Today’s Leaders Make it Safe to Play

BLP0019019I work and play in the heart of Canada’s technology triangle – Waterloo, Ontario – the home of Blackberry, Open Text, D2L and scores of other innovative and exciting workplaces. The ping-pong tables, all day feasts and pets at work symbolize a conscious intent to create better company cultures –less “command and control” and more playful, open, creative and satisfying. Along these lines, companies are experimenting with their structures too; Flatter, leaner structures, the rise of self-organizing teams and disdain for anything that feels like hierarchy.

Arie, a leader I coach, asks an important question: How can I lead others as we explore work’s wilderness and uncertainty? Is there a leadership role for me that adds value without being bossy?

The good news is, dropping hierarchy allows us to embrace a wide definition of leadership: “action taken with a proactive attitude and an intention to change something for the better” (Joiner & Josephs, Leadership Agility, 2007). We can think of leadership as a way to impact the culture of our workspaces; as a personal contribution not (just) a coveted title.

Even those who love change can tire of the uncertainty. Arie has decided at his work there is a need to replace the predictability of a formal hierarchy with psychological safety. This will counter-balance the daily stress of market volatility and employment insecurity. Providing comfort in this way is valued by those who look to him for leadership.

What can Arie – and you – do to help people relax and feel safe at work?

  • Be a trustworthy and official messenger. Often, people appreciated the hierarchy because they were certain where decisions were made and who had the real story. Casual and wide-open, informal communication vehicles are great for speedy resolutions, creative thinking and encouraging collaboration – and they are rife with inaccuracies, politic manoeuvring and rumours. Leaders stay informed and connected. You have a role in providing speedy and accurate information – including confidential company information – and putting aside anxiety-provoking untruths.
  • Be alert to subtle signs of fear and anxiety in others. Watch for sudden withdrawing, silence or avoidance. You might see dogmatic views, or more demanding and aggressive speech. Pay attention to body language and tone. Fear and anxiety restrict people’s ability to contribute fully, honestly and generously. Pause the conversation or the meeting, and check out what you are observing. Ignore the issue or problem for a moment and be with the person(s). Make sure you are really listening. Ensure everyone feels validated, acknowledged and important. Answer people’s concerns seriously. If some opinions legitimately hold more weight in this discussion (due to technical knowledge or experience) admit that, don’t ignore it. This way others won’t feel downgraded or anxious about their input.
  • Get to know your own ways of making people feel unsafe. Share more of what you are thinking, so others are not guessing at your motives and decision criteria. Your face tells a story too. It’s okay to admit you get angry, annoyed, frustrated and overwhelmed – it’s human! Ensure others don’t suffer because of your stress. Learn the art of non-violent communication (Rosenburg, 2003) and use safe words to express your negative feelings. Practice watching how you are received by others and modify your approach. If you have inadvertently made someone feel unsafe, apologize. Learn how to be serious without being scary.
  • When a lot is changing, point out what is not changing. Often there is an anchor that is hidden in the flurry of change. Can you identify what is being protected because it works or is valuable? Outward changes are often a step closer to inward-held beliefs and values – which are themselves not changing. Articulate what people can count on.
  • Applaud risk-taking and creativity, which includes making mistakes. When things go wrong, look for learning and evidence to support the best next step. Lead discussions away from blame and toward solutions. Be sure you are rewarding honest effort and innovation, but never the errors that come from irresponsibility.

Using these habits, Arie is becoming a leader that others can count on, respected for the way in which he consistently helps others feel safe enough to contribute their best.

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