Circle of Safety

In the military, we reward (give medals to) those who sacrifice their lives so others may gain. In business, we reward (give bonuses to) people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain. We have it backwards.

In business, we sacrifice our people so we can make the numbers for the next quarter instead of sacrificing the numbers (for a short while) so we can keep our people. We don’t think twice about laying off employees in our organizations. Would we ever “lay off” our children from our families? Of course, not. Why don’t we think of them in the same high regard?

In prehistoric times, humans survived by protecting themselves and their people from the dangers of the wild, such as animals, hostile environments, harsh climates, sickness, etc. The modern world is equally fraught with danger, albeit a different kind. Pressure from outside competition, the rise and fall of the stock market, new technology that renders your business model obsolete, etc. During these challenging times, if we (as leaders) don’t protect our people from the outside dangers, who will? We can’t leave them hanging because they trust us; otherwise, we risk losing them.

The same is true for any group of people, be it families, teams (work/sport), organizations, or what have you. Every group has its own shared values and beliefs that govern their behavior. As leaders in these groups, it is up to us to protect them from the “dangers” of the outside world.

One way we protect our group of people is by giving them a safe environment wherein they can thrive. We do that by what Simon Sinek calls having a Circle of Safety.

Only when we draw this Circle of Safety around our group of people will they feel safe. Only when they feel safe will they trust each other, have the freedom to make different mistakes, and do remarkable things. Only when we have the permission to be wrong (which can happen only in a safe environment), can we thrive. The freedom to make reasonable mistakes and trust that nothing bad will happen to us is required for this type of environment.

NextJump is one organization whose policy is to have lifetime employment for their employees. That means they will never fire their employees for performance reasons. On the contrary, if/when their employees face challenges, they provide them with the necessary guidance and support.

This is akin to the idea that parents don’t “fire” their children if/when they “perform” poorly in school. Why don’t we extend the same kind of support in our work and elsewhere?

Our people should not be afraid of us. If anything, they should have the freedom to question, challenge, and confront us without thinking of their position in the group. They should not be afraid to do the right thing.

Relationship and Results go hand in hand. Our relationships with the members in our group should not suffer. At the same time, our work should also not suffer. This goes back to balancing.

As leaders (not authority figures), it is our job to draw a circle of safety around our people (family, teams, organizations, etc.). We need to be very selective in who we let in that circle. We allow only those who believe what we believe and those who share the same beliefs and values as us.

In order to make this Circle work, we need the trust and cooperation of others in our group. Trust is the result of making others feel safe. That involves taking care of each others’ needs and sacrificing our needs so others may gain. An interesting thing happens when we take care of others — they take care of us and ensure that we are not “left behind”.

As mentioned earlier, the application of this idea goes beyond the context of working in organizations. Here are some examples:

As parents, we are leaders of our family. We are responsible for providing a safe environment to our children so they may thrive. If our child is not behaving well, it is our failure as parents, not theirs. All children are good without exception.

In teams (organizational/sport), it is up to us to provide a productive environment for our colleagues so they can do their best work. That is about providing the right amount of freedom and responsibility. If/when they are not doing their work as per expectations, it is not their failure, but ours. This is also an indication that it’s time to do things differently.

As artists, we need a Circle of Safety to do our best work. Unless we are prepared to fail, we will never come up with anything original. This goes back to practicing divergent thinking as a way to innovate (for ourselves) and for those we work with.

Our job as a leader is to provide a safe environment to our people so they can thrive and do their best work. This is how we create leaders.

Numbers may rise and fall, but it is up to us to protect our people, to nurture them, and to give them the opportunity to thrive and make them feel safe from the perils of the outside world.

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