Building safe spaces on design teams by understanding security questions

As a leader of teams, I want to foster an environment of high emotional safety. Creative teams work best when they feel supported to get weird, pitch bad ideas, and offer minority opinions. While there are many ways to approach creating emotional safety on teams, there is one thing that I have learned that has had an outsized effect on my ability to build trust and confidence as a leader: understanding security questions and information questions.

Simply put, we can classify all questions that people ask as either an information question or a security question. Information questions are concerned with the exchange of facts and opinions, while security questions are a means of reassuring ourselves in uncertain times.

These are easy enough to recognize and most people are successful at giving an information response to an information question or a security response to a security question. Yet there is a third type of question that causes miscommunication and can break trust rather than build it, the security question disguised as an information question.

Why do people pose questions in this problematic way? Because asking a security question often requires lots of vulnerability and extreme emotional safety that usually doesn’t exist at all times in all groups. Knowingly or unknowingly we disguise security questions that may seem embarrassingly insecure or awkward as more palatable information questions that require less bravery to ask. Doing so nearly guarantees a misunderstanding, leaving the security need at the heart of the question unmeet.

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As a leader, recognizing disguised security questions can help you know whether or not your team is feeling safe and supported. The skill of giving a security answer to a disguised security question is a step towards restoring the emotional safety that is so important to creative teams.

Should we avoid asking disguised security questions? I’m not here to police your language, as it’s not a particularly powerful starting point to affect change. You can ask and answer any type of questions however you want. Disguised security questions are a reasonable response to existing in contexts of varied emotional safety.

Learning the notice a mismatch between a question worded as an information question and the asker’s intent to ask a security question can help you become a better communicator. As you start to pay attention to the difference, you’ll notice disguised security questions all over the place. Even coming from your own mouth. Recognizing your own security questions can lead to more self-awareness about emotional safety and your strategies for building confidence.

I used to lead wilderness expeditions. During that time high craggy peaks and swift-moving whitewater came to feel like home to me, but for my clients, the experience was often far outside their comfort zone. Coming from a place of feeling highly insecure they would ask me disguised security questions. “What would you do if someone broke their arm out here?” “Has anyone ever died on one of these trips before? On average, how many people fall out of the raft?”

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Coming from a place of high security, and oblivious to the anxiety at the root of their questions, I would answer with information answers. A long uninteresting run-down of evacuation protocols or a solemn story about the man who had a heart attack and couldn’t be resuscitated. Or maybe a jaunty “seventeen percent” to the question about people falling out of the raft, or even a joke.

They were reaching out for reassurance, I and just gave them facts and opinions or humor. It was a missed opportunity to build trust or confidence. So what is the right way to answer a disguised security question?

You have to start with honing your ability to spot one.

Four identifiers of a disguised security question:

Asking about an unknown future

What if questions

Pattern seeking to make predictions

Procedural questions

If you see these identifiers in a context of power imbalance (where the answerer holds power and the asker lacks power), and in contexts of insecurity and discomfort, you are likely hearing a disguised security question.

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Once you have identified the disguised security question, your next step is to translate the original question into a blatant security question.

“What would you do if someone broke their arm out here?”

What is this question really asking?

Do you care about me?

Are you trustworthy and experienced?

Are you going to take care of me if something bad happens?

Once you’ve unpacked the question, you can craft an answer that reassures and provides answers to the embedded questions.

For example…

It’s possible, but very unlikely, that we will have a medical emergency.

Our team has the capacity to manage incidents like a broken arm. It’s something we have trained for extensively.

If something bad happens to you, you will be my number one priority.

I care about you.

(Say all of these together, not just one.)

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Shifting from an outdoor context to a more common professional workplace context, the pattern holds. Rather than asking about upside-down rafts or how rapids get their grades, areas of insecurity might be hiring and firing, promotions, or job performance. A junior designer might ask a more senior colleague, “How did you get promoted into your current role?” with sincere interest in gleaning information about this person’s specific career path, and the question also contains some embedded security questions: “Am I similar to the type of people who get promoted here? Am I good enough to work here? Does this company value people like me? Am I doing the right things to contribute and be noticed?”

A thoughtful leader can share a story of her journey and also answer some of those security questions. Just break the process down into three steps.

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I’d love to know more about your experiences with security questions and disguised security questions. Leave a comment if you have something to share or any questions!

Update: When I share this as a lightning talk at Women Talk Design at Austin Design Week I got a question about where the idea of classifying questions into information and security questions. I first heard of those two category groups from a friend who heard it from his therapist. After integrating those categories into the way I understood question dynamics I came to also see the value in paying attention specifically to the disguised security question, and that is the origin story of this talk.

The other question that an audience member asked was, “What is the value of this concept for designers specifically?” I think all teams (designers, rafters, soccer players, activists, ballet dancers) benefit from creating emotional safety. It allows us to come to work as our whole selves and bring all the creativity, wisdom, inspiration and passion of our lived experiences to our work. We don’t have to censor ourselves or our ideas when we feel safe to share and listen, knowing that when our ideas diverge or people seek to offer an alternate perspective, it comes from a place of curiosity, kindness, and growth, rather than competition or disrespect.

Written by

Designer, entrepreneur, outdoor guide, cartographer, coder, armchair behavioral economist, and voracious reader.

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