RAMPS — Affecting Safety
Affecting safety, the sense of belonging — being valued & accepted — is about creating a stabilizing center-of-mass built around health.
A note: none of what I have to say here is relevant if your organization ignores violence, or hasn’t already taken the steps necessary to end overt racism, sexism, age-ism, creed-ism, or nation-ism in its policies. Those require drastic action. Change that, or leave it, first.
I mentioned it in passing before, about anger-less or difference-less cultures, and the flawed forms they create. This series is about motivation, and a rough substitute for motivation as a concept is passion. Here’s a story of passion in the workplace, and safety.
My friend Bryan and I had a meltdown a few years back, in the team room in front of the team. This is two confident privileged white men, mind you, in leadership roles — *coaching* roles, no less — inside our team.
Under the surface, lots of extraneous things were going on for both of us, raising our trigger-sensitivity far beyond the situation. Further, we were arguing substance, with passion. Finally, we cross-interrupted each other. With vigor.
I stood up, swore at Bryan profusely, and stormed out of the room, and indeed, out of the building. I was as “in tears” as I ever get, and pacing around on the sidewalk in this standard suburban technical campus, no doubt talking and gesturing to myself the whole time.
Bryan came out a minute later. We both felt so bad. Stupid, yes, wrong, yes, but also right, and tearful. Simul-apology, basically, a classic make-up scene out of John Hughes.
We hugged, held on to it for a minute, reminded each other of our affection, went back inside, told the team we were good to go, and went back to work, smiling and laughing and back in action.
There are a bunch of little nuggets in that story, which I take to be very much about safety. I’ll call them out, because they shape the advice I’m going to offer.
- The privilege is important in two ways. First, it probably enabled the thing. The story would have ended in quiet rage if either of us lacked the confidence to shout at the other. Second, it is a direct indication of *our* safety. Privileged people are less afraid, always.
- The team is important. These folks were hand-picked, by Bryan, me, & other coaches. Our style of cheerful disputation was built in to the culture. They were healthy and strong enough to absorb a dramatic clash like that, roll their eyes, and wait to see what would happen.
- The passion is important. No one has ever accused me or Bryan either one of not caring, intensely, about the work and the team and the process. People who care a lot are going to collide sometimes. There’s no avoiding or suppressing that.
- The extraneous factors are important. Neither of us is prone to that kind of explosion. Both of us were under significant pressure from *outside* the work. That’s not remotely uncommon.
- The affection & respect are important. We *like* each other. Though we have a lot of differences, there’s significant overlap, big enough to form a friendship around: sports-fandom (he’s NHL, I’m NBA, doesn’t matter), teacher-ly-ness, dark humor, intensity of purpose.
At the corporate level, the more we do about health, the more we openly and actively attend to the health of our people, the greater will be the safety.
- Remember those lecture sessions, 90 minutes every Monday afternoon, voluntary and remoteable? Use some of them for health issues.
- Consider seeing your company health insurance as other than a cost-center. Not only is healthcare a strong direct factor in safety, it’s also a strong indirect one: it’s one of the most common “extraneous” factors that create the stress that exposes our triggers.
- Keep deliberations about safety open and transparent. This is hard, because the issues can be delicate. But the more we do it, the less delicate they get, and the healthier we get. I’ve seen HR/CoC violations made *far* more damaging by secrecy.
- Mandatory corporate safety training should be taken for what it is, an expensive, over-generalized, under-relevant, light gloss, providing mostly income for third parties & minimal protection from lawsuits. Go short here, and long on healthcare.
- Emphasize open disputation. If we disagree, that’s a *good* thing, not a bad one. It means we have more than one idea in the room, and we’re in the idea business.
- Don’t underestimate the power of laughter — for good or ill. What your team thinks is funny, and how, when, and where it expresses that, these are strong clues to the level of safety. Is your team humor mean? Is it open, an everyday thing? Who isn’t laughing, and why not?
- Do things together. A lot of the weight or mass of health is in the bonds the team forms. Do them on work. Do them at work. Do them outside of work. Aim for being parent-friendly and sober-friendly. Service — charity — can be as powerful as fun. Mix and match.
- Find the sweet spot in team agreements between too many and too few. A rough guide: same number of agreements as members. Write them on the wall, and include safety in them.
This is the hardest part. It’s all one piece of advice, no numbered bullets.
Safety, both the level I feel and the level I grant others, depends on the extent to which I am able to accept, empathize, care for, forgive, and grow *myself*.
This doesn’t fit in a twitter muse.
There are intellectual routes into it, and experiential routes. There are practices I can undertake, and insights I can have.
Nothing’s going to make it easy.
All I can do is what I’ve done in all the other RAMPS topics: throw out ideas.
Tightening my self-judgment contexts is a mistake I often make. The strength I have in one narrow context is nearly always a weakness in another. If I limit context, I can’t see that.
Another mistake I make a lot: believing that people who are violating my safety are themselves feeling safe. Folks who feel unsafe don’t always curl up in a ball and shut up. Instead, they strike outwards, creating unsafety for the people around them.
A third mistake for me is in holding myself fixed, not seeing myself (or others) as what we all are: works in progress. I have done bad things, been a sexist for instance, for whole decades of my life. I’m still one, of course, but I’m not the same one. Inch by inch, I do better.
Still another: I sometimes think of safety as generic, universal. The idea there’s only one way to be & feel safe is sore tempting, but safety is different for each individual because each individual has a different timeline stretching back behind them. Customize, I say to me.
One other, then we’re done: I take myself dreadfully seriously, far moreso than I need to. Here’s part of Benjamin Zander’s wonderful TED talk. (There are several, and well worth the watching.) So there it is. Safety, acceptance, belonging, empathy, all these things begin at home, for me, with myself.
A last reminder: I’m an unreliable narrator.
Go reach outside my material. Zander’s good and also oblique. Brene Brown. Mindfulness meditation. Alex Harms. Lots of others. Go look for them.
Affecting safety is about creating a *weight* of health, one that can sustain us on bad days and raise us up on good ones.
Phew. I’m cooked. Got a video to shoot later tonight after things settle down, but for now: some r&r.
I hope you’re grabbing some r&r today, and prepping for something exciting as you do it!
Let’s change things!!
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