How Good Leaders Can Make You Feel Safe


Safety is something we crave right now. While it’s especially important in time of crisis, it’s also important when the world isn’t fighting off a global pandemic.

Whether at work or at home, we all crave the feeling that everything is going to be okay… that we’re protected from the bad stuff…. that someone is looking out for us. If you’re a leader, you can be that “someone” for your employees.

Most of us receive little, if any, leadership training. So how do you make your employees feel safe? Here are three things you can do this week to deliver.


1. Discuss the importance of failure and learning from past mistakes.

I’m not sure when I began believing that failure is a bad thing, but I’m still working on overcoming it. The fear of failure stops me from taking risks in my business and personal life. The voice inside my head sounds something like this: “What if you look stupid? Everyone will find out you’re an idiot. You better not risk it. Play it safe.”

Sound familiar? A lot of us have that little voice in our heads, and it’s even more prevalent at work. The last thing anyone wants to do when climbing the corporate ladder is risk it all and fail miserably. Most of us know we learn best from failure, but few of us think it’s acceptable at work.

Good leaders who accept, and even welcome failure, make all the difference. As Sunnie Giles says in her Forbes article, “We need to encourage others to fail fast and safely. Then we need to glean lessons learned and disseminate the learning throughout the team as soon as possible.”

Put it into action: This week, ask your team about the last time they failed, and what they learned from it. You might do this in a one-on-one conversation or in a team meeting. If you want people to share in a group, be sure to give them a heads up so they can think about an example they’re comfortable sharing.

Be sure to share your own example first to help create an safe environment of transparency and authenticity.


2. Provide meaningful feedback to help them see their opportunities, then help them improve.

Why is it so hard to give feedback? Most of us worry about the “what if.” What if I make it worse than it is now? What if they cry? What if they quit? All of the “what ifs” are like glue. They hold us in place and make us feel powerless. We put off sharing the feedback until it seems too late.

Oddly enough, most of us believe others can’t handle receiving difficult feedback, but we think we can handle it just fine!

Don’t believe me? Let’s test that theory with a simple question.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “I don’t want to know” and 10 being “give it to me straight,” how much honesty do you want from your coworkers or boss on your opportunities for improvement?

In my experience, most of those informally surveyed respond with an 8, 9, or 10.

Let me repeat that. An 8, 9 or 10!

Stop thinking you’re the only one who can handle tough feedback. Most of us want to improve and do the best we can. Unfortunately, we can’t do that if we’re unaware of our flaws.

Put It Into Action: This week, take the first step in sharing difficult feedback. Let your team know that you’d like to begin giving and getting more feedback. To get the ball rolling, ask your team for feedback on your performance as a leader. (Remember to give your team advanced notice so your “thinkers” have time to process.) This simple action is the first step to creating a culture of feedback.

Moving forward, when you have some feedback to share with your team, give it! You might want to start with an opener that sounds like this:

I have a few observations I’d like to share with you on your performance so you can continue to evolve professionally. Is that okay with you?

Once you share feedback, be sure to discuss ways they can improve, as well as how you can support them as their leader.


3. Finally, when things don’t go as planned, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Few things are worse than being thrown under the bus at work. According to Fast Company, roughly one-third of surveyed professionals say that a boss or colleague has tried to make them “look bad” on the job.

When I was leading a remote training team, a “higher-up” reported that they were giving the wrong guidance to their trainees in the field. As a new leader, desperate to be taken seriously and look like I was in control, I immediately assumed the worst and vowed to “take care of it.” I brought the feedback to my team’s attention, and though I don’t remember my exact tone of voice, I know it wasn’t good. (Keep in mind this was done by conference call, where even the best attempt at communication can go awry!)

My team was crushed that I assumed the worst without talking to them first and let me know what was actually happening. (In a nutshell, they were doing the right thing. Lesson learned. Always ask for the other side of the story!)

It’s tempting to jump to conclusions as a leader. There’s so much going on, and it takes time to ask questions and get the full story. It takes time to find out the intent behind the action.

When a project doesn’t go as planned, or if you receive some not-so-rave reviews about your team’s performance, give them the benefit of the doubt. Ask questions to understand the full story and never “throw them under the bus.” To feel safe at work, your team needs to know that you’re on their side.

Put It Into Action: The next time you get a bad report on one of your subordinates, or observe bad behavior, don’t assume the worst. Take the time to ask open-ended questions to get their side of the story. What you learn might change your perspective. Here’s how that might sound:

I received some feedback on your performance recently and I want to find out more. As your leader, I want to understand every detail so we can work through it together. Will you talk with me?

Now, more than ever, employees need to feel safe at work. Implementing these strategies will help you be a leader worth following!