Simon Sinek describes what he calls the Circle of Safety with this simple story:
A lion used to prowl about a field in which Four Oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attacked them; but whenever he came near, they turned their tails to one another so that whichever way he approached them, he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.
—Aesop, sixth century B.C
I was once part of a leadership group that was a combination of people from two merged organizations.
The new organization was eliminating positions, and all leadership jobs, including my new boss’, were under scrutiny. The lion was on the prowl. Only ideas that supported the leaders’ positions were welcome. Our group leader demonstrated that he didn’t care about our opinions or how we felt.
As a result, instead of being encouraged to work together for the good of the organization, my colleagues and I were pitted against one another and found ourselves protecting our own “corner of the pasture.”
In every interaction with your employees, you are either creating a psychologically safe or unsafe environment for them.
Here are three steps that you can take to help build a Circle of Safety:
1. It is important to understand that as the leader, you hold position power and can directly impact the livelihood of your employees. You must make it safe for your employees to challenge you and to give you candid feedback. Share some examples of your own past bad ideas and decisions, and explain the dangers of future ideas and decisions going unchallenged. Frequently request feedback.
2. As you request that feedback, you need to learn how to receive it. Candor is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open to it and grateful to receive it. Never rebuke what is offered. Instead, restate what you heard and thank the giver for the feedback.
3. Show that you care. Learn how to listen; really listen so that your employees feel your empathy. Restrain yourself from reacting and responding before the other person acknowledges that you understand their position. Be curious about their perspective and ask open questions when you need clarification.
As social beings, we are wired with a strong need to connect and belong. Only when employees feel safe will they pull together as a unified team. According to a research study published in the Harvard Business Review about key leadership competencies, “Making sure that people feel safe on a deep level should be job No. 1 for leaders.”
Is it yours? ●
Cheryl B. McMillan is Chair, Northeast Ohio for Vistage International.