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Is it Safe?

It’s winter and the weather seems to grab the headlines on a regular basis. Some parts of the country have had more than their share of snow, ice and cold. Harsh weather conditions affect some more than others. Some cities are able to take a couple of feet of snow in stride. In other places, schedules are adjusted at the mere threat of a few flurries. But, whether harsh weather is the norm or rare occurrence, most areas have a similar guiding question. Is it safe to venture out, or is it wise to stay in? Safety is always a concern.

Whether real or perceived, the threat of perilous conditions can ground planes and stall transportation. It’s really not much different in your leadership team. If it’s unsafe to venture out, people stay in. There are lots of ways to “stay in.” Withdrawal takes on many forms. Some leaders shut down communication. Sometimes, the absence of any conflict is an unwritten law. The mere hint of disagreement is met with swift disapproval. Critical thinking, let alone critical questions are taboo. Covert and overt strategies emerge. The message is clear. Stay in. It’s not safe to expose your best thoughts to others.

When your leaders stay in, forward progress stalls. The best ideas will remain inside. Nothing threatens progress like an unsafe culture. In an unsafe culture the lines get blurred. All tension feels the same. Creative tension and destructive tension are lumped together and creativity is a part of the collateral damage.

Several years ago, David Rock published a model with significant implications about creating a safe culture for collaboration and influence. His SCARF model accounts for five domains of human experience: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Each of these domains can impact safety. But, perhaps none is more obvious than an unhealthy emphasis on status. According to Rock, “status has to do with relative importance, “pecking order” and seniority. His definition can be enlarged to include position, title or power. Status exists. Whether the impact of status is negative or positive is relatively easy to determine.

A few critical questions will begin to expose the role of status in your team. Does status hinder open and honest communication? Does status impede creative tension in leadership meetings and strategy? Do you filter ideas or comments based upon the status of the source? People with legitimate status face a defining leadership choice. Legitimate status makes you a gatekeeper. You can open the door toward greater engagement and energy or shut the door with efforts aimed toward greater control.

Open the door. Preparation is key. It begins with an authentic evaluation of the role of status. The next step is the development of an intentional process to neutralize threats and create safety. Developing norms to govern respectful communication is only the beginning. Safety requires ongoing vigilance and commitment. As a leader you must continually monitor the quality of your interactions. Think of your leadership meetings as a proverbial groundhog day. Your team members will either be encouraged by the signs of new life or discouraged by the forecast of threatening weather. The last thing you need is for leaders to retreat back into their dens for a six-week nap!

Visit Initiative-One for more information about how we help leaders create a safe environment that leads to higher impact and greater performance.


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