Have you ever been in a meeting where you could’ve heard a pin drop because it was so quiet? Where people were not saying what was on their minds? Why does that happen?
Hint: it’s usually related to a lack of safety in the room.
Where does safety come from?
Someone once told me that my competence provided safety to the people I coach—a lovely thought, and I can see truth in it. My experience and knowledge allow me to provide teaching and mentoring, as well as reassurance that you’re not stuck with the status quo. And I also see where my expertise occasionally makes others feel less safe—afraid that they will be caught doing something wrong or breaking rules. In those moments, it’s as if I embody someone’s own conscience. Safety has something to do with how you show up and create the environment, and it is also dependent on how others show up and interact within the environment.
I’ve seen the silent meetings occur when the facilitator ignored the group dynamics and neglected to create an environment for everyone to freely share opinions. And I’ve also seen the silent meetings happen despite a facilitator doing just about everything in his control to foster a judgment-free environment. Sometimes people aren’t ready to open up. Skilled facilitators work hard to help people share and participate in meetings, and sometimes people are not ready for that right away. Perhaps “getting real” is uncommon, either for the individual, the team, or the organization. It can take time for folks to feel comfortable voicing their opinions; the facilitator must provide the safe environment at every opportunity so it is there when they are ready.
The art of providing safety
From June to October, I spent some of my weekends building a trebuchet with friends for the annual DFW Trebuchet Toss Off. It’s a fun activity, and I enjoy being part of a team that builds something tangible (far different from my day job!). This was my third year participating, and my role is that of Safety Czar. Because honestly I’m not much of a builder, and I can’t carry much physically, but I do pay attention to group dynamics and making sure that those who are about to use a power saw are wearing safety goggles. We had a lot of challenges this year with our trebuchet, and my schedule didn’t allow me to be at every build. I feel like I didn’t really fulfill my role this year. I noticed when certain people were disengaged during the builds where I was present, and I didn’t do much to pull them into the active conversations. I didn’t take a strong enough stand against some of the physical safety issues; while no one was really hurt, we did cause some damage that could have been prevented. That doesn’t feel good.
Coaches regularly see the places where people become uncomfortable—whether it’s the person who isn’t ready to face the real transformation that lies ahead or the team that isn’t ready to take the next step. The coach stays with them in the moment and uses her skills to deepen the learning and forward the action. It is not easy to do. In fact, it can feel exhausting. Listening intently, asking questions with curiosity, acknowledging and championing the strengths you see, and challenging old thinking… all in service of the person/people you are coaching.
I think that’s the key to providing safety: acting in service of them. A Scrum Master assigned to a new team can facilitate an amazing retrospective and draw out the introverts if he acts from a place of serving the team as a whole. A coach can ask hard questions of a team and provide a reality check if she acts from a place of serving the team. If you act from a place of right/wrong, us/them, waterfall/agile, or win/lose, then safety is lost.