Creating a Safety Zone

Creating a Safety Zone 150 150 Sharon Smith

What happens when employees don’t feel safe telling you or other leaders in your organization that there are problems? I mean real problems like the project that is already a million dollars over budget still has no solution in sight or the new manager that seems great on the surface is a bully and people are thinking of leaving because of him.


In my 10 years as a consultant I have seen too many employees complain to each other, talk about the problems amongst themselves, and then recoil at the idea of taking that information to management, the people who could actually do something about the situation.


I would like to think that senior management wants to know what is really happening in their organizations and departments so they can solve problems, but it does not seem that most people feel the same way I do and would rather keep this stuff a secret. I’m pretty sure the crux of the issue is that this type of feedback is scary unless the environment has created a safety zone. Getting and giving honest feedback can be hard if the culture isn’t set up for it to be done right.


If you are running an organization or a department, don’t you want to solve problems that lead to decreased productivity and morale? Doesn’t increased employee engagement and satisfaction result in increased profitability? If this type of problem keeps you up at night let’s get down to brass tacks so you can turn this around.


You need to create a safe environment, a safety zone in your office and it also means creating that same environment during team and project meetings, where anyone can air their concerns, provide suggestions, or ask questions. It is two-fold: an environment that allows people to come one-on-one and share feedback, and an environment where teams can work together in a safe space, where mistakes are discussed, changes are allowed, and no one hides the truth in fear of looking stupid or worse, being yelled at or asked to leave.


The question then becomes, how do you create an environment where it is not only OK to air grievances and highlight problems, but also where it is encouraged? How do you do this so no one feels like they are throwing others under the bus or being hung out to dry? How do you do it so that it is part of a culture of productivity and positivity?


Start with authenticity and transparency

If you want others to be honest and transparent with you and with each other you have to set an example. As a leader you start with authentic communication. You tell everyone that you know how difficult it can be to share the truth when it hurts. You admit that it is hard for you too, but that you know it’s important. You get real, you talk from the heart, and you show them the way. If you are asking for feedback and honest communication you want to make sure your people know they will get the same from you.


Be honest about honesty

If you really want this open honest communication you have to mean it. That may be easier said than done. It can be hard to hear the truth so be sure you are ready for it and be sure you have set up a non-retribution feedback loop. The only way to get honest feedback is to ensure that the people coming to you are not going to be reprimanded for their honesty.


Be clear on what you want to know

If you want people to come to you and let you know what they are observing in terms of productivity, then tell them you want to know that. If you want to hear the truth about failing projects, let them know that it’s OK to tell you. If there are certain things you do not feel are your place to get involved in, let them know if HR or another manager is a better feedback loop. Make sure they know who to go to with what challenges.


Require Respect

There are three ways to provide feedback, one that is blunt and hurtful, one that sugarcoats the real problem to avoid conflict, and one that provides for constructive criticism and feedback in a respectful way. Set the tone to ensure that all feedback provided to you, amongst team members, and from you are from the last category. Let everyone know that you will not tolerate rude or hurtful feedback and that sugarcoating the problem is not the answer either. Let them know that you require respect, but expect honesty.


Creating this culture might feel difficult because change is not often easy. Sometimes you need to bring people in to help make cultural changes, to coach individuals on communication, or just to support you in your efforts. If you have a coach, mentor, or change expert you should consult with them to see how they can help. If you don’t have a right-hand person to call upon you can always reach out to C-Suite Results to discuss your needs and bounce ideas around. Where I can’t help I have a vast resource list of those who can. Visit for more information and resources.