The term “safe environment” got a lot of traction in recent years, whether it’s conferences, books, TED talks, or blog posts. The thing is, that it’s very hard to understand it correctly and bring it to life on a company or a team level. So the question is what do the words “safe environment” actually mean and why is it so important? How can leaders, managers, or coaches make sure that people have the feeling of a “safe environment” every single day they come to work?
Let’s start at the theoretical level with a definition first, and then we’ll gradually move to examples and finish up with a couple of practical tools and ideas you can try out in your companies, teams, or departments.
What is a “safe environment”?
Having a safe environment in a company means that everyone in the company or a team can devote 100% attention to the work itself. Simply put everyone can be focused on doing something valuable, be creative and productive. The role of the leaders is to create an environment, where failure is acceptable and failing is taken as the best way to learn.
In this kind of environment, people feel supported and cared for in every aspect of their job. That means not having to worry about somebody punishing them for “bad KPIs”, or about their colleague(s) waiting for their position to become available. In other words, there are no hidden agendas or politics so you can just do what you love and what you were hired to do.
How can you recognize it?
The barometer is quite simple and can be summed up to a couple of key questions that you can ask yourself as a team member or a leader to see where your team currently stands.
1. How often do people in your team/company come up with new ideas or experiment with new tools/practices?
Is the number close to 0 or were there so many experiments it’s hard to keep track of them?
2. How often do people challenge the status quo? (e.g. say ”No”, “I don’t agree” or “I have a better idea.” on a meeting)
Are meetings more a passive information sharing where the leader/manager communicates towards others without any reaction/counter-proposals or is it a live discussion where every opinion counts?
3. How do people react if someone wants to measure/track trends and numbers?
Is it “Wait, what happens if I don’t meet the numbers? Am I going to get punished or even fired?” or “That’s great! More data that will help us improve and see things/patterns we weren’t able to see before”
4. What happens when a Sprint is not delivered or a project does not meet the deadline?
Is it “Whose fault is this and how is it possible that it failed?” or ”What can we do to improve?”
5. What is the level of transparency within the company?
Are numbers related to company management available only for the “chosen ones” or are they transparently shared with the whole company?
These five key questions help you understand how well you’re doing as a team/company. If your answers were mostly similar to those second options mentioned above, then congratulations, please share what you do and what helped you get there with the rest of the world. If it’s the opposite, then it’s a signal that people don’t feel safe when they are at work and the next obvious question is…
What can you do about it?
As fuzzy as this topic sounds and as broad as it is, there are some activities that you should try that will lead you to a better & safer environment or at least to a better understanding of the underlying issue that you need to be focusing on is.
When you are a leader, starting with your own transformation would have the biggest impact on the company. Be more direct and try to provide more room for people’s ideas and experiments with unknown results. More tips in our previous article focused on Agile leadership.
Do a safe environment barometer/health-check
If you’ve heard about Spotify health check or Atlassian Health monitor, you can apply the same principles in this case as well. Just ask people how they feel. The focus of the survey should be similar to those questions mentioned above like for example:
- How comfortable are you with giving feedback to your team lead, manager, or anyone from company management? (Could be split to multiple questions to get better feedback)
- Do you feel there is mutual trust between our department and other parts of the company (e.g. Sales, Engineering, Product, etc.)?
- Do you feel you take initiative and make decisions in your daily work without having to ask for approvals or worry about possible negative consequences?
You’ll surely find more questions relevant to your company and field you work in, these three just cover the basic principles of how to design it.
Every single one of these questions should have a section where anyone can write their comments as well so that you can get more context apart from the statistics. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn about the potential issues and challenges in these comments sections.
Another great barometer is for example making the name field optional in these surveys. That alone will tell you a lot about the safe environment in your company because if people are not willing to put their name to the answers, that means there’s room for improvement in the company culture.
Try a company NPS survey
A very similar idea is trying an NPS (Net Promoter Score) survey within your company. Usually, this tool is used to understand how customers feel about a product or a service but why not use it internally as well, right? All it takes is just one simple but very powerful question
“On a scale of 1-10 how much would you recommend our company to a friend?”
Add a freeform text field as the numbers will tell only one part of the story and you need the details to improve as well. Plus as I’ve mentioned before, an optional field with name/e-mail can work as a good barometer here as well. Do it regularly (at least twice per year) and work with answers systematically. Always tell people what you are going to improve till the next survey (and transparently communicate of course!).
What are the next steps?
Regardless of which option you choose, that is just one of many steps to take to build a better culture and a safer environment. What happens after is the key. Ideally, all the people in leadership positions should take a look at the results and see what they should focus on in the near future.
1. Admit that your company culture has a long way to go
The first step might be the hardest one here. It’s so easy to just discard the feedback you were given and find an excuse for every single one of the responses. The fact is people were given a voice and leaders in the company should listen. Sometimes it means admitting that our company culture is not on a level we thought it was is the first step.
2. Follow-up with teams or on 1on1 meetings
There might be, for example, things that were not communicated well, and people are frustrated because of it so just take the time to talk to them individually or as a team. Show people that you care enough to take some time away from your busy schedule to discuss these issues and learn from them.
3. Look at the trends
Whichever option you choose, after a couple of iterations focus on the trend as well. Did more people respond? Or did more of them include their name because they now feel their opinion matters and feel safe to say it without anonymity? Or is it the other way around? The trend in these cases will always tell you if you’re going the right way in terms of company culture. The key is to understand that it’s not about where you start, it’s about where you want to go and what you’re learning in the process. The initial results might not be that great but the goal is to improve gradually, even if it’s just small steps.
Having or creating a safe environment in a company is a hard thing to achieve. But in the end, it’s all about having the courage to ask the difficult questions, admitting there is room for improvement, and understanding that it’s up to the leaders in the company to improve and move the company culture to the next level.