How to Create a Safe Workplace Environment

When you think of a safe workplace environment, your mind might jump to a construction sight or a job in Jurassic Park or something. That's not exactly what we're getting at here. In this context, a safe workplace environment is having the freedom to fail safely.
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Freedom to Fail

If there’s one thing that is consistent among the most successful people and organizations, it’s that they are the most free to fail. Like Thomas Edison, this freedom could come from an internal motivation that is stronger than failure. Or like Amazon, it could come from a carefully constructed environment with built-in freedom to fail.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, in the 2013 shareholder letter wrote, “Failure comes part and parcel with invention. It’s not optional. We understand that and believe in failing early and iterating until we get it right.” 

Bezos encourages his employees to make bold bets, and those employees know that if their bets go south it would be seen as an investment, not a waste of resources. There’s no fear of a consequence, there’s only motivation to get it right next time.

The best way to achieve success is to encourage trial and learn from failure.

Creating Safety in the Workplace

Say you’re a marketer for a high-intensity, performance-driven software company. You have a crazy idea for an out-of-the-box campaign that you want to try. It’s a bit risky, but it could be groundbreaking. Then, your friend on the development team gets a temporary pay cut because a feature he built into the product flopped.

Are you going to even pitch your idea? Not likely. The fear of failure keeps us from making bold bets.

Let’s look back at Amazon. Bezos has said, “Given a ten percent chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time.” If you take enough risks, the payoff will fund all the failures. Bezos has done an exceptional job of creating a safe place to fail because he understands that if his employees don’t feel safe, they’ll never take those high-reward risks.

"The fear of failure keeps us from making bold bets."

There are a few factors in an organization that can allow people to feel safe with potential failure:

  • Trust
  • Cooperation
  • Leadership

Trust and Cooperation

In Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s book, “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win,” they describe a principle of combat called “cover and move.” 

In a gunfight, moving from one safe place to another is inherently dangerous and can be fatal. That’s why SEALs always take turns covering and moving; they have to mitigate that risk. They understand that forward progress can’t be made safely without help. (Safe in this context is very relative. Nothing those guys do is safe.)

Cover and move is the perfect example of trust and cooperation. If you’re the mover, you have to trust that the guy behind you is doing their job or you’ll never move. If you’re the coverer, you have to be willing to wait and help the mover advance or the team won’t go anywhere.

This principle applies to everything from pieces on a chessboard to SEALS on the battlefield, and it definitely applies to business. In civilian terms, this is the principle of having each other’s back.

If your organization allows you to take risks with mitigated fear of failure, you can move forward confidently, and when you have success, the whole organization benefits from it.

Freedom to fail comes down to the structure of your organization. Is it built on trust and cooperation, or is it built on selfishness and self-promotion? Are people willing to cover for you and work for your wins, or are they trying to steal your wins out from under you?

Build an organization like the SEAL teams. Selflessly cover others so they can take the risk to move. If you do, you’ll have an organization that makes progress.

Leadership

In 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf published an essay called “The Servant as Leader.” This essay was the beginning of the modern theory of servant leadership. Greenleaf argues that the primary goal of a leader should be the betterment of every individual in the group. 

In a business setting, a servant leader helps increase the value of her employees, gains trust, and motivates engagement. Employees are much more willing to follow a leader whose first goal is the well-being of those she leads. 

If you had to imagine what servant leadership looks like, imagine a picture of a leader holding her team up on her shoulders. She would boost them up and work for their success rather than stand on top and simply manage.

Here’s an example.

"A good leader isn’t as concerned for their own well-being as they are for the well-being of the members of their team whom they serve."

Simon Sinek’s book, “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t,” has an interesting title that comes from a cool US Marines practice. Sinek once asked a general what makes the Marine Corps so amazing. The general responded quickly, “Officers eat last.” 

This concept completely flips conventional leadership thinking on its head. A good leader isn’t as concerned for their own well-being as they are for the well-being of the members of their team whom they serve.

Good leaders don’t pay themselves first. They make sure that every person in their organization is fairly compensated before they take a penny. They don’t sacrifice people to meet goals. The people’s well-being becomes the goal and is worth sacrificing for.

When you have this type of leader, the team will be extremely loyal to the leader and his cause. This trusting environment creates a feeling of safety and lifts the whole community higher than any selfish manager could ever lift himself by standing on top of his subordinates.

Wrapping It Up

It takes a lot of work and foresight to create an environment like what we’ve described, but the benefits are huge. Jeff Bezos is the richest person alive because he encourages trial and error. He knows that in order to progress, his people have to take risks, and he has their backs when they mess up. 

Take a page out of his book and make it safe for your people to fail.