People crave it but they won’t take it if it doesn’t feel safe to do so.

Part of taking ownership is telling the unvarnished, unfiltered truth when important discussions come up. The more valuable your people are, the more valuable their insights and opinions will be.

Do your employees feel safe enough to share those things with you?