Observations From A Fly on The Wall Part 2

How not to make a safe space

Last month I shared a few thoughts on the special hell of open-plan offices and how efficiency ate creativity. This month I’ve written about another one of the many wonky things I have noticed from seven years of working as a graphic recorder across a diverse range of sectors, communities, cultures and contexts.

Let’s explore the contentious topic of safe spaces, and treating each other with respect. Yes, that crazy idea that what works for a bunch of white, able bodied 30-something males doesn’t work for everyone. Upfront, let me just say that in my opinion there are clear instances where political correctness has led to confusing and disempowering outcomes. Just because something upsets you does not mean the world must give way to you. Wisdom lives within the tension and acceptance of difference. I believe we shouldn’t shy away from confronting history, ideas, beliefs and behaviours — but always with the intention of seeking to understand and empower each other.

Each of us exists in a range of contexts with different roles, cultures, social contracts, responsibilities and levels of power. Sometimes it is very challenging. I often think of Jimmy Kyle, who I met at a workshop two years ago, and the experience he shared of being a light-skinned Aboriginal kid that grew up trapped by dysphoria and racial stigma from both non-indigenous and indigenous community. “Walking in two worlds can be a lonely journey if there’s no love on both sides.”
 
In a world full of unsafe spaces, working to create safe spaces is important. But just because a space is safe for you — doesn’t mean that it is safe for everyone. What is a safe space anyway? By definition it’s a place or environment in which people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, unfair criticism, harassment, emotional or physical harm.

There is a trend in many of the workshops I’m part of to bring everyone from all levels and roles together to leverage group genius and authentically solve problems through transparent and creative non-hierarchical spaces. Safe spaces. But this ambition can be hard to achieve because each of us and our communities have subjective standards of safety — and sometimes it can be hard to know what is and isn’t a problem. 
 
For example, if it is important to create a safe space at your conference — how does an employee who has been painted as a trouble maker ensure they are heard and acknowledged? How can a woman know that her good ideas are given the same weight as her male colleagues, when they continually talk over her? How can an employee voice cultural needs in what they experience as being a culturally unsafe work environment? How can someone who is genuinely concerned about the intentions and decisions made by leadership speak freely about their concerns when there are potential repercussions?
 
Creating a genuinely safe space is challenging. Often we lack the experience, incentive and emotional intelligence to handle the complexity of understanding and accommodating diverse needs. This is why it’s important that businesses have policies and trainings along with upholding certain responsibilities under human rights and anti-discrimination law to create workplaces free from harassment. That said, as many of us have no doubt experienced, even with these mandatory responsibilities the real culture of a workplace can be miles apart from the stated values or legal requirements.
 
I have been on both sides of the coin — where my presence made someone feel unsafe because of culturally sensitivities, and of being in a workplace where I felt constantly on guard and belittled because of sexual harassment. I have learned from both of these experiences that other people’s lives, experiences and realities are often profoundly different to yours. That if you are not familiar with the stress and cognitive overload that comes with different types of bullying and discrimination — it can be hard to see it. There may be a problem occurring that you are not aware of that is preventing someone from engaging and contributing.
 
On one side, I have been the only white woman in a cultural space, graphically recording very sensitive conversations. Half way through the workshop a participant requested that I please leave because they felt culturally unsafe with me in the room. I was in a position of power — capturing their words with a pen — and in their experience I was representing their voice in a way that they did not feel comfortable with. It was a shock at the time, because I had good intentions, but knew it wasn’t about me and that respectfully stepping aside was the appropriate thing to do. 
 
On the flip side, I once worked for a year as an operations assistant in a technical services workshop with twelve men. I was genuinely fond of many of them — but overall there was an unfortunately normalised aussie bloke misogynist culture. I initially tried to accommodate the playful sexual innuendo, ogling and weird comments thinking they mean well, they just have funny ways of expressing it. I would reshape comments like “you’re hot, you’ve got a fun personality. You’d make a great stripper” — into I think you are fun and I enjoy working with you.
 
As you might expect — over time I began to feel unsafe. They set up a computer in a tiny room dedicated downloading and watching porn. One colleague thought it was funny to punch my office window whenever he walked past and would often sneak up behind me and breathe down my neck. Another colleague propositioned me to have a threesome with him and his wife. The last straw was when another colleague wrote SLUT in copper pipes on my office floor — which brought me to tears and I reported it. He was forced to give me a half-hearted apology which was followed with “you’re being overly sensitive; it was just a joke.” Later my contract was not renewed because I “wasn’t a good cultural fit”. Legally I could have taken action because this is sexual harassment — but chose not to. The experience helped me understand just how hard it is to speak out against the dominant culture, and how important it is to have procedures and laws that protect and empower people.
 
That said — laws can unexpectedly change. Just last week the Australian Government announced its proposed changes to racial discrimination laws 18C on Harmony Day — a day that is meant to celebrate cultural diversity. Richard Deng from the South Sudanese Association of Victoria commented, “as a community, we have concerns because discrimination is everywhere. In the workplace, at the bus station, in the park.” Labor MP Linda Burney adds, “it is just astounding to me that those advocating changes to 18C probably have experienced no discrimination in their life and have very little understanding of what discrimination means.”
 
Zooming out to the global media arena, there is a frenzy of polarised opinions on the subjects of discrimination, trigger warnings, feminazis, political correctness gone rife, safe spaces, thought police and free speech. Repeatedly we hear from loud callous voices — further eroding nuanced public discourse — such as the president of the USA shamelessly comparing women to “pigs” and “dogs”. And yesterday, Kyle Reyes, CEO of The Silent Partner Marketing made headlines with what he calls a snowflake test to “weed out somebody who is going to complain. I’m looking for people who are not entitled, who don’t have this sense that they should just be handed things … who are willing to work for everything they have… I’m not gonna give you a safe space at our company.”
 
This hard attitude is not uncommon. The Daily Inequality writes, “In some workplaces, making a colleague cry is considered a sadistic rite of passage. In the culture of commerce, behaviour that would be inexcusable in pretty much any other context is not only tolerated, but rewarded.” I can imagine this would be the case working with Gordon Ramsey. If you felt unsafe from his verbal abuse — it’s likely you couldn’t do anything about it other than leave.
 
Thankfully — it’s becoming clearer that abusive behaviour doesn’t spur productivity. There are a bunch of studies on the matter — one being this 2006 Florida State University study of 700 employees in a variety of different roles — that found that those with abusive bosses were five times more likely to purposefully slow down or make errors than their peers, and nearly six times more likely to call in sick when they actually felt fine.
 
The famous research work of Brené Brown, whose landmark 2010 TED talk is called The Power of Vulnerability gives further evidence that “caring about people’s feelings doesn’t make employers airy-fairy pushovers; rather, such leaders recognise their job is to help people excel. And they produce exceptional results not in spite of their compassion and kindness, but because of it.”
 
The benefit of creating safe spaces has also been demonstrated in education research — where it is clear that environmental and social factors at school and at home deeply impact a student’s academic performance and future opportunities. Early stress and trauma sends signals to the nervous system to prepare for trouble, increasing cognitive load, anxiety, defensiveness and distractibility. Whereas early warmth, responsiveness and inclusiveness sends the opposite signals: you’re safe; you can do this, your contribution is valuable, you are welcome here.
 
To wrap this up, I want to share the perspective of musician Andrea Kirwin on how she graciously navigates feeling unsafe. She writes, “last night at my gig I experienced casual racism in the form of an elderly lady remarking light heartedly that I was a mongrel for having parents from two racial backgrounds. I was able to express to her how it made me feel and she apologised not knowing that it could be offensive and racist. It’s very important to speak up when you see and hear casual racism occurring. That lady didn’t realise the impact of her words. Racism is a learned behaviour and often people don’t realise they carry certain beliefs from their conditioning and upbringing. We all have a choice. Language is powerful. Use your words to create the world you want to live in. But always be mindful that if you look for battles in life, you will find them everywhere. If peace is our goal, be willing to outstretch our hand first to come to an understanding. Education is key to changing social attitudes. One person at a time.”