Safety as Motivator: The S in RAMPS

Part 2 of 15 in the series RAMPS

Let’s do Safety, the S in the recent RAMPS as motivational force series.

Safety is hard to get at in one summary sentence, but i’ll try. Safety is the sense we have that we belong: that we’re trusted, valued-in-spite-of, inside a team that welcomes our strange unruly selves.

At its simplest, this sense manifests as the belief i’m allowed, even encouraged. Allowed to be different. Allowed to be mistaken. Allowed. You can see how hard that is to summarize! It connects to some of our deepest feelings.

Safety is important for several reasons.

  • First, it enables what we call courageous curiosity. The will to ask a question and get a real answer, however hard, and work with it.
  • Second, it lets us bring people together who are not all alike, and those differences are the wellspring of creativity.
  • Third, it lets us see our shared purpose from the widest possible view, which gives us myriad more ways to contribute to it.
  • Fourth, it lets us apply all of our character to the sustenance of the team, not just the “ordinary” and “expected” bits.

Safety is too often used as rhetoric, especially in these polarized times. On a personal note, such usage always deepens despair in me.

How do I, as a manager, do anything at all about the feelings of safety the individuals in my team have? Perhaps the first thing I need to do is accept that there is no possible safety by fiat. I simply can not make a safety rule. And for much the same reason, I — as manager — can’t teach safety. Imagine being taught fearlessness by someone you’re afraid of. So. I guess i’ll have to watch it, occasionally reach backstage for tiny adjustments, nurture it, and above all else: model it.

As a manager, here are some things you can try to increase the sense of safety your individuals feel.

Wait. Before I quite go there. I need to say something about acceptance. The cornerstone of safety is a broad sense of acceptance. Acceptance of mistakes, of difference, of the actual over the desired. And acceptance of others begins — you guessed it — with acceptance of your self.

For me, that acceptance began by realizing that all my great strengths could be equally well characterized as great weaknesses. I mentioned earlier that I see everything as sliders these days. That includes the features of my character. Where once I saw some one of these as terribly weak, I now see it as the flip side of something tremendously strong, and vice versa. And I still work on adjusting my sliders to be more to my own liking, the "better" I mentioned before. I don’t see any one setting as ideal.

A f’rinstance: when healthy, i’m terrific in someone else’s crisis. Warm, calm, steady, useful. A great strength, yes? I do that through systematic suppression of my own raw feeling. And the cost of that suppression is literally life-threatening to me. Is it a strength? A weakness? It’s neither, it’s both. It’s who I am. That’s what my self-acceptance looks like.

(i don’t purport to be expert at this. Color me "work in progress", please. But that’s my current stance.) so. now back to some things you as a manager can do to nurture safety in your team.

Constantly rotate leadership roles amongst the entire team. Example, rotate who runs standup every day, retrospective every week. Updating the stupid electronic psuedo-board. And so on. Rotate a lot.

Model making mistakes, seeing them, chuckling, and moving on. This is fundamental, and many managers get it wrong. If you can’t make mistakes and adjust, how do you expect them too? If they can’t make mistakes and adjust, how do you expect progress?

Encourage every one and every thing and every meme your individuals think is funny & not mean. I really can’t express adequately the astonishing value of laughter at ourselves in building safety. Humor is the great softener. Self-deprecating humor even moreso. Engage in it, and share it. Laugh often.

Be wary of totalitarianism in culture. Safety is not caused by rules, so be slow to add rules. Rules often seem like safety-promoting handrails, but they’re much more often used as difference-bashing bludgeons.

Don’t tolerate cut-off’s or shut-ups in meetings or bull sessions. If X cuts off Y, step in, ask Y to continue, assure X we’ll get to her. Do tolerate anger. Anger isn’t evil or bad or wrong. Some expressions of anger can be, but the occasional angry outburst isn’t a mortal sin. Remember, the goal isn’t beige. We’re not finding the one color everyone on the team is least offended by. We’re building a mosaic.

Safety is hard. There are few things that are definitely out, many things that might be in, and lots and lots of border. The most effective thing you can do is model, over and over. Make mistakes. Laugh. Forgive. Accept. Re-direct.

A safe team is a rocking team. They’ll produce a fountain of ideas for you, and ideas are the fundamental unit of software progress.

How do I instill urgency? A safe team is driven to use itself — all of itself — to secure its purpose at top sustainable energy. Try it.

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