Magazine article Talent Development

Achieve Optimal Performance by Providing Employees a Safe Space: Give Employees an Outlet to Be Open about Their Thoughts and Feelings without Being Judged

Magazine article Talent Development

Achieve Optimal Performance by Providing Employees a Safe Space: Give Employees an Outlet to Be Open about Their Thoughts and Feelings without Being Judged

Article excerpt

A 2015 study by Aon Hewitt concludes that "leadership and employee engagement are essential for success. The best companies build and sustain a culture of engagement."

Engagement is a dichotomy within organizations-leaders struggle to engage employees, while employees want to, but don't know how to, engage with the organization. As a facilitator and coach, I have observed that when clients feel safe, engagement follows. But how can leaders use safety to engage employees beyond a coaching or facilitated session? Co-creating safe spaces are one way to accomplish this.

What it is

A safe space promotes a culture in which employees can question the status quo, challenge authority, and take risks and fail, without jeopardizing their careers. It also recognizes that there is no separation between our professional and personal lives, and that each day we walk with all of who we are-our struggles, realities, and dreams-into the office.

The safe space is the office Las Vegas, where people can enter to cry over the dead dog, rant about a co-worker, or vent about a loved one-but what happens there stays there. When they are done, employees can leave with their dignity intact. In the safe space, employees can let down their guard, express anxieties and fears, as well as nurture an idea, find support, plan the next career move, and dream up and execute projects. In these spaces, leaders connect the personal ambitions of team members with the vision of the organization.

Why it works

The safe-space concept draws on humanistic psychology, as promulgated by Carl Rogers. He saw the relationship between therapist and client as collaborative, with the therapist paying attention to the client's state of mind and asking questions designed to help the client resolve issues. Rogers believed that people have the capacity to grow, solve their own problems, and do what is ultimately good for them. The safe space encourages leaders to take a humanistic stance that ensures that employees feel seen and heard.


Leaders and team members should co-create the safe space; this ensures buy-in and shared responsibility for maintaining the sanctity of the space.

Setting up the safe space. Leaders and team members collaborate to develop rules that govern the use of the space. Questions such as "What makes you feel safe?" and "What will make you feel unsafe?" help create the guidelines for the space. After the rules are settled upon, each member signs an agreement, committing to adhering to the rules.

Sharing motives. Leaders need to share their motives for setting up the space. Motive does not hide; it will show up in the decisions and choices that are made. Although all team members may not appreciate the leader's motive, they will welcome her honesty. Open discussions about what's in it for the team members and what they can expect from the space will help members to embrace the idea.

Maintaining the space. The sanctity of the space is maintained by the following features.

Confidentiality. This is non-negotiable because without confidentiality, there is no safety. The common definition is extended to include that no one but the speaker can initiate a discussion about the speaker's personal topics. Leaders need to constantly remind members of this and to swiftly treat any breaches.

Honesty. Leaders need to be honest. This requires us to check our egos and admit our limitations and mistakes. …

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