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Four Markers of the “Safe” Leader

When employees are not shut down or demotivated by fear, they’re able to absorb input and recommendations, learn and grow, share information and technique, and stretch to meet larger goals and aims.

How can leaders create safety? Typically, safety starts when leaders demonstrate competence, openness, candor, and vision.

Don’t for a minute think these are “soft” skills, as they’re so commonly called. These skills are actually quite challenging, and they advance the accomplishment of rigorous business goals. Safety is not a lack of accountability, nor is it an intention to protect anyone from natural consequences. And it’s certainly not about letting anyone off the hook for broken commitments or lack of professionalism.

For example, it’s extremely respectful for a leader to let people know — with tact, generosity, and the assumption of good intentions — if their behavior or performance is falling short in some way. This information doesn’t have to be conveyed harshly or punitively, but rather with a kind of pragmatic, high expectation that everyone will strive to do their best — and that their best will be quite wonderful.

Safety Is In the Eye of the Beholder

Employees assess their leaders by their communication and behavior. They look for savvy, practicality, insight, and confidence, as well as the ability to treat people with respect, kindness, and fairness. When leaders behave in ways that create safety for their teams and others, you’ll hear praise from their employees, along the following lines:

My boss is competent. It’s hard for employees to feel safe within a larger organization if they don’t believe that their managers are knowledgeable and proficient in their functional roles. Otherwise, subordinates worry that they aren’t being led or managed effectively. That doesn’t mean that employees expect their managers to be perfect, but they do count on them to know the techniques and methods required for the work and to be able to set standards that are not impossibly rigorous but are not easy — as well as to provide accurate help and support when the employees need it.

My boss is part of the power structure. Employees need to have confidence that their managers know what’s going on and how to work the system, have political capital, and are included with their peers in the organization’s planning and allocation of resources and benefits. Subordinates rely on their managers to communicate back to the team where the organization is headed, why change happens and how to cope with it, and what to expect from the rest of the hierarchy. This safeguards employees against fears of being misjudged or mistreated by others in the organization or of losing status or other advantages.

My boss is on the level. Employees feel safer when they know they can talk frankly to their managers without fear of penalty. They want to know that they can count on what their managers say: that their manager’s word is good and that they’ll always follow up. It’s particularly significant and meaningful when managers admit their own errors, declare what they need to do better, and accept feedback themselves. Their willingness to be open — even vulnerable — without the need to be infallible or above correction, demonstrates that it is acceptable for everyone to err at times and to recover from their mistakes.

My boss wants the right things. It helps employees feel safe when they can tell by both word and deed that their managers care about the organization’s success and their subordinates’ and colleagues’ success as much as they do about their own. These managers include employees in what’s going on and consult them for their opinions, avoid pointing fingers when things go wrong, and express praise and gratitude — both publicly and privately — for good performance.

Safety Always Comes First

When managers demonstrate consistently that people are safe with them, employees begin to feel that they’re part of something larger than themselves; they begin to see themselves truly as members of a team. And when employees believe that they belong and matter, they also seek to understand where the team is going, why it’s going there, and what they each need to do to get there.

Onward and upward,

LK

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