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Please don't tell me this is a "safe space"

Feb 29, 2024

You walk into a meeting and see a bunch of faces you don’t know. You then spot someone you DO know… but let’s just say you didn’t enjoy your last encounter with them. 

A few minutes into the session, the chair declares the meeting a “safe space” and invites a “free and uninhibited exchange of ideas”. 

Hang on, what? This space doesn't feel any more “safe” than a deep-fried Mars Bar is healthy just because you call it so!

The concept of psychological safety* has gained real prominence over the last decade, particularly since Google’s Project Aristotle - a research initiative into high-performing teams - identified it as a top predictor of team effectiveness.  

The problem with prominent concepts is that people start using them as short-hand - as if naming an ideal will shift us all there in an instant. (Other language that comes to mind here: Radical candor. Free from bias. Inclusive.

All of these are an outcome of the way people think, how they act, and what they say. Not just in a single meeting, but over time.

So, if you want a space to be safe, please don’t just declare it so. Start building it. 

Perhaps ask participants, “What do you need for this room to feel safe enough to share ideas and challenge each other?”

Maybe try inviting each person to talk about what they want from the conversation, and how they’re feeling about it. 

But above all, recognise that there is no “just add water” recipe for psychological safety, because it’s something that gets built - or eroded - as each moment unfolds.

What about you - what’s your experience with this? 

Until next time,

* Professor Amy Edmondson, a leading researcher and writer in this space, describes psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”. The key here is that psychological safety shouldn’t be confused with bubble wrap. In other words, the goal is to build the conditions for people to take risks with each other - not to remove risk or discomfort altogether. 


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