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Why “Safety” is the Leadership Tool You Need to Build Trust

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

“I needed to believe that at least one person was in my corner and that there

was some creative positive energy in the room...And at the time, I didn't see a single

person with that sort of energy around me. And I knew I couldn't sustain it myself.”

-Storied Awareness Interviewee

This situation may resonate with many of you reading this, especially if you’ve held an executive director role. Nonprofit leaders bring charisma, energy and passion to their organization. Yet, many feel unsupported by their board and staff, making the role unsustainable. This common challenge can be attributed directly to a lack of protection. And today I’m going to dive into what this means, and how leaders can tackle this head on.

What Does Safety Mean in the Workplace?

Welcome back to the third installment in my series: The 4 Critical Postures of an Effective Leader. I’ve already covered the first two postures of generosity and candor in previous blogs. So if you haven’t read those, go get caught up!

In this article, I’m tackling the third posture: safety.

In a general sense of the word, safety refers to the preservation from harm; this can be physical, mental, social or economic. In a workplace, the idea of safety is predicated on a foundation of trust and a thorough understanding of the “why” behind any crises or challenges. It can be thought of as:

  • Clear and Strategic Communication: A framing of any challenge or crises through the lens of the strategic plan and objectives of the organization, so that clarity and perspective are maintained in times of uncertainty.

  • Decisive and Accountable Leadership: An embodied acknowledgement that leaders need to make tough, necessary decisions, and while the consequences and push-back can be powerful, leaders still need to chart a path forward.

  • Empathetic and Humble Engagement: An understanding that even well thought out plans don’t always work. Being adaptable and centered are more effective than blaming or scapegoating a team member.

  • Honest and Transparent Communications: A clarity and openness around the challenges and concerns the leadership and organization face, and an openness to receiving and incorporating new data when it is uncovered.

  • Empowered and Rapid Recovery: A swift acknowledgement of failure, ongoing reprioritization of the best way forward and a rapid iteration on next steps when facing challenges or crises.

On the flip side, what does safety not look like in the workplace?

  • Hiding unethical or illegal behavior

  • Sheltering an employee who is not doing their job

  • Denying underlying issues and challenges in the organization

At some point in every leaders’ tenure there will be bumps on the road to the future and consequences to accept from decisions made in the past. The truth is that every leader faces challenges and crises. It is at this point in a leader’s journey that safety becomes important.

How To Cultivate a Culture of Safety

As a leader, cultivating a culture of safety may not often feel like a top-of-mind priority. Time sensitive issues such as fundraising, budgeting, board meetings and staffing challenges oftentimes garner the most immediate attention. But taking care to cultivate a culture of safety is a critical aspect of developing a healthy and sustainable future for your organization, as it sets the tone for all staff, board, donor and volunteer interactions.

As a leader, you can think of safety as a commitment to your organization, your colleagues, your constituents, and yourself.

While this may seem like a massive paradigm shift depending on the current culture of your organization, remember that building a culture of safety is best done in incremental steps over long periods of time. It’s about being self-aware of protective actions, and building these habits into your work life.

You might try starting with incorporating safety into different elements of your organization, such as:

Leadership Decisions:

  • Accept the mantle of the leadership role and know holding tension and starting difficult conversations are part of being a leader

  • Respect boundaries and well-being of employees and constituents - remember that humanity comes first

  • Encourage risk-taking and acceptance of mistakes

  • Be vulnerable, and model asking for protection when you feel it isn’t being given

Respectful and Honest Communication:

  • Understand the why behind challenge or crises and communicate this effectively

  • Speak up in public and at Board meetings to advocate for leadership decisions and the current state of the organization, while also acknowledging and empathizing with the existing challenge or crises

  • Remember and remind constituents about the bigger picture and goals of the organization and how the current situation fits in

  • Be clear about what is being done to address the situation and the path forward

  • Be proactive in standing up to abuse or demeaning language, while allowing for open and honest communication

  • Back-up public communications about tense or challenging topics with executive action

Support Systems:

  • Ensure a whistleblower policy is in place

  • Secure legal counsel, when necessary

  • Create a shared set of values and community commitments for all involved with the organization

2 Qualities That Build A Culture of Safety

Truly understanding and visualizing what safety looks like can feel challenging at first. I find it helpful to imagine safety as an expression of two qualities most of us are already familiar with in our personal and work lives: courage and vulnerability.

Quality #1: Courage

To be courageous means to push through fears, anxieties and pain in hopes of an outcome that will be moral or beneficial in some way. Pursuing courage is an essential element of building a culture of protection.

Courageous leaders know that fear and concern are part of the role, and they make the decision to embrace uncertain and emotionally challenging work. They understand and accept the unintended consequences of their decisions. And they are courageous enough to step up and help out other leaders within their organization, even when doing so is stressful, scary, or deeply challenging.

Leaders should keep in mind that acting with courage doesn’t always mean that your actions will result in the approval of everyone in your organization. In fact, sometimes acting with courage means going against an established cultural habit within your organization that is leading to a toxic environment. And with this may come interpersonal conflict with other members of your organization.

As a leader, you might have to stand up to confrontational board or staff members. Or, you might have to explain a failed project to your board and take responsibility for the outcome. Neither of these situations are easy. But, leaders should remember that building a culture of safety takes courage for a reason - it is challenging. Each of these actions represents putting the good of the organization above one’s own comfort.

Remember - you cannot be courageous without first feeling scared.

Quality #2: Vulnerability

While it may seem like courageous and safety-focused leaders hide their own emotions and insecurities, the reality is actually the opposite. Vulnerability goes hand-in-hand with courage.

Vulnerability is a commitment to being open and truthful. Oftentimes, this first starts with the ability to admit uncertainty. Remember that as a leader, you are not expected to know all of the answers. Instead, good leadership means the ability to self reflect, understand where your strengths and challenges are in regards to a problem, and recruit the right talent to help you solve it. And to do all of this, you need to be honest about where you are uncertain with colleagues and board members.

Vulnerability can also be expressed as seeking feedback and support from all directions. This is a critical step that can be a tipping point for leaders, as it helps to combat isolation and the feeling of “going it alone” that many executive directors experience. As a leader, one of the most valuable resources you have to tap into are the talents and opinions of your staff, volunteers and board members.

Finally, vulnerability is expressed as a willingness to start hard conversations. This is one area where I see many leaders struggle. Oftentimes, hard conversations feel challenging because we either don’t feel comfortable sharing our thoughts, don’t want to cause interpersonal conflict, or feel uncertain at the direction the conversation will take. Leaders should know that while these fears are valid, hard conversations often result in a clearer observation of reality or an even more productive solution to an existing problem. And as a leader, you must set the tone for starting these hard conversations if you want fellow staff and board members to be comfortable doing so in the future.

Safety in the Executive Director / Board Chair Relationship:

One of the areas of work life in which safety is needed the most is in the executive director / board chair relationship. This partnership requires protection to help one another to manage their roles in a healthy and sustainable way.

The safety posture allows the partnership to be ready to defend and shelter the other and the decisions they make, knowing the path they are on is getting them closer to reaching the organization’s strategic goals around client and community impact. Trusting that the best decisions will be made with the information available at the time - and then accepting the consequences of these decisions - is part of accepting the mantle of leadership.

You might see safety expressed as:

  • An executive director confiding in a board chair about HR-related issues and asking for advice; the board chair keeping this information confidential and showing public support for the executive director, even amidst community push-back.

  • A board chair clearly stating and modeling they are disinterested in gossip and back-room conversations about the state of the organization and its leadership, instead encouraging open and robust discussions in board and committee meetings.

  • A board agreement that no matter the discussions and disagreements that take place during confidential board meetings, the members speak as one voice and support the decision made, regardless of individual votes.

  • A board chair protecting an executive director from extra and unnecessary activities requested by the board that don’t fall into the executive director’s job description.

  • An executive director choosing to tell their board chair about any symptoms of burnout and asking for additional support with their work.

In these situations, these two leaders are utilizing courage and vulnerability to cultivate safety in their partnership. This allows these leaders to be stronger together, and helps them work more productively to further the mission of their organization.

How Safe Do You Feel in the Workplace?

Now that we’ve discussed how safety is expressed in the work environment, I want to ask you 3 reflective questions:

  1. Do you feel like your decisions are publicly supported by your board chair?

  2. Have you shared your uncertainty about a project with your board chair, board or staff?

  3. Do you think your staff feels empowered to share their opinions and receive respectful treatment when doing so?

I would love to hear your answers to these questions. If you’d like to chat about them, please schedule a 20-minute Zoom call with me to discuss.

Hopefully, your reflections on these questions will lead to a greater understanding of the level of safety in your organization. And hopefully this has empowered you to start taking small steps to build up protection through courage and vulnerability. It’s something we can all attain through self awareness and hard work.

If you enjoyed this blog, join my newsletter for more insights, stories and actions for ambitious nonprofit leaders. And in the meantime, keep up with me on LinkedIn!


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