Is it safe?

Article by Steve Harvey, Director Impromptu

I’m thinking about two contrasting experiences of delivering leadership simulations in the not too distant past. In one, the participants appeared open, curious, disposed to embrace the opportunity, willing to talk candidly about their vulnerabilities and personal challenges. In the other, consistently the attendees presented as guarded, suspicious, defensive, judgemental and some appeared decidedly cynical, critical or antagonistic.

What was the difference?

Well, the easy answer is that they came from two very different organisations, operating in different sectors, with significantly distinctive cultures and operating in widely disparate contexts. Is that it? Is it simply the case that their environment was responsible for these divergent responses to what was ostensibly a very similar offer? And, if so, what was at the heart of that distinction?

When I think about it more, though there are clearly many contributing factors, I can’t help concluding that safety has to be part of the key to understanding why there were such enormously different participant journeys.

In the first organisation, there seemed to be a tacit acceptance that it is okay to let yourself show, a belief that if I share my uncertainty and fallibility that I will be understood and supported, that my vulnerability will be held with compassion and care. In the second, it seemed that people’s responses were predicated on the belief that their vulnerability would not be held safely, that others may be out to get them, that they had inherited, or learned, or perhaps unwittingly conspired to endorse, a mindset that propounded the mantras that one ‘has to be strong’, that ‘self-protection is key’, that it is ‘not okay to reveal myself’.

Why? How?

That is the curious thing. When you get to know these people, when you build trust, when they are out of the group, you get to see something of who they really are. Real people, with hopes, fears, aspirations, concerns, beliefs, values, emotions, attitudes, social needs, as we all have. Yet these often remain hidden behind an intricate web of organisationally informed practices and behaviours, ones that seem to engender and endorse conformity to a cultural norm, a cultural norm that typically privileges suspicion over curiosity, judgement over understanding and assumption over exploration.

I wonder what it must be like to exist in such a context: where I leave a considerable part of myself at the office door; where survival appears, in good part, to depend on heightened political acuity; where interaction is as much informed by the application of self-preserving conventions, rituals and patterns, as it is by our primal need to form social bonds.

Where is the place for authenticity and humility? Do I fear that these may be perceived by others as weaknesses to be exploited, as aberrations, as qualities to be admired, or ones to be discounted, even derided?

How do I take that first step into revealing my-self? How do I judge when it is safe to disclose? How do I know that I will be heard with compassion, sensitivity and respect? How do I take that risk? How do I find the strength to model vulnerability, in order that others may learn to believe that it is okay to do so too? How do I ensure that my own actions are consistent with these beliefs, that I ensure that I hold others safely too, that I acknowledge them and demonstrate my care?

How do I know that it’s safe?

How do I know?