This summer whilst working as one of two Lead Mentors at MCW Global’s Youth Leadership Program, a social entrepreneurship incubator, one of my responsibilities was to create and maintain a safe space for 27 social entrepreneurs from all over the world and their mentors, 14 of them to be exact. A safe space is an environment that protects people and encourages them to engage with both like-minded and opposing views. A more succinct working definition I have adopted to ensure the workplace is safe: A safe space is a place where respectful curiosity is observed and encouraged. It was my first time being responsible for so many people in a professional setting. Although it was challenging, I managed to find a way to manoeuvre and here’s how we did it.
This means creating and nurturing that quality in people that makes them reliable when it comes to doing the right thing for the team and for themselves. One way to do this as a leader is by leading from the front when it comes to openly displaying trust with colleagues. This, as I observed, can be done very simply by giving people responsibilities, keeping one’s promises and openly displaying vulnerability. What giving people responsibility does is that it makes them accountable to the team and creates a sense of belonging. The feeling of being included further makes colleagues comfortable and committed to ensuring others feel comfortable too, thus birthing a safe space that can be maintained. Responsibilities can range from organising team building activities to allowing colleagues to lead meetings.
Keeping one’s promises as a leader and facilitator is a huge trust builder. More often than not, my word was all I had when leading mentors and their groups of change-makers. What effective follow-through on promises does is that it raises the team’s expectations and morale which makes them, again, feel comfortable and committed to maintain this sense of comfort: The safe space. Team members thus care for each other and become more sensitive to each other’s being.
Openly displaying vulnerability was a practice we noticed was most effective. This could be done by simply asking for help or casually disclosing one of my insecurities. I constantly told participants “Guys, this is first time I’ve done something like this so thank you so much for making it easy for me.” Without really knowing at the time what I was doing, I was building trust. I was letting my guard down and thus in turn allowing participants at the incubator to let theirs down too, and not only that, make it an environment where practicing vulnerability was the norm.
Encourage Open Communication
What allows for vulnerability is open communication. In a safe space, open communication is practiced by expressing one’s views or feelings without risk of judgement. Open communication also makes it possible for minority groups to speak up, be listened to, build meaningful connections and feel accepted. There are two ways in which we did this at MCW.
Firstly, we defined from the beginning why we were at the incubator in the first place. This was done by defining through a fun “What is a Mentee” activity, where the 27 mentees had to define, through artistic expression, what a mentee was. This exercise was also done for mentors at their mentor training. What this does is establish early on why a team exists and why each member joined, and therefore defines the parameters with which colleagues engage with each other.
Secondly, participating in team building activities helped in creating a safe space during the 2 week retreat. These activities assisted in breaking the ice and encouraged people to let loose and start communicating openly. These included a networking game where participants had to figure out who had what skills and how they came to have that skill in the first place. The variety in skills and motivations made participants aware of the diversity that existed within the group and thus appreciative and sensitive towards its diversity.
The aforementioned variety in skills and motivations was mirrored by the variety of ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs and sexual orientations within the group of participants. For safe spaces to exist, ideas have to roam free; for these ideas to even surface, it must be communicated that they will be celebrated. The aim of safe space should be to provide care.
One way we celebrated differences between participants was by having a “cultural day”. Participants at the incubator were instructed beforehand to prepare for such a day and share something about their culture that they think other people would marvel at or be surprised by. The activity was a beautiful display of traditional garb, energetic dance and delightful, edible treats. Through this activity we got to know more about each other as people. This process of sharing something about our culture started numerous conversations that were rooted in respectful curiosity, which allowed the group of colleagues to ask and share about the highlights of each other’s human experience. This further solidified the existence of a safe space among us.
In conclusion, safe spaces are important in order to get the best out of a team. People seek to be at ease within their environments so they can fully and fearlessly express their ideas and be comfortable in the fact that they are heard. In some environments, marginalized groups do not feel that and to get the best out of these people, safe spaces have to be created, that is, spaces where judgment is exchanged for tolerance not only because of the aforementioned reasons this article explores, but also because it is the right thing to do.
Originally posted on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-we-created-safe-space-entrepreneurs-summer-tino-chibebe/