Kathleen Driscoll writes about the safe space

Employees won’t offer new ideas without feeling safe
Managers at Work
Rochester Business Journal
August 7, 2015
“Our team is under great pressure to ‘innovate’ these days but I’m having some difficulty getting the team engaged. Many of them have no regard for senior management and feel their ideas will be ignored or ridiculed. I think we have good rapport on this team, but it’s been obvious from our meetings that our team members don’t trust senior managers at all. What can I do to help generate new ideas and get them past this?”

Yes, innovation has become the big ubiquitous buzzword. “As professionals, we’re continually reminded that we live in an innovation economy requiring self-styled careers of the sort trumpeted in executive education programs, TED talks and self-help best sellers,” wrote Matthew Wisnioski in the January edition of Spectrum, the online journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

“No mere buzzword, ‘innovation’ generates excitement about working on the front lines of the future—as well as suspicion about the motives of those uttering this management speak,” he wrote.

It is one thing to embrace a buzzword, but it’s quite another to develop the culture, the resources and the strategy to make innovation a reality. “Leaders hoping to boost their ability to drive growth through innovation need to simultaneously direct it strategically, pursue it rigorously, resource it intensively, monitor it methodically and nurture it carefully,” wrote the authors of a June Harvard Business Review article called “The Six Most Common Innovation Mistakes Companies Make.”

But innovation requires taking risks—and if employees believe they can’t take the risk that goes with proposing new ideas, then you have a big challenge on your hands. “Anyone who has ever been in a classroom or company meeting knows the potential risk of making an out-of-the-box statement which could be seen as silly, frivolous or ignorant—or a groundbreaking insight,” says Maxine Attong, a consultant and author of a new book called “Lead Your Team to Win: Achieve Optimal Performance by Providing a Safe Space for Employees.”

What they don’t have is a sense of safety, she says, and that is what you might want to work on. Think about how you can set up a boundary between your team and senior management to help these employees become more engaged in their work and help them feel safe enough to propose new ideas.

“They (the team members) are caught in a dichotomy between ‘what I want and how I am being treated’ vs. what the organization wants, Attong says. “They need to move out of that dichotomy and take personal responsibility for their career, their work and their options.

“If the team is in a position where they don’t trust senior management, then quite possibly they don’t trust you either,” Attong says.

As a leader, you can’t control their feelings about senior management, she says. But you can give them a “safe space” to vent about the issues. “They need to get it off their chests. The only way to get rid of it is to vent it,” she says.

And that would be the first step you could take to help them create a space where the team does not feel judged. The leader, then, becomes a kind of buffer and safety net. “People will take risks if they know there’s a net there,” Attong says.

It will take some one-on-one discussions with each team member to build it out further. “These one-on-ones would give you an understanding of what their passions are and what drives them,” Attong says.

Sometimes these conversations involve asking team members what they really want out of their jobs and careers and how they want others to think about them. If you can in some way connect their interests and passions to something they do at work, then you’ll see more engagement, she says.

In some cases, you might learn that a team member is not engaged at all and won’t be engaged no matter what you do. In that case, they should be encouraged to go elsewhere. “I prefer that rather than motivating someone whose heart is not there,” she says.

Many will respond, however. If they feel really safe around you—and know that you’re behind them—then you’ll begin to see some new ideas. “Trust is essential,” Attong says. “No one is coming into that room unless they trust you.”

So, when ideas are brought to senior management, then you stand with your team in receiving the praise or the criticism. “This is about shared responsibility, not throwing team members under the bus,” she says, noting that you’re sharing responsibility, not leadership.

In this role, you will need to be a good listener—without judging—and someone who protects team members’ confidentiality. “You must be positive toward people so they feel you are really interested in them,” Attong says.

When you have a truly safe space, team members actually look forward to work. They are more likely to keep their egos in check and are open to exploring ideas. “Innovation is fun. It doesn’t have to be scary,” she says.

All this is a big commitment, but when the team embraces the ‘safe space’ concept, you will find that your team will be more engaged and your work will become more manageable. “Trust can be built if you have made a commitment to build it,” Attong says.

Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585)249-9295 or by e-mail at kadriscoll@aol.com.

Maxine Attong is the author of two business books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead your Team to Win. She is a Keynote Speaker,  Executive Coach, Organisational Development consultant and of course an Accountant.


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