Great leaders inspire us, engage us and show us a glimpse of a better future. Great managers create structures and processes that are logical, smooth and efficient, making us feel connected to a larger purpose.
The magic that makes leaders and managers great, however, goes beyond these observable traits to something that is more visceral—they make us feel safe, seen and valued.
Organizational leaders often underestimate the power of safety, which is why so few achieve greatness, despite their brilliance and skills. They fail to grasp Abraham Maslow’s truth that after physiological needs, the need to feel safe is essential before people behave in ways that resemble commitment, collaboration or creativity. Employees will always “play it safe,” being tentative, risk adverse and keeping to themselves if they do not feel safe.
Safety is more than minimizing the risk of physical harm, which is the focus of most workplace safety programs. To feel safe enough to let down our guard, we need to know we will not be psychologically, emotionally or financially harmed if we make mistakes or are even perceived as having made mistakes. Fear of punishment, a symptom of not feeling safe, is the greatest threat to engagement and productivity in the workplace, especially in this age of increased focus on employee accountability.
Great leaders and managers create a sense of safety by welcoming challenges and embracing diversity of styles, methods, ideas and expressions rather than judging them. Great leaders and managers don’t punish people for making honest mistakes. They do not wield their immense power over people but set it aside, treating employees as equal human beings to the greatest extent possible.
Great leaders and managers are aware that everything they do is amplified by the power of their position. They are careful not to appear threatening and they manage their emotions professionally, even when they are frustrated or angry, so as not to foster fear in the people they manage. One single outburst of anger or judgment hurled at an employee can forever destroy a sense of safety for the whole organization.
If you are a leader or manager, do you make the people around you feel safe? Do they fear you or do they trust that you will not harm them? If you are an employee, how safe do you feel to tell the truth, do your best work enjoy a sense of fulfillment? Can you increase your safety by talking to your supervisor or manager about how you feel? If not, think about what else you can do to achieve more safety at work and in your life. Your life matters. You have the right to feel safe.