5 Ways to Create a Safe & Healthy Environment
In the past few months, the U.S. has faced waves of crises—health, economic, and social. It’s affected your daily life, your home, your work, and your community. Crises, even just one, can threaten how safe you, and everyone around you, feels. Unfortunately, feeling threatened limits access to your prefrontal cortex—the logical, creative, problem-solving part of your brain. That’s the part you need more than ever during times of stress and crisis!
If you’re in a leadership position, others expect you to be able to deal with threats and provide safety. As Simon Sinek says, we give our leaders extra benefits as an investment in our future safety. In exchange for those advantages, we expect them to take care of us when bad things happen. That’s why we despise “leaders” who use their power against us and only protect themselves.
David Rock wrote in the NeuroLeadership Journal there are five human needs that influence behavior in social settings. (I highly recommend reading the entire 10-page article for more info on how the brain responds to each need and what to do about it.) As far as your human instincts are concerned, your very survival depends on meeting these needs. And as you can probably guess, all five are severely threatened by the current health, economic, and social crises we are facing, not only in our communities, but at work as well.
The five needs are status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness, which form the acronym SCARF. Here are some ways you can provide these five things for yourself and your followers, in order to create a safe and healthy environment in which critical thinking, creativity, and teamwork can flourish.
Your importance in a group determines your sense of status. This one is particularly easy to threaten. Even something as simple as receiving unsolicited advice can threaten your sense of self-worth, value, and relative importance.
Quick check: How many times in the past few months has someone preached at you or given unwanted advice? At home? At work? On social media? It doesn’t feel great, does it? It’s a subtle way of saying, “I am better, smarter, and more important than you.” If you want to preserve status, avoid saying “You’re wrong,” verbally or nonverbally.
Create safety by treating others, their perspective, and their opinions as important, even when you disagree. If you notice defensiveness, try another tack. You’ll almost always get farther by listening first and having a conversation, than by leading with advice or correction.
Your brain is hardwired to look for shortcuts and predict the future. As humans, we like to know what’s coming. Well, predictability just got tossed out the window, didn’t it? On a national scale, we have no idea what to expect in the upcoming months. How long will COVID-19 disrupt our lives? How successful will the social justice movement be in changing laws and business practices? What will happen in the next election? This uncertainty affects your business and the people you work with, too. Here are three ways you can provide yourself and your team with more certainty in uncertain times:
1. Live your values. If you, and those around you, know what you stand for and that you’ll act accordingly, that provides some good old boring predictability.
2. Communicate. Share what you DO know. It might be small or obvious or even negative, like, “Our numbers will be down this quarter,” but clarity creates certainty.
3. Make decisions. We look to leaders in times of crisis to lead! Let your values, vision, and clear thinking guide you. Once a decision is made, at least people know what to expect.
As you deliver updates and decisions, remember to use Authoritative voice pattern and body language. That adds a sense of certainty to the communication, too.
(Bonus: Gretchin Rubin’s article “8 Tips for Dealing with Uncertainty due to the Coronavirus Pandemic” suggests great ways to add certainty to your own life, several of which work for teams, too.)
This is your ability to control events and choose for yourself. Ha! Due to the pandemic, there’s a stunning lack of free choice, which is why people are getting into yelling matches at the grocery store over face masks. (Yes, I actually witnessed this.) The more we feel like we have no choice, the more we vehemently assert our right to choose.
Create an emotionally safe and healthy work environment by giving people choices whenever possible. It can be a minor choice. You can use the toddler parenting trick: When my daughters were little, I’d ask things like, “Do you want to go to bed now or in five minutes?” It’s not much of a choice. They’re still going to bed. And, of course, they would always say, “In five minutes!” But when the five minutes was up, they went to bed willingly.
Currently, I’m asking clients if they’d rather meet via Zoom or over the phone. It’s a small thing, but it’s a choice. As businesses open up, you might give your workforce the option of coming to the office (with safety precautions) or continuing to work from home. One client recently told an employee, “This project will require overtime. Would you prefer to put in those extra hours this week or next?” Simple, little things go a long way when autonomy feels scarce. Build them in whenever you can—for others and yourself.
Relatedness is not simply about connections, but it’s how safe you feel with others. Safe contact with other human beings is a deep-seated psychological need. We automatically size each other up as “friend” or “foe.” And we need friends. For many, your sense of connectedness AND safety is in the toilet right now. You’ve spent months apart from other human beings. When you do get together you aren’t allowed to shake hands or hug. And we’ve found ways to become polarized on even the most innocuous-seeming issues, so you may constantly have to reevaluate, “Are you a safe person?”.
Make your moments of connection count. Do things that will release oxytocin—the feel-good bonding hormone—into your system and that of those you’re connecting with, too. The #1 way to do that is through physical touch, but when that’s not an option, these work, too:
- Presence. Cool, huh? One of my favorite things to blog about actually releases feel-good chemicals! Be fully present. Make eye contact. Hold space. Listen. Give the gift of attention.
- Send a surprise gift. A gift card, flowers, something funny or helpful. Even a handwritten note can be a gift.
- Check in. It’s how you “touch” long-distance. Show empathy and compassion. Share yourself.
- Say, “I love you.” Okay, that might not be advisable in a work setting! But do speak from the heart instead of depersonalizing your communication. Say, “I appreciate that,” or, “I like the way you handled that,” or “That meant a lot to me.”
Human beings want to know exchanges are fair. You don’t want to get the short end of the stick. Crises don’t affect individuals the same way, which immediately promotes a sense of unfairness. One way to provide fairness is to be very clear in your intentions and your expectations of others. When others don’t know the parameters, they interpret, and that leaves room for “shoulds” and “coulds” and “woulds.” Say what you mean and mean what you say.
Also, check for biases and favoritism. It’s a common human condition, so you’re likely afflicted along with the rest of us. It takes humility and self-assurance—opposite sides of the same coin—to open your eyes to blind spots. Be brave and do it, if you truly want to provide safety for others.
I wouldn’t say leadership is ever easy, even in good times. Yet it’s during the hard times that you prove your worth. To weather the storm, provide status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Provide them for yourself; provide them for others. It’s the only way to create enough safety to move forward.