January 17, 2024

“Safe” Is a Risky Safe Word

We need some nuance (and a better vocabulary) to safeguard the value of discourse and disagreements at work.

I think this post may be controversial. So feel free to controvert me here, on social, or wherever you’d like. And I do not know if I’m right about this.

I am growing increasingly concerned about the increasingly common and sometimes casual use of the word “safe” at work.

Please know that I’m familiar with the findings around the import of psychological safety at work, described best in Google’s Aristotle Project results of 2015.

Please know that I am also aware that there are situations that are not physically or psychologically safe. There are many forms of abuse. There is terrible behavior that happens at work. There are hostile work environments. Bad actors. Bad actions. Bad situations. Illegal occurrences. Yes. Companies must have trustworthy processes to address those matters; they must uncover those risks before and, at the very least, after something rotten is happening. They must ensure there are consequences for things that cross a cultural or legal line.

That said, I have been hearing the words “safe” and “safety” invoked in situations that, to me, feel like the normal course of disagreement that can and should happen among coworkers if people and companies want to learn and grow.

For example, consider a person in a sales or customer success organization who has presented numerous ideas for new product features or adjustments to a contact on the product team. These suggestions were, in some cases, requested by customers or prospects. The sales team member reports that the person on the product team didn’t listen. The person didn’t add any requested features or tweaks to the product roadmap. The person has disagreed with the points of view presented by the sales team member. The sales team member then reports that they don’t feel “safe” working with the product team member.

As another example, imagine a team meeting of a functional team or a leadership team. Imagine further that someone in that group dislikes conflict. At one meeting, a verbal conflict arises about a work topic. It happens again two meetings later. The conflict-averse person may report that they don’t feel safe on a team with that kind of confrontational behavior.

Now, it may well be true that the above-mentioned product person should be more open to ideas coming from the sales team, particularly when those ideas are being surfaced by customers or meaningful prospects. It also may be very nice for the vigilant team to find moments for more calm resolution of disagreements. Striking a balance around things like conflict behavior so every type of person feels like they can be present and be an avid contributor is a great idea.

However, I don’t think either of these situations could rightly be described as unsafe, especially if, as here, there is no evidence of negative or undermining intent against anyone.

My sense is that I am hearing the word “safe” so often that it’s losing its meaning and power. I am hearing it so much that I fear leaders are being pressed to design process-heavy systems to handle a wide range of complaints that do not rise to the level of actual physical, psychological, or emotional safety. I am hearing it so often that I’m starting to wonder whether, in some cases, that word is being invoked to get immediate attention for disagreeable circumstances, rather than to raise alarm about genuine bad actors. There is a risk that normalizing (or overusing?) the word “safe” may actually distract attention from circumstances that truly warrant an immediate and serious response.

I do not want to suggest approaches that have a chilling effect on reports of abuse. I also don’t want heavy process to have a chilling effect on healthy conflict, active debate, below-the-line points of view, and disagreement. If we chill disagreement – if being unsafe gets conflated with a situation where two people disagree or where someone is not implementing suggestions from someone else – I think we lose advantages of discernment, speed, and learning from lively engagement with colleagues.

My suggestion? To save the word “safe” for something that is genuinely being experienced as threatening. To use words and phrases that are more nuanced when one is, say, offended or when one doesn’t feel their coworkers are listening to them as closely as they’d like. I also recommend that when a leader in HR or anywhere in a company hears “safe,” they should ask some follow-up questions. Can you describe what you mean by safety? Can you explain the dynamics as you are observing them? Can you tell me what you most want, what would make things better?

Then, as a leader with experience, do some responsible filtering about what belongs and doesn’t belong in a bucket of things that warrant serious attention or an investigation.

I am often asked how leaders and companies can promote a high-performing culture. My answers usually are:

  1. Hire for A players and respond most to the concerns of A players.
  2. Set standards for B and C players that make it clear that sub-A behavior is not satisfactory, and take action if those players do not up their games.
  3. Encourage a culture of constant, rapid, in-the-moment feedback to maximize learning from each other. 
  4. Create, adopt, and track clean agreements and whether those agreements have been met. Develop consequences for unmet agreements

I personally prefer vibrant, engaged debate as a form of productive collaboration. I feel concerned that the increased use of “safety” is leading to a culture where that level of interaction is, in fact, becoming more and more endangered.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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