Feeling Safe in an Unsafe World

The paleolithic era was fraught with peril. Animals looking for food, deadly weather, uncertainty of what was beyond the next mountain. It was nothing personal, but everything was seemingly trying to kill us. Our ancestors realized that living together created a circle of safety, and from these social groups trust evolved. A group of hunter-gatherers could sleep at night knowing that someone else within their tribe would alert the group of danger.

Our world is no longer full of animals looking for their next easy meal, but our world is still full of things trying to cause us displeasure. An uncertain economy, new technology changing the ways we work overnight, or competition looking for an edge to put you out of business. All of these things are the modern equivalent of the sabertooth tiger, so what do we do when we’re confronted with danger?

In advertising agencies — a junior creative works extremely hard on a project, taking liberties and some risks, but ultimately creating something believed to be interesting, that will entice the audience to choose the product. On the flip side, Creative Directors have a vision in their mind of what the final project should look like.

What happens when the ideas of these two professionals deviate? Does the Creative Director try and grow the talent and present options to the direct reports, allowing them to make the final choice between two great options that have been vetted by experts? Does the Director force reports to to abide by the vision?

We try to find a group organization that makes us feel psychologically safe. A study at Google, based on data analysis, found that teams work best when their members feel like they can take risks, can count on each other, have clear goals and believe their work matters.

In the above example where the subordinate is allowed to make a decision, the organization is making a subconscious cultural decision to foster talent within the organization. Eventually everyone in the organization will feel safe to take calculated risks and find the path less traveled, which might make all the difference in creating an advertisement that is truly unique and stands out among the crowd. This doesn’t mean to throw caution to the wind and let every insane idea out of the box, but it allows for more creativity than otherwise.

On the other side of the coin, when the Creative Director wields power to ensure that their vision is the be-all end-all, they are creating a precedent within the organization not to challenge the status quo, which may lend itself to organization apathy and stagnation.

Imagine roaming the plains in the late paleolithic era, skulking in the grass, spear in hand looking for your next meal. In front of you, a massive bison grazing — unaware of the danger that it is in. As you slowly approach it and you hear a whistling past your ear, like a bird. You look at the bison and see, for the first time in your life, an arrow stuck in its hide.

Would the tribal leader scoff at the creative individual who managed to bring together the materials to create a bow an arrow, or would they lift this individual up as an example for others to follow?

The leaders within an organization are key to fostering this feeling of safety. The way that a leader bolsters those around them sets an example for all to follow. If they are willing to be a good coach, empower those under them, and take interest in their subordinates’ success and well being then they are on the right path to having a healthy group where everyone is open and honest with everyone around them.

When everyone within an organization feels psychologically safe, they are able to share their vulnerabilities and ideas, which fosters inspiration and confidence within the entire group.

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