Leadership 10: Making your team members feel safe and calm. It starts on Day 1

No one can thrive at work when they are in survival mode.

In the last post we talked about the crucial role the leader plays in setting the weather in the office, determining if it is going to be a calm, nice day where the team can work at their best, or a cloudy stress-filled day where everyone is more focused on covering their tracks to avoid the wrath of the boss than getting the job done.  In this post we are going to talk about the importance of the first impression we make on a new team member. We want them to leave the office the first day feeling that they are part of a team where they will feel safe and calm, where they thrive and grow, where they accomplish more that they ever imagined they could.  And it all starts on that crucial first day.

In a Nutshell: A leader must create a place where people feel safe. People can only thrive when they feel safe and valued at work.  To ensure the safety and well-being of the team, the leader must always put their welfare ahead of immediately completing any particular task. The leader makes team members feel safe by always having their back, communicating clearly what they want done and ensuring the member has the knowledge, resources and time to complete the project well. To maintain calmness in the workplace the leader carefully monitoring the well-being of each member each day and providing an opportunity to listen to team members who are struggling personally or professionally. The leader is continually working to build a sense of community, and providing professional and personal support.  By listening and observing the team, the leader is continually learning and becoming a better leader.

But first, let’s start with a short video of a bad orientation on Jordan’s first day of work on Wall Street in the movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” (Parental Warning, they use words my mother would not have approved of.)

See the entire scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reFOV3r9T4s

A leader must create a place where people feel safe.

“Attitudes are caught, not taught.” Marine General James Mattis

I can’t tell you to trust me, and make you do so. I can’t tell you to be calm and feel safe, and suddenly make you feel calm and safe. I can accomplish those things by acting in a way, day after day, that makes you learn you can trust me. I can create an office environment where you learn to feel calm and safe. Like the General says, attitudes are contagious.

Creating a calm workplace starts on the first day.

I would guess that 50% of the people who I hired were scared when they arrived at our office for their first day.  The other 50% were terrified.  Lawyers, paralegals, support staff, and interns, it didn’t manner what job they were starting, they were stepping into a new world, inhabited by strangers, they were worried they would be late, that they weren’t properly dressed, they wouldn’t be able to do the work, that they might end up being surrounded by jackasses.   

And I know for sure that my interns at the ABA were the most frightened of all. They were expecting to be talking on the phone to people who were locked up behind bars (true) that the government was trying to deport those callers back to their country of origin (true) and that many of those people believed if they were deported they would be killed (often true).  My interns believed they would be expected to know all about immigration law (false) so they could give legal advice (oh my God, false, false, false).  They believed that if they made a mistake someone would die (Nope) or they would get yelled at (not a chance). As they struggled to work their way through crowded Metro station many probably believed they may have made a HUGE mistake in choosing this internship (couldn’t be further from the truth). 

Credit: WMATA

They feared that after spending 10 weeks, making one mistake after another, sending people to the slaughter, they would return to school the next semester and find, scrawled in blood on their dorm door, “We know what you did last summer!”

I have no control over what happens in dorms.  Kids these days ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Recognizing that they would be afraid, my goal for them on their first day was to give them a calm introduction to a complex internship, so that by the end of the day they would have completed every task they would be required to do repeatedly during their internship, they would see that this work is serious and complicated, but they would also know that they would have my full support and they would never have to guess about what to say to a detainee on the phone.  They would get back on that Metro car in the afternoon with a hopeful feeling that this may be a team they will be proud to be on and that it might even be fun!

Credit: PlanItMetro


The important role a good first day orientation can mean for a new hire was brought home to me by my former intern and now great buddy and lawyer, Ericka.  She was a law student who was a superb intern for me, and after leaving my office she wen straight to la summer working with a group in Egypt that was helping immigrants appeal their denial of refugee status by The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (“UNHCR”).  Ericka and I did a Skype call from a café in Cairo (best WIFI in her neighborhood, she said) to discuss her experience.

“To be honest, I was overwhelmed walking home from the office the first day in Cairo, it was so complicated, the office procedures, the rules we were applying, and then it occurred to me that I felt this same way walking home after the first day interning for you.  And you told me that first day that the work was complicated, but you would always be there to answer my questions, that you believed in me and I could do the job well.  So, I thought, this is just another complicated job helping people in crisis, I learned how to do the work with you calmly, I will learn how to do this calmly, too. So, thank you for that.”

The leader is responsible for creating a calm and safe work environment

“You know what is the only common factor in all my failed relationships? Me!” Simon Sinek

What does a “safe work environment” feel like?

Coming to work in a safe environment starts with your trust that the leader will maintain a steady demeanor, no matter what.  When something goes wrong, the leader will calmly guide the team back on track. When mistakes are made, they are viewed as learning opportunities.  Your leader makes sure you know exactly what you are supposed to do, exactly how you are supposed to do it, and that if you need assistance you need only ask for it and it will be provided swiftly. When emotional factors intrude on your ability to work, the leader will sit down with you and listen.  If there is tension within the team, the leader will step in, listen to all sides, then help the factions work out a resolution to restore calm cooperation.  You know that everyone on the team is encouraging your growth, monitoring your well-being. Your team members are not just working with each other, they are working for each other.  You look forward to going to work, and that positivity carries over to your home life.

Your team members are not just working with each other, they are working for each other. 

Credit: Christian Science Monitor

We are going to revisit a two minute video clip by Simon Sinek in which he describes how a worker in Las Vegas, working the same job in two locations, has completely different experiences each day because he feels safe in one job, and unsafe in the other.  And that difference is the difference between good leadership and bad bosses.

Watch entire video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJyNoJCAuzA

As the video points out, the same person can live completely different lives, with completely different levels of satisfaction or stress, depending on the workplace environment, and the leader is the one who creates that environment.

What does an “unsafe work environment” feel like?

You feel nervous as you approach the office wherein lurks an unpredictable volatile boss whose mood determines if you are going to have a tolerably boring  day at the office, or if there is going to have eight hours of stomach knotting anxiety.  If you make a mistake you struggle to hide and remove any of your fingerprints from it.  You are not sure exactly what you are supposed to do or how to do it, but you are afraid to ask for help because that will make you a target for personal attacks (“You went to college, right? Then you figure it out!”) and ensure a poor rating in your next evaluation. You are miserable at work, and you carry that misery home when worrying about work intrudes on what should be your refreshing and reenergizing personal time.

Creating a safe work environment starts with your first minute with a new team member.

First impressions are lasting, and the impression we wanted to make on my new team member was that we were going to be doing important work TOGETHER, that they were on a TEAM of compassionate people who wanted everyone to succeed TOGETHER, and that we would have some FUN.

My first day orientation presentation.

Over nine years I had 27 different cohorts of interns, 126 interns in total.  Internships lasted 10 to 12 weeks, with many interns choosing to extend their stay until the last possible day  because they were so happy helping detainees and hanging out with the team. They were a mixture of undergrads and law students, most were interested in a career in law and social justice, and most were drawn to our internship because it offered the chance to help people.  It was rare for more than one or two interns to start on the same day so I repeated this orientation so often that my co-coaches, starting with Karen Castillo, followed by Nicole Gasmen, could recited it from memory.

I want to set out the thrust of what I said in the first few minutes of my orientation to show how I set the mood for the time we would be working together. 

(A note of clarification: during the nine years I supervised the hotline I had two people who helped coach the interns, Karen Castillo from 2010 to 2017, and Nicole Gasmen from 2018 to 2019.  When I gave this orientation speech I referenced the one who was coaching with me at the time.  For simplicity’s sake, I will use Karen’s name in this re-creation, no offense intended Nicole.

Setting the right atmosphere in the office can have an everlasting effect on your team members.

My first day, first minute orientation.

Welcome to our team, the moment you walked into this office you became part of our team, and I hope you will find that this is the most valuable, inspiring, and fun internship you will ever have.

 A few points to remember:

1. My main goal in this internship is to try and help you learn to do this work calmly.  If you want to spend your career helping others, you must be able to avoid stress, interrupt it when necessary, and relieve if it starts to overwhelm you.  This work can be emotionally challenging, most people end up crying in my office at some point, including me, so never hesitate to tell someone if you are upset.  In this office asking for help is a sign of strength.

2. I am giving you permission to make mistakes, we are human.  There is no mistake you can make here which cannot be corrected. You won’t get anyone deported, no one is going to die because you made an error.  The goal is not to avoid all errors, but rather, to not repeat an error. From now on we are going to refer to ”mistakes” as “learning opportunities,” so when you recognize that you have committed a “learning opportunity” that needs to be corrected, please come to me immediately so, together, we can learn how to resolve it.

3. If I ask you a question the following answers are perfectly acceptable.  “I don’t know.”  “I don’t understand the question.”  Those responses show me where we can grow together.

 4. I want you to come talk to me if you are feeling stressed because I truly care about you as a person. You may not think I am serious now, you are not sure how much you can trust me, but soon you will begin trust me, not because I tell you to, but because you see how I treat you and others.  You can come talk about work stress, school stress, or life stress.  And there are two reasons I want you to come talk to me: 1.) you are important to me because you are part of my team and I take care of my team in the same way I take care of my family; and 2.) you can’t help the detainees if you are distracted by something that is worrying you.

5. If I tell you I want you to do something, or I am answering your question, and you don’t understand me, that’s my fault, because I am the only person on planet Earth who knows what I am trying to communicate.  Therefore, I am giving you permission to keep asking me questions until you have a clear understanding of exactly what I am trying to say.  A continuous series of questions is not nagging me, it is helping me learn how to communicate better.

6. I need you to help me take care of everybody else on the team.  If you see that someone is struggling, come tell me so I can help.  If you think I am struggling, talk to Karen so she can help me.  This is a team, this is a family, we are all in this together.

Credit: Yogasteya

7. In Zen there is the idea of ‘Beginners Mind”,’ which means that when faced with a problem, an expert can become so fixated on the one solution they know they are blinded to all other possible solutions.  On the other hand, a beginner, looking at the problem with fresh eyes, may be able to imagine scores of solutions.  So right this minute you are extremely valuable to me because you have no idea what we do, how we do it, or why we do it.  In about 20 minutes we are going to start teaching you how to do things, and as you listen, I want you to see if what you hear makes sense.  Can you think of a more efficient way to do it?  Learn how to do our things our way, try it out, and if you think of something that makes more sense, bring it to us and we will discuss it. Trust me, we change our procedures several times every semester, based on suggestions from interns.  My Dad used to say that the shovel was designed by men who spent all day digging holes.  Starting today, you will be doing the work, you are on the working end of the immigration hotline shovel, so we trust your creativity.  When you are answering calls, keeping notes, researching materials, printing out packets and mailing them, if you see we are doing something the hard way, feel free to ask “why?”  Many times the answer will be, “because we never thought of a better way so we have always done it that way,” which is no reason to continue.  If you think you have a good idea, bring it to us.

Former intern Mariam.  It goes without saying she has become a better lawyer than I ever was.

8. I think of this team as a pyramid, it appears to be a hierarchy.  I am at the top and the next level is Karen, and at the bottom of the pyramid is you and the other interns.  So it would appear that with me at the top, I am the most important part of this team, but I have noticed something interesting.  When I am out of the office, everything still functions efficiently. The interns answer the phone and talk to the detainees, Karen can answer 95% of intern questions, interns put together packets of information, Karen reviews the packets, and they get mailed out.  But if I am here and Karen is out, things start to stall. Interns still answer the phone and talk to detainees, I can answer 100% of your questions, interns put together packets of information, but nothing gets mailed out because I can’t do what Karen does as she reviews each packet, I don’t know what she wants in each packet.  Envelopes stack up until she is back in the office. Clearly, Karen is more important than me. But on the days when I am here and Karen is here, but there are no interns, nothing gets done.  Nobody answers the phone, nobody talks to the detainees; no packets get made or sent out.  So, as you can see, I am the least important person on this team, and you, as an intern, are the most important person and you will be treated with the respect you deserve.

8. So that is the end of my introduction, welcome to the team, here is your official ABA Detainee Hotline lanyard, which only our team members are allowed to wear, and I will be taking you and the rest of the team out for lunch today, my treat. Let’s get started talking about what we do here. And remember, be on the lookout for things that don’t make sense. You are the eyes and ears helping us to improve our service.

Personalizing the cubicle.

We then moved to their cubicle which already had their name and the name of their school on the name tag.  We did this to show we respected them as individuals, that we recognized they are bringing their unique gifts to our team and that they we don’t consider them interchangeable cogs in a big machine. It took me a few years to see the wisdom in doing this, but the first day we did it I noticed an intern taking a picture of their name plate.  “I’m sending this to my Dad, he will be very proud.”  That brought tears to my eyes.

I didn’t have a picture of those name plates, so I asked around to a few former interns and I received a few responses immediately.

Grace, Rebecca, and Marina

And then Adiba texted me her picture, with a message which shows exactly why these small touches can be so important:

“That’s the  first thing that made me feel seen” – what a great compliment that is to the way a team is working.  And that is our goal on the first day, to help our new team member recognize that a team exists, and that they are being invited to feel part of it.  We are trying to build community.

The first lunch

I always took all team members out for lunch on their first day and I always made it very clear that I was paying.  The reason I did this was because I once had an intern start who literally did not have one dollar in their pocket, they were waiting for a stipend. I told them I would pay to avoid putting someone in an awkward situation. We had four to six interns in a group, and Karen and Nicole and I would take the first intern to lunch on their first day. Financially it didn’t help that the interns usually started on different days!  We might take the first intern to lunch on Monday.  The second intern may start on Wednesday and now it is myself, Karen or Nicole, first intern on her second free lunch, and the new, first day intern on their first day lunch. By the time the fourth intern started our team, the first intern may have had four lunches, we were regulars at Jack’s Fresh, a cafeteria style eatery which I chose because it had some type of food acceptable to every diet.  With the amount I spent there (we often also did “last day lunches”) Jack should have put up a plaque on the wall with my name on it. 

Isabell, Nicole, HRH, Catalina, Gabriela, and Janeth

  As you can see, I bought a lot of lunches, but as I said before, leadership can require sacrifices.  Once we were all seated, the one strict rule at these lunches was we would not talk about the work.  The goal of the lunch was to begin the process of turning a group of strangers into a loyal team that knew each other and cared about each other, and could trust each other.  Everyone would go around the table, talking about where they grew up, where they are going to school, what they want to do in the future, what they do for fun. I had two favorite ice breaker questions. “Where did you grow up and what was that like?” and “When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

The question about where you grew up was good because, a.) the person knew the answer, and b.)when they described what it was like most people could share happy thoughts, so it put them in a good place, mentally. Their answer often made a connection “I lived in Arizona, too!” or I could follow up with, “What was that like?”  And that answer told you a lot about a person. 

My favorite answer was from Meagan which I will recount as accurately as I can.

“I grew up in a small town in Connecticut, it had a gazebo in the town square where they had concerts in the summer, we had a house with a big backyard and it had a huge old oak tree.  My sisters and I used to believe that rain water that collected in the hollows of that tree could be used as a magic potent and we would use the water to cast spells.”

After an answer like that, you really feel you have some insight in to what the person is like when their defenses are down.

The other ice breaker question was, “When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?”  My favorite answer, “I dreamed of being the woman in the department store that wraps presents at Christmas time.”

 You could see the new person calm down as they chatted and slowly became part of the group and as we walked back to the office they were no longer strangers.

A poor example of orientation.

I would like to contrast the orientation I gave at the ABA to the one I received on how to fight a house fire when I was a 19 year old  scared witless rookie firefighter.  We had arrived at the scene of my first burning house and I tightened the belt on my breathing apparatus and slipped the mask over my face.

Credit: wikipedia

I was trembling with fear as Captain Noel Burton Wood dragged the hose to the front door, signaled for me to grab on behind him and then turned around, lifted up his mask so I could hear him over the roar of the fire and shouted my orientation:  “Listen kid, I’m going to tell you what my Captain told me the first time I went into to a fire, ‘The Christians went into the Coliseum together, but they died alone.’”  He pulled his mask down and we pushed in, attacking the fire.

Credit: MyveronaNJ-firefighter-training

A side benefit on being recognized as a leader in an office.

The pyramid picture above includes Mariam who was an intern at the ABA, but she was not my intern. She was one of scores of interns and staff members who were adopted by me and my team as honorary members, because they wanted me to mentor them. This is what happens when you are observed taking care of your team members, and helping them grow, you are seen as a person who is interested in helping others, so people outside your team will come to you. Many others came to me, not as students, but as teachers. The benefit to the leader is that the universe of people who you help remains in contact with you and you get to enjoy their growth and success. Yesterday on Facebook one such person posted this:

Gie’s victory makes my heart sing! So I want to recognize some of the people who allowed me to be both the teacher to them and the student of them. You know who I consider family, so if your picture is not her, please let me know.

I wanted to honor those who were students and teachers with me. If your picture is not here, you were not overlooked intentionally, let me know and you can join the Wall of Honor.

Rebecka and I are in the photo below on the right.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: