By Robert Mulhall

Why Leaders Need to Create Safety


If your people don’t feel safe, they can’t give you their best.

We are living in a time of great change and disruption; the consequences of which leaders of organizations and businesses of all sizes are contending with on a daily basis. For many people, the world does not feel like a safe place right now; there is a collective feeling of uncertainty at the levels of geopolitics, the environment, the economy, and our basic humanity.

In our board rooms, meeting rooms, and at our office desks, people are feeling that lack of safety and uncertainty, too. At their workplaces, some may feel unsafe speaking their minds about things such as unethical behavior, a decision that they disagree with, or a leadership style that is causing harm. They are concerned they will be blamed and shamed, that they might lose their jobs, that they will attract undue attention and hurt their careers, or that they will be harassed by unconscious leaders. This is affecting all organizations at some level. Stress levels in many organizations are rising and will continue to do so unless leaders can find a way to create a sense of safety for their teams and for themselves.

As individuals, most of us have not been educated to deal very well with our own levels of uncertainty, which often leaves us feeling unsure and unsafe—and being unable to adequately cope with our own feelings means that we do not have the ability to help others around us (children, friends, colleagues) handle theirs.

As leaders in our organizations, we often do not have the coping mechanisms—and therefore the resilience—to balance the need to face the realities of our fast-paced lives and stay well and balanced in body, mind, and spirit. When we are out of balance, we do not show up well and, therefore, cannot adequately support our teams.

Most leaders are under a great deal of pressure and/or are lacking in a certain level of self-awareness that they do not take the time to pause and ensure that they themselves feel safe. What happens when both leaders and teams do not feel safe? Oftentimes, these feelings lead to:

  • Unhealthy internal competition
  • A lack of sharing information, resources, and ideas
  • Paralysis in decision-making
  • A lack of compassionate—yet radically honest—dialogue
  • A stifling of visionary and ambitious leadership

Because some of the key elements of an organization’s overall health is having people who feel safe, valued, and accepted, it is critical to ask: what is the role of leadership in the face of this new uncertain reality in our organizations? To meet the needs of their team members, as well as their own needs, leaders have an opportunity and a responsibility to create an environment of greater safety—be it physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual.

So how, as a leader, can you ensure a greater sense of safety for yourself and your team? It comes down to building up your leadership muscles to experiment with the following five guiding principles for building a safe environment.

Five Guiding Principles to Ensure Feelings of Safety

#1 – Be radically self-aware. We know that when a leader is given the tools to become radically self-aware of how a lack of safety is impacting his ability to lead successfully, he has taken the first step to turning the ship. Self-awareness is the foundational tool of all great leaders—it is the ability to look inward and be honest with what we are feeling and what is driving our actions, decisions, and words. Bringing our current mindset into our awareness is the first step in helping to reduce its potentially limiting impact—we first have to see it, name it, and then commit to moving beyond it.

Practical Step

Know your purpose and maintain an inspiring vision and an aligned strategy—people know self-aware, purpose-driven leaders when they see them; be a “north star” for people to rally around.

#2 – Be socially aware. Talk to your people—ask them through interviews, surveys, and informal conversations about how safe they feel within the organization. If they don’t talk to you directly about this, then pay attention—this is a clear indication that they don’t have the levels of safety they need to be their best. Observe your team in action—watch to see if they are being radically honest with each other, whether they are sharing ideas and information, and whether they are able to disagree and still stay united as a team. When people are stressed or anxious they will do one or more of three things (and they may not do them consistently): (1) They will freeze up and do nothing—they will not make a decision, not implement a plan, etc. (2) They will flee—ignore your calls/emails, avoid making time for a meeting, etc., and/or (3) They will fight—they might argue, push their agenda aggressively, or hold on tight to something.

Practical Step
Have regular one-on-one meetings with members of your team—be wholly present and ask thoughtful questions about how they are experiencing work and life.

#3 – Name it. Not talking about a potentially negative dynamic such as people feeling unsafe is only going to prolong the current reality. Find the right time to “name it” for yourself and with your leadership team. Create a space, ideally facilitated by a trusted third party, to talk about this. Allowing people to be seen and heard is a crucial step in bringing about more safety in an organization. While naming the issue is key to starting the conversation, diagnosing the root causes behind the feelings is the next most important step. When you know the root causes, you have a greater opportunity to transform the situation at the deepest level. Oftentimes teams that do not feel safe are not able to have this conversation without an impartial facilitator.

Practical Step

Make time and space for courageous conversations—if you are rushing and don’t make time then people will not perceive you as valuing them.

#4 – No blame, no shame. Blaming and shaming—whether oneself or others—should have no place in your organizational culture and should be a non-negotiable. Performance feedback is important when done in a constructive and healthy way; however, blaming and shaming people—either in private or public—will produce one of two effects: either people will shut down completely or dig in and defend their position. Neither one of these situations will bring about feelings of greater safety. As the leader, you set the tone in the organization. If your style of leadership carries blame and shame, or is perceived that way, then you are giving everyone else permission to do the same.

Practical Step

Regularly and publicly tell your team that you support them—make sure your words back up actions that help them live with purpose, passion, and well-being.

#5 – Slow down. As leaders we are often sprinting—sprinting so fast that we can’t see what is happening around us or what are people are experiencing. As a leader, it is imperative that you move at a pace within your organization to see and sense the reality. You may be thinking “I don’t have time to slow down.” Thinking this way is like driving a car fast and saying, “I don’t have time to stop for gas.” Eventually the car will stop. If you keep sprinting, you will eventually run out of gas and your organization may not have any gas left either.

Practical Step

Find a centering practice—learn to meditate, walk mindfully in nature, or simply play. This will help you slow down and disconnect from the rapid pace of the mind to allow you to see what else is present.

Time and time again, our experience has shown us that when leaders follow these five guiding principles, they shift, they evolve, they start to build their own confidence and they develop a higher degree of comfort with a range of leadership styles. Beyond the individual evolution, we see that an organization’s culture starts to allow for more honesty about its current reality, and from that place of honesty, an organization can make real plans for success.

When leaders show up with awareness, vulnerability, and a commitment to honest conversations; when they are open to listening and maintain a pace that is both calming and centering, it gives the whole organization permission to show up this way and increases everyone’s experience of safety in decision-making, communication, and in how we treat our colleagues across the organization. It unlocks a wave of energy that feels grounded and real, allowing people to start feeling more at ease and more authentically themselves.

At the Crossland Group, we know that our fundamental purpose—why we exist—is at the very heart of this transformational change. We have been helping leaders at all levels more effectively lead for the past twenty years—we know that, while challenging, following these steps is not only possible, but can also be life-changing and deeply rewarding.

People can’t bring their full potential to the table when they don’t feel safe. Don’t wait for a crisis to hit—start to bring more safety to your organization today.

About the author

Robert Mulhall works with clients as a strategic advisor to identify core business challenges and design transformative solutions by unlocking fears and unnecessary limitations at the individual and organizational levels.

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