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The Delicate Balance: Safety & Courage in the Workplace

Maximizing the value of the time and money you spend on leadership development sometimes means accepting that strategies you learn can come into conflict with one another. That doesn’t mean one’s more valid, or that both can’t simultaneously be true.

By learning how to keep them in balance, you’re working with the full breadth of that development you invested in, and you’re a more circumspect leader as a result.

Here’s an example: The balance of workplace safety with workplace courage.

In Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson’s 2012 book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, one of the themes that resonated the most with readers was that of psychological safety in the workplace. Employees need to feel comfortable speaking up, voicing problems, and challenging the status quo when they believe it’s wrong, and to be able to do all these things without repercussions.

This is an important thing to draw attention to. After all, a lack of psychological safety at work can have dire consequences. In a 2014 TEDx talk, Edmondson opened with a potent example: “A nurse on the night shift in a busy urban hospital notices that the dosage for a particular patient seems a bit high. Fleetingly, she considers calling the doctor at home to check the order. Just as fleetingly, she recalls his disparaging comments about her abilities the last time she called him at home.” And she goes for the dosage despite her concerns.

But here’s the thing: Edmondson’s lens is primarily turned to external safety. There’s another side to psychological safety in the workplace, and that’s internal safety -- and paradoxically, a lot of what’s important about internal safety involves cultivating courage, and the acceptance of the idea that no situation is ever entirely “safe.”

At my company, Westwood International, we work with organizations and individuals to build the leadership qualities that will help them propel their businesses and careers to an optimal future, even when that future is uncertain. And the delicate balance between cultivating both safety and courage comes up again and again. Here are a couple of key things to know when you’re considering this:

  • As I mentioned before, no workplace is truly “safe.” Economic circumstances, cultural norms, and global events are constantly in flux -- something that’s more evident now than ever. As a leader, you can never ensure total safety and you can be putting both yourself and your employees in a place of complacency if you try to.

  • Doing everything you can to create a “safe” environment doesn’t mean you’ll reap the benefits. Studies show that the more diversity you have in input, and the more people speak up, and the more people listen to each other, the better results you get. But still, even if the emphasis is on creating a safe place where everyone can speak up, you run the risk of no one ever speaking up. Someone's got to speak up first in order to test how safe the workplace is. And that takes courage.

  • Everyone’s an individual. Some employees will never feel comfortable safe enough to speak up the way they need to, and what you see as a completely safe environment can still be viewed by some as a threat. This is why you also have to cultivate courage.

The oft-quoted Mark Twain once said (and, yes, he really did say this), “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear -- not absence of fear.” In the workplace, it’s also often about emotional maturity. An exercise I like to do with clients when it comes to building courage in the workplace is to ask them, “What’s one conversation that you’ve been putting off?” Mostly, people put off difficult conversations at work because they're afraid or angry, or they think it's not fair. But this is just some emotional block. So, after they identify the problem I have them scale right down on a scale from one to five how painful they think that conversation is going to be.

Then, I have them go and have that conversation. And they come back and they score it again: How painful was it, really, on a scale from one to five? It turns out that every single conversation is scored either the same or less than they thought it would be. If I'm working with a group of 15 or 20 people, they look at the board and they say, "Well, not one conversation was worse than expected, and between half and 75% of them were less than what we thought." So now, they have a data point. They start to realize that so much of the fear and pain is in their own heads, and what they dread is going to unfold actually won’t.

This is an exercise you can replicate to build a culture in your workplace that keeps a healthy balance between courage and psychological safety. It addresses that internal safety on the individual level that can’t easily be tackled through broader company policies, and encourages employees to face their fears head-on while also fostering more open dialogue and better communication within the corporate structure. Creating that sense of safety needs to happen on the inside as well as the outside. The best way to do that is to make sure employees take some time building the kind of courage that will help them conquer fears that, all too often, are really nothing to be afraid of in the first place.

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