A Culture of Safety in the Workplace

Jun 26, 2019

BY NICHOLAS PYLYPIW – DIRECTOR OF DATA SCIENCE

I’m a huge fan of Liverpool Football Club (“soccer” to us Yanks). On May 7, 2019, Liverpool played Barcelona (an extremely talented team who has, arguably, the greatest player ever) in the semi-final of the Champions League (the most coveted trophy in European club play). Tied 3-3 and with time winding down, extra time and possibly penalty kicks loomed as inevitable tiebreakers. Then, Trent Alexander-Arnold, an emerging and talented young Liverpool star did something extraordinary. During a lull in play before a Liverpool corner kick, he noticed the Barcelona defense had an uncharacteristic and momentary lapse in concentration. Trent set the ball on the spot and acted as though he was walking away to allow another Liverpool player to take the corner kick. While the Barcelona players had their back turned, he quickly ran back and fired a low and sneaky pass right to the feet of his teammate, Divock Origi, who hammered the ball into the net before many of the players (on both teams) knew what had happened. This goal guaranteed Liverpool’s qualification for the Champions League Final, as well as Barcelona’s elimination.

Now, maybe you’re not a soccer fan and don’t understand why this sequence of events was so extraordinary. Allow me to draw an analogy from the business world.

You are in a particularly contentious sales meeting with a large body of work on the line. Your team has prepared all of the talking points and materials meant to demonstrate the value of your company’s services to the potential client. It looks as though you’ve reached a stalemate, and the meeting is drawing to a close. At that moment, an entry-level analyst on your team speaks up with an off-scripted comment about the work at hand. This interjection is so well-timed and reasoned that the potential client decides to sign the SOW on the spot.

Imagine the scenes if either of these individuals had failed in that moment. Suppose Trent had misread the defense and the pass was intercepted, and before Liverpool could respond, Barcelona could have launched a counterattack to score a goal that sunk Liverpool’s chances of advancement. Trent would have faced criticism from the armchair quarterback fans, and possibly his own teammates (“He should’ve waited until we were all ready! What a waste of an opportunity.”). Similarly, if the analyst’s impromptu suggestion had fallen flat, it’s not hard to picture an angry sit down with the sales team about sticking to the plan and established team roles.

Despite the potential devastating effects of failure, why were these relatively inexperienced players so comfortable taking these risks on the biggest stage of their new careers?

The answer is “safety.” Safety is a crucial piece of any team culture. A sports team is not unlike a business in that success depends heavily on the ability to attract and develop raw talent. This requires responsibility from leadership to allow these individuals room to grow (and make mistakes) in a safe and supportive environment. Through honest and timely feedback, and well-established expectations, a leader can empower their team to look for these opportunities to capitalize on their strengths in meaningful and valuable ways.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you let your most junior analyst lead the next big sales call or even instruct them to deliver a last-minute interjection in every meeting. That would be as silly as having Trent take a trick corner kick every single time. By setting unrealistic expectations, these teams would be setting the players up for failure. So, what are some ways a team can implement a culture of safety in the workplace?

In his book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle outlines several specific techniques which can be used to help implement a culture of safety and belonging. Each of these techniques is meant to communicate and reinforce three implicit cues:

1. YOU ARE PART OF THIS GROUP

Innovation and success cannot happen without a sense of belonging. Without understanding how they fit into the team, a teammate might be timid and afraid to contribute. Perhaps worse, there might be an urge to “prove themselves” which manifests as overdoing the trick play or the off-the-cuff sales pitch.

2. THIS GROUP IS SPECIAL; WE HAVE HIGH STANDARDS HERE

Our group hires people who are talented and bring value. Our success depends on us being able to improve, again and again, on every project, every time. That improvement requires communication and HONEST feedback (positive and negative). Most importantly, the leaders in the organization have to demonstrate those high standards through their own actions—consistently and constantly.

3. I BELIEVE YOU CAN REACH THOSE STANDARDS

There is a reason you are here, and that reason is because we believe in you. Make sure that each employee knows that you understand that it will take time to reach those high standards, and then show them that by allowing them the room and time to grow into their role. Be honest and direct about their progress towards those standards, while providing specific support and feedback.

If a person believes (and is shown) these three things, there is no cap to their growth and the value they will add to your organization. What are some ways you make your team feel safe?