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The Value of a ‘Safe Place’

I really liked the commitment of this young technology start-up company, to their employee’s personal lives. The firm would give employees plenty of flexibility in their work schedules. Employees were really driven, and willing to work long hours, and so leaving during the day for an hour or so was no big deal, as employees would certainly make up those hours, and many more beyond. I had often complimented the company’s exec team on obviously doing a good job of hiring folks.

I was very impressed with Jay, one of the company’s employees. He was obviously a really smart guy, well thought of in this small company. His peers on the team really seemed to look to him, and after half a day with the team, I realized that his teammates really saw him as the ‘informal’ team leader. He had a really congenial personality, and seemed to enjoy life – and his job. He seemed like a guy who really had things together.

I go into every day with a client, trying hard to create an atmosphere of a ‘safe place’. I guess with my experience as a pastor, there is nothing I value more highly than the ‘client’s’ or ‘counselee’s’ ability and willingness to say whatever they feel they need to say. So I try hard to help client teams to understand just what a safe place is, and how to make their team a safe place. I even tell client teams that the ultimate goal of building a team that has the five fundamentals – trust, healthy conflict, commitment, accountability, and collaboration around collective results – is the creation of a safe place, where team members can be truly authentic.

One of our exercises led Jay to make note of a challenge from his childhood that had seemed sort of benign. But after talking about it a bit, he began to get a little quiet. A little later on in the day, he seemed visibly shaken. Finally he began to tear up, and he said to his teammates – most of them male. ‘You all know that I tend to take off from work just about an hour and a half every week during the day. I know I’ve told you different things as to what I’m doing….’ His tears began to turn to sobs as he continued – more intermittent as he was obviously struggling. ‘The truth is – I’ve been going to a psychiatrist for the past year on a regular basis…’ Jay went on to describe the issue in his life that had taken quite a toll on him. What was pretty amazing to me was the reaction of his teammates – nothing but care and compassion. They let Jay talk, some even getting a bit emotional themselves. Jay’s reaction was pretty cool as well – you could almost see the burden of what he had been hiding being lifted from his shoulders. It was a great moment. I did not rush the moment, but let it run its course, allowing teammates to say whatever they wanted to their colleague and friend.

As I would run into Jay in the hallway in days after that, I would notice that he seemed even more congenial – even joyful. Each time I would see him, I’d be reminded – the best thing companies can do for their employees is to create a ‘safe place’ for them to be themselves. The best thing we as consultants can do is model that ‘safe place’ for our clients. It made all the difference for Jay that day – and for his teammates.
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