We spend a full third of our lives at work. That’s a huge amount of time! But, for all the hours we spend with our colleagues, how many of us feel safe enough to be our “real selves” on the job?
Let’s narrow this down further. Think about your own organization. Do you feel like you might be judged or ostracized if you express your opinions? If someone says something that offends you, do you feel like it’s safer to stay quiet? Have you ever thought to yourself, “Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this at work?”
My guess is that you answered in the affirmative to at least one of these questions. And, if you are in a leadership position, I’m willing to bet that many of the people you manage would also answer yes.
But can you do anything to change this? And should you? After all, your company is first and foremost a place of business, so is it really imperative to make sure people feel safe and secure sharing differing opinions?
The answer to each of these questions is a resounding yes. You absolutely can make your organization a safe space for everybody. What’s more, you should. Let me explain.
What you will learn:
Be Who You Are
Before we go any further, I want to be really clear. While it’s important that people feel safe to be themselves at work, obviously this comes with some constraints. To take a simple example, I generally don’t wear shoes in my non-work life. However, before I give a presentation to a group of clients or lead a training, I put shoes on.
I know that most people expect me to wear shoes in a professional setting, and I acquiesce to that. What I don’t acquiesce to is shying away from sharing who I intrinsically am, even if doing so risks making other people uncomfortable. That’s because the things that make me inherently me are important to fully engage at work (in a way that going barefoot is not). On top of that, they also help the people around me understand why I think the way I do.
So, when I talk about making an organization safe, I mean it in the context of feeling secure in sharing the intrinsic parts of ourselves that shape who we are and how we think. To put it more simply, it’s about feeling safe to be unapologetically and unabashedly who you are.
You don’t necessarily have to be the most extreme version of yourself. Nor do you have to impose your beliefs on the people around you. But, your work environment should be a space where you can safely bring your real self out. When an organization has that kind of culture, it fosters greater innovation, more employee engagement, and higher morale.
Openly Discuss the Rules
So, how can we create a safe work environment? While there are multiple ways to achieve this goal, one of the most important things to do is to be very clear about your organization’s rules and expectations. For example, let’s say you manage an HR department, and somebody has just come to you to complain that one of their coworkers said something racist to them.
Rather than writing up the person who made the comment, start with open communication. Bring the person who made the comment in and talk about what happened. Explain why what they said was offensive, and explain the impact their comment had. Then, lay out a clear plan for moving forward. Once you’ve done that, monitor that person’s future actions.
Taking these steps serves several purposes. First, it gives the person a chance to really understand how their behavior impacted someone else. Second, it allows them to grow and evolve. Finally, it creates a safe environment for both people to express themselves without fear of arbitrary and punitive consequences.
Of course, if the person who made the comment continues to make offensive remarks after you have clearly laid out expectations, it is entirely appropriate to take disciplinary action. However, because you have clearly communicated your expectations, that action will not negatively impact the psychological safety of your organization’s team members.
Let’s say you aren’t in a position of authority, though. There are still steps you can take to create a safe work environment for yourself and your colleagues. One of the best ways to do this is to use the RIR (recognize, interrupt, repair) Protocol to open up an honest dialogue with the people around you.
If someone says or does something that offends or hurts you, first recognize how you feel. Don’t stuff down the emotions that come up; identify them. Then, interrupt what’s happening. For example, you can ask the other person why they made the comment they did. Approaching this question from a place of genuine curiosity will help you both feel safe about exploring what happened. Finally, repair: find a way to move forward that will allow you to continue to engage with the other person.
With this three-step approach, you can authentically be who you are and engage with people who are different from you. Once you master the Protocol, you empower yourself to create a safe space, and that will create a ripple effect that will eventually touch all the people around you.
The best part is that you don’t need to announce to the other person that you’re using the Protocol. You may find it helpful to use words like “recognize,” “interrupt,” and “repair,” just to remind yourself of the steps, but you can implement each part of the Protocol in an organic way. And, if you’re a manager or leader, you can use the same approach to foster psychological safety among your teams, too.
Small Changes Add Up
While openly discussing problems and implementing the RIR Protocol may seem like small changes, we have seen firsthand that they add up to big results over time. Changes like these foster collaboration and improve communication, which significantly impacts company culture.
These simple but powerful approaches are a way for every team and every company to begin “walking the walk.” Yes, they may take a little extra time and effort to implement, at least at first, but the benefits cannot be overstated. By creating a safe space for everybody in your organization, you prevent issues from lingering and festering.
So, the next time someone at your organization does something that makes you uncomfortable, or you overhear someone making an intolerant or insensitive comment, give one of these tools a try. If you do, I can almost guarantee that you will feel more empowered, more seen, and more heard. On top of that, you will build a deeper amount of trust with your team members.
Best of all, you will kick off a paradigm shift that will make your work life—and the work lives of everyone in your entire organization—happier, healthier, and far better than they would otherwise be. Given how much time we spend at work, I think it’s worth it. Don’t you?