Leadership 11: Making your team feel safe so they can work calmly.

The importance of creating a Circle of Safety around your team.  We know that people cannot thrive when they are in survival mode.  But when we have an environment where people feel safe, they can trust each other, cooperate, and achieve more than they ever imagined.  It is the responsibility of the leader to create a circle of safety around their team, the leader must decide who is allowed in the circle of safety, allowing in only people who share the team’s values, people who you can trust and who will trust you.  The leader is responsible for actively protecting team members from threats coming from outside the group.  The circle of safety encourages people to be innovative, and to sometimes fail, but to fail forward.  Feeling safe allows one to work calmly, and the leader cultivates calmness in the environment by modeling calmness, even when they may not feel calm themselves.  The leader must constantly monitor the morale of the team and each team member, by checking in with them each day, and inviting them to share questions and obstacles they are facing.  The leader must reward team members for specific actions, while also encouraging their growth by teaching them how to solve the difficult problems.

Credit: TeamStrength.Inc

As we saw in the last post, I put a premium of creating a calm work setting for a new team member’s first day.  I do this because, well, it is the kind thing to do, but also, the first impression we get of our new job has a tendency to stick for a long time. When you look through my list of things I told my team member, and it reduced it down to a single thought, it would be, “You have nothing to fear here.  You are safe.”   

The Circle of Safety

I first heard the expression “Circle of Safety” in a book by Simon Sinek and I think this short video clip perfectly captures the idea of what we are trying to create for our team.  Simon explains how forming groups of cooperation goes back to the days we were living in caves and there was danger all around us.  The dangers may have changed since then, but our need to feel safe continues, and the leader who can create a circle of safety around their team will see them do remarkable things.

See Simon’s entire TED talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmyZMtPVodo

How I wish that we all could work in a circle of safety.  I have had that opportunity in a few of my jobs, and it is a happy, fulfilling way to live your life.  I hope we can all become the leaders that create it for our team.

Now we are going to discuss what are the steps we take to take that first impression, and make it permanent by ensuring the team members feel safe.  In future posts we will discuss the other elements in creating an environment where people can thrive: how we build trust in the team, how we show respect for team members as individuals and for their skills, and how we ensure they have the resources, and most importantly the time to accomplish their missions.

What is the Effect of The Circle of Safety, and Who Do You Let In?

In this two minute video, Simon explains the importance of deciding who we let into the circle of safety.  We are going to break down the elements of the ideas he expresses here to get concrete steps of how to create an environment of safety around our team.

See entire video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOnXcrmgAw8&feature=youtu.be

How to apply Simon’s Circle of Safety to the office.

Let’s go through the main points of this video and see how we can implement them.

1. The leader must decide who is allowed in the circle of safety.  You allow in only people who share your values, people who you can trust and who will trust you.  This is an especially important duty and power of the leader, and Karen, Nicole and I were good at picking team members who shared our, but we were not perfect. 

In retrospect, I never spent much time identifying our values, I just chose people to be on our team because they had a good heart. I always said, “I can teach you the law, but I can’t teach you how to care about people.”  I wanted compassionate people who could empathize with immigrants who found themselves behind bars, forced to represent themselves in a case involving complicated legal issues, in a foreign court, in another language. Out of 126 interns I hired we probably only made two or three mistakes, times when we chose someone that did not share our values, and they proved to be a disruptive force.

A short example.  There was a group of six African detainees in a ICE detention center and they wrote to the Chaplain of the facility to inform him they were Messianic Jews and looked forward to being included in the upcoming Passover services.  The Chaplain wrote back, and the detainees sent me a copy of his response. “As you are aware, Passover services are only for members of the Jewish faith.  As you are from Africa, you cannot be Jewish, and will not be allowed to attend.  Thank you for understanding.”  Well, the detainees did not understand, and I did not understand, so we filed a complaint with the ICE Field Office Director, ICE Headquarters in Washington DC, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.  It was exactly the kind of fight I relished, the bad guys who don’t know what the rules are acting out of prejudice, and caught red-handed. I had a meeting with my team to discuss strategy and tactics and one of the law students asked, “Why are we filing a complaint?  They are in this country illegally, why should we care about their religious rights?”  You could have heard the proverbial pin drop, my team and I were shocked.  When I finally recovered the gift of speech I replied, “Well, I guess it is because we are in the United States of America and freedom of religion is one of our more cherished concepts.”  Over the course of that internship several other issues popped up where it became obvious that this person, a child of immigrants, did not like immigrants, did not respect their rights, and this intern’s presence became a disruptive force on our team because questions of basic human rights were being constantly debated.

After this hair-raising hiring failure Karen and I tried to come up with a question we could ask which would get someone to tip us off that maybe they did not share our values, did not believe that immigrants should have their legal rights protected.  If we found such a person during an interview, we could suggest that ICE would be happy to have them as interns. The closest we got to a good question was, “Why is immigration such a hot button issue?”  But it never worked well, people dodged it fairly easily.  It would be well worth your while to spend more time than we did identifying the  values of your team and your mission, and then fashioning interview questions that will allow you to identify the people who will work to achieve your mission and not derail it..

In prehistoric times, the 70’s and 80’s when I worked with Legal Services,we did have such a trigger question, “Why are poor people poor?”   We were weeding out people who harbored deep prejudices against poor people.  For instance, someone who thinks poor people are poor because they are lazy and probably learned that from their lazy good-for-nothing parents, would not be a good fit for a role doing intake interviews with someone they despised. 

The problem with having someone on your team who does not share your values is that you end up having debates about things such as who deserves justice,  instead of working to help people assert their rights under the law.  In Ottumwa, Iowa I had a button on my briefcase that said, “Justice for the Poor.”  Another lawyer in the courthouse once pointed at it and said, “I don’t if I believe in that!” 

“Of really,” I replied, “Do you not believe in justice, or not believe in poor people, because both are out there, trust me!”

Aside: My favorite answer to the interview question came from Kay Delafield, a single mother applying to be a staff attorney. 

Me: “Why are poor people poor?”

Kay thought for a second. “Well, I am a poor person, and to be honest I have no idea how this happened.” 

We hired her.

Picking people with a good, compassionate heart to work for me almost universally resulted in a team who not only took care of the detainees, but they took care of each other, and they took care of me, as well. 

2. The leader can only control the dangers which exist within the group and must actively protect team members from threats coming from outside the group.

The leader must assume the responsible for protecting the team from as much external stress as possible.  The rest of the office may be chaotic, with soap operas playing out two cubicles over as panicky workers attack each other over minor slights or perceived trespasses on company territory.

The leaders job is to keep the barbarians outside the gates.

Credit: Time Magazine

Insulate your team from outside distractions.

One of the ways that I sought to control threats from outside our circle was to make sure that if someone outside our group had a complaint about anyone on my team, they came directly to me.  No one was to approach one of my team members about a complaint – if you have a problem, come to me, I will talk to my team member. I did regularly check in with non-team members who sat in our vicinity because we knew our team could be a nuisance as they did their job.  My team was on the phone all day every day, talking to people who are in noisy prisons and jails, so interns had to speak loudly on our end.  In addition, more than half the conversations were not in English, which can be annoying.  I can only imagine how difficult it was to try and check the math on expense forms when right next door there were simultaneous conversations in Spanish, English, and Farsi.  I remember once checking in with an ABA staff member, Ms. Rose, a lovely woman with an enchanting Jamaican accent and her office was right across from two interns. I asked Ms. Rose to please let me know if they were too loud.  “Don’t you worry, Bob, that is why they put a door there.  You just keep doing what you are doing.”

3. How does the leader make the team feel safe? People feel safe when life is predictable in the office.  The remaining five posts will discuss the building blocks you need to make your team feel safe, but for now we can have a short summary. People feel safe when they know how their leader is going to behave, that the leader will stand up for them if there is a problem, they trust their teammates to support them, they know what to do, how to do it, they have the tools they need, and they have sufficient time to accomplish the mission.  They know that their questions are welcomed and that they will be heard if they are wrestling with a decision or problem.

4. When the leader makes the team members feel safe, they can expend all their energy in working together, trusting each other, and cooperating.  I hope you have had the experience of working on a team at a calm, steady pace with a high level of concentration when time flies, and you  look at the clock and are shocked to see it is almost time to go home and you have accomplished a ton of work.  That feeling of concentration is the product of feeling safe, not spending one minute worrying about something happening within the office that will threaten you or upset your routine.  We saw how I approached this in my orientation by giving people permission to make mistakes.

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.

5. When people feel safe your team will dare to be innovative which requires risk, experimentation, and failure.

Then I invited them to be creative and suggest new ways for the team to accomplish the mission. From my orientation:

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, or 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, 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.

And finally, when we did implement one of their suggests, we put their name on it, whether it was a new publication, or even just a new form.  When today’s interns saw the name of a former intern with the note “This form was produced by Sophie Silverstein,” they realized we were serious in welcoming suggestions, and that they had a chance to make a change and have their name be passed down to future interns.

6. The Circle of Safety should include every member of the team, top to bottom, and each level is responsible for protecting the layer below them. The most common structure of an organization offers full protection to the top brass, and everyone below them is expendable.  To make your team members feel safe, you must demonstrate that you will protect them, and ask that each of them protect each other by making sure everyone is doing okay.

Credit: shearlingsplowed.blogspot.com

How the bad boss creates a circle of fear.

No person can thrive when they worried about getting yelled at or fired.  It is all about survival when the workplace is chaotic, if the team feels unsafe because the bad boss is a bully, or they don’t trust the other members of their team; or if the mood of the boss is unpredictable resulting in a few “not so horrible days” when everyone is walking on egg shells, and other truly stomach churning days filled with fear when the boss is on a tear and just looking for someone to vent their rage on, and you keep your head down and try to be invisible.  A bad boss creates stress by assigning unreasonably large amounts of work and demands that it be done in an unreasonably short amount of time, at a level of perfection which is impossible within those limitations. When a boss creates this atmosphere work life, you are not employed, you are entombed in the office walls, and it may be cruel and unusual punishment. Bad bosses put your mental and physical health at risk. It should be unacceptable; it is all too often the norm. 

The Bully Boss

Usually my videos don’t end with pictures of related videos, but in 2020 perhaps we all could use a little of “The Joy of Painting” with Bob Ross.

Now that we have made our team members feel safe, how do we maintain calmness in the workplace?

You don’t have to be cool, calm, and collected to appear so.

Credit: MEME

As you know, I spent 14 years with PTSD caused by the children I did not save in the fire department.  PTSD created a personal internal environment which was the polar opposite of calmness: panic attacks, hallucinations, insomnia, nightmares.  And yet, during this 14-year period I was the leader in two social justice offices and I was able to create a calm workplace for my team.  My ready smile was authentic because no matter how much I was hurting, I could still see the humor in the often absurb situations our clients could get themselves into. I was always making people laugh, always pointing out the bright side of every bad situation.  I was dedicating myself to making my team feel safe, happy and calm because I had written off my own ability to be safe, happy and calm.  After I was snapped out of PTSD through a chance encounter with a New York psychiatrist who was visiting Harlingen, Texas (that’s a story for another day), I was able to build on decades of meditation and long-distance running which had been my calming agents, I became truly calm inside and was an even better leader to guide people toward that goal.

How I cultivated calmness for my team.

In the last section we saw how my orientation themes for a new intern or staff member orientation never varied, I wanted them to learn how to remain calm while working with people in crisis, and I wanted them to monitor their own well-being, and the well-being of the other team members, and to come to me if anyone was feeling worried or overwhelmed

Modeling self-care

My window sign when I was meditating.

At the ABA I would some times notice that I was feeling stressed or tired as I supervised interns or talked to detainees on the phone, and rather than just gut it out, I would tell my team I was going to meditate for 20 minutes.  This accomplished several things. 1.) It gave a me a chance to use Transcendental Meditation to refresh myself and eliminate built up stress. 2.) It modeled self-care for my team and gave them permission to step away from the work from time to time when they needed to interrupt the accumulation of stress during the work day, 3.) My announcement gave my team the opportunity to ask me pressing questions before I started, and 4.) iIt  encouraged people to join me if they were feeling stressed.  My setting aside 20 minutes for meditation was emphasizing how seriously I took the need to monitor how I was doing during the day, and to interrupt the build up of stress as I cultivated calmness in how I approached my work.  While taking a meditation break at work might seem odd, it was accepted by most of my superiors who at first found it odd, then interesting, and finally just Bob being Bob.  And 20 minutes was not too much of an interruption in my day considering how much more efficient I was for the rest of the day.

Credit: Pinterest Urban Gypsy

Always be aware of the level of morale of your team.

Leaders must listen.

A leader who is constantly monitoring the well-being of their team and listening to what is being said, and what is left unsaid, can step in when a team member, or the entire team, is off balance.  Let’s face it, nobody comes to work every day feeling like giving 100%, we have our good days and our bad.  That is just human nature.  (I have worked in places where I confided in my friends that I was taking a day off AT work – they could make me come to work, but they couldn’t make me actually DO any work. I was simply taking a mental health day and would pretend to be busy.  I am not proud of those days, but I accept them because I am human.  When I was the leader of an office and noticed that someone had zoned out and was on I self-proclaimed holiday, I would allow them to go home.  I trusted they would get the work done on time.) But it is crucial to have your finger on the pulse of the team as a whole and each member individually because good morale means a happier team, stronger commitment to the mission of the team, improved performance, greater attention to detail, a more creative thought applied to projects, and a reduction in the number of leave taken for sick or mental health days.  The best teams have high morale which springs from meaningfulness of work, responsibility, and the knowledge of outcomes will make a person highly motivated.  The leader is responsible for paying attention to ensure those things are happening.

A sign placed on my door by Bianca in 2011 after one of our talks.

I invited team members to come to me when they are feeling stressed, and I listened intently to them, made them feel heard, and offered suggestions when appropriate.

We have talked a lot about the importance of listening, and my interns and coworkers often said they have never worked with someone who invested so much concentration in every interaction with them.  And it is true that when they appeared at my office door I would drop everything, move away from my standing desk to sit next to them, elbow on armrest, chin on palm, holding their gaze and giving them my undivided attention as I listened intently to their question or concern. And this level of attention, repeated over time is the type of behavior that breaks down barriers and encourages team members to honestly share their concerns.

Encourage team members to come to you when other team members are struggling.

A team is a group of people who trust each other.  Such a team doesn’t just play with each other, they play for each other.”

Because the nature of our work involved talking to people on the telephone who were trying to avoid being deported back to the country where people had threated to kill them, the stress on my interns could sometimes be overwhelming.  And often I would be alerted to someone struggling by another team member, “Mr. Bob, you need to talk to Cynthia, she just had a hard call.”  I was always so happy and proud when I got a message like this because it meant we were building a team of leaders, people who were talking care of the people around them.  That is the goal, build a team of caring people because when you achieve that, you have built the circle of safety. 

Use the skills we discussed in listening as a leader to practice patience when helping a team member solve their problems.

When someone came to my office and asked to talk, I moved away from my stand-up computer and sat down next to the team member to answer questions. I did this both to indicate that their question was the most important thing for me at the moment, and also as a cue for myself to take a breath, and focus. 

I checked in with each team member each morning to start the day and see what their mental state was, are they under the weather, or worried about something inside or outside work? Were they eager to get to work or discouraged?

Credit: paulclaireaux.com

Check in with your team regularly

I checked in every day with the question, “How are you doing today?”  I asked exactly the same question every day and usually got almost the exact same answer. Bit I listened extremely carefully to that answer.  If you do this every day you can establish a baseline of how each team member sounds when things are fine, and you can pick up the subtle difference when something is off.  This was the situation with the intern whose mother was abused by her father.  She said everything was fine, but I was able to identify her stress because I checked in with her every morning.  When you know your team members, you can sense when they need help.

Every day I also spent some time chatting with every member of the team about something that was not job related, I did this because I am interested in them as people, and I want them to know it.  It usually only took three or four minutes but it allowed me to learn more about them as people and my thoughtful listening, and the connections I made over time, “Oh, this is the sister that got married on the cruise ship?” built confidence within the team members that they were value as people.

Observe your team and try and catch them in the act of doing something good.

I watched my team like a hawk and tried to catch each one of them doing something RIGHT so I could compliment them on it.  I learned this in a leadership training decades ago, it is called “handing out a golden brick,” and it works wonders in building team loyalty.  We all like to hear legitimate, accurately focused praise and it energizes us to do our best.

And the compliments are most valuable when they cite a particular action.  So instead of saying, “Good work last week.”  You could be specific: “Good work on that monthly report, and I particularly liked that new graph you put in to show what countries detainees are from.”  When someone receives that specific a compliment, they are inspired to work harder because we all like being recognized for our efforts.

To keep your team members interested in challenged at work, change the way you supervise your team members as they progress.

My interns asked me a lot of questions. A law professor once called me to learn about the internship and to see if it would be a rewarding experience for his law students.  He asked me how often my interns had access to me for supervision. I knew why he was concerned about because I had seen many interns working for other groups at the ABA who rarely had contact with a supervisor.  I put his mind at ease.  “Well, this week has been a normal week and I would say I talk to an intern about every six minutes, and that’s the way I like it. With a legal field as complex as immigration law, and when interns are talking to detainees on the phone, I only get nervous if they are not asking me questions.  And those questions also provide an opportunity for interns to ask questions about their career plans, etc.”

How you mentor changes over time.

At the beginning of an internship I expected to get a number of questions with every call because the interns were on a learning curve going almost straight up.  In this stage they would ask me a question and I would just give them a direct answer.  “Who is eligible for a U Visa?”  “People who are victims of a crime in the U.S. and who have assisted the police or the prosecution of the perpetrator, and a law enforcement agency, prosecutor, or judge is willing to sign an I-918, Supplement B, commonly referred to as ‘the certification.’”

After a couple of weeks, the questions leveled off because the interns had learned a lot and were starting to hear questions from detainees they now knew the answers to.  At that point I could begin to engage them with questions of my own to help them learn to think like a lawyer. 

Intern: “Could a person who suffered domestic violence get a U Visa?” 

Me: “Interesting question. How would we figure that out?”

Intern thinks for a few moments: “Go check which crimes make a person eligible for U Visas?”

“Yep. And while you are at it, you might want to google VAWA.”

 They would come rushing back in 20 minutes later to teach me all about the Violence Against Women Act protections. 

I used the third level of mentoring only with people who truly enjoyed thinking like a lawyer, people who like processing legal issues.  The most interesting thing that lawyers do is solve puzzles.  What can we sue them for?  If we write this complaint to ICE, what do you think they will respond?  And what would we respond to them? 

I was surprised how many law students were not interested in thinking things through, because in social justice offices the most interesting part of the day for me was after work, sitting around the office feet up on the desk, with a beer, trying to solve legal riddles we were wrestling with.  I knew that one of my interns was going to be a great asset to a social justice office when I asked a puzzler and they stopped talking, looked up at the ceiling, and just pondered.  That was using their legal mind.

So now that you have your team feeling safe and working calmly, how do you, as the leader cope with an unexpected challenge that rattles your team?

Coming Attractions: Leadership 12: “We have a situation.”

Published by Robert Lang

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

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