Create a Safe Space: Four Steps to Lead Your Team to Win

October 12, 2015

healthy work environment

As leaders, we are often challenged to engage employees, and while we understand the benefits of employee engagement, we are at times unsure how to engage employees. As a coach, I am able to engage clients by making them feel safe.  As the client experiences the safety of the coaching space, they gain confidence in the space, they begin to trust me and they freely share their challenges. In the safety of the space, clients blossom, they dream up big ideas and are able to confront their fears as they move towards their goals. When I lead a work-team, I use the same principles of a coaching session to engage employees. I declare my office a safe space and encourage employees to use the space to discuss concerns, take a breather from work, vent about an issue, plan work, or to challenge the status quo. Employees use the space tentatively at first, and as they develop trust in the space and me, both employees and I begin to see the payoffs in performance and employee engagement.

1. How to Set up the Space

The leader collaborates with the team to co-create the safe space.  Together they:

  • Agree on the rules of the space
  • Define what each rule means to ensure common understanding
  • Sign off on the agreed upon rules as a commitment to the rules
  • Share responsibility for maintaining the space

2. Common Rules

While the rules that govern the use of the space often reflect the experiences of the team members and the culture of the organization, some common rules are:

  • Confidentiality – This is the office Vegas – whatever is shared in the space, stays in the space. This builds trust in the space and allows people to use the space as and when they need it.
  • No judgment – In the space, there are no stupid questions or comments. If we disagree with a statement, we ask “what” and “how” questions to help the speaker clarify his thoughts.  When employees feel seen and heard, and there are no repercussions for speaking up, they will participate openly in discussions.

3. Being a Safe Leader

Leaders have a special responsibility for maintaining the space, since they set the example for the employees to follow.  Leaders are not asked to change their personality, instead they are invited to:

  • Be consistent – Leaders need to make a conscious decision to treat all employees the same. This calls for consistent application of the organization’s policies and procedures, as well as transparency in decision making.
  • Be honest – Employees will forgive each other’s lies, but they are not as generous to a leader who lies. Tell the truth, which includes “I don’t know,” or “I can’t answer at this time,” or “It’s confidential.”

4. Benefits to the Leader

The safe space allows the leaders a unique view of each employee. We become privy to what makes them tick and what their concerns are. This makes our job a lot easier and we benefit as:

  • We can align employees personal ambition to organizational needs
  • Employees become self motivated and take personal responsibility for their work and their careers

I enjoy working with the adult parts of employees – the parts that manage households, care for aging parents, plan private events, have dreams and do a myriad of amazing things outside of the office. In the safe space, I am able to engage these parts and, as a result, I am freed up from the minutia of management and move into the realm of leadership.

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About The Author

Maxine Attong ( has been leading small and large teams for the past two decades – both in organizational settings and in her private coaching and facilitation practice. She has helped organizations come to consensus, overcome the perils of ineffective leadership, redesign processes to suit changing environments, and manage the internal chaos inherent in strategy implementation. She has been trained as a Gestalt Organizational Development practitioner, a Certified Evidence-Based Coach, a Certified Professional Facilitator, a Certified Management Accountant and is a former Quality Manager. Attong is a graduate of the University of the West Indies, and divides her time between the Caribbean and the United States. Her latest book is “Lead Your Team to Win: Achieve Optimal Performance By Providing A Safe Space For Employees.”

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    […] not enough to have an “open door.” You need to actively seek out feedback. Ask your employees, “What is working to help you be productive?” Then ask, “As your manager, […]

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