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Creating a ‘Safe’ Culture to Empower Communication

By Helen Green

In my last article   http://www.xl-erate.com/blog/psychological-safety-key-to-unlocking-your-business-voice/ I looked at the power of psychological safety and the importance not only of creating an environment where it is safe enough to speak but one where we can be free to listen. The impact of being unable to speak out can be enormous. It is not just the high profile Enron and Volkswagen scandals, for example, where employees probably knew what was happening and felt unable to say anything long before it came to public attention, having your voice stifled is commonplace within many working environments.

Have you had instances when you didn’t agree in a business meeting? Did you have that ‘light bulb moment’, or yearned to question an action or the way in which it was delivered – but just didn’t do it? Most of us will have first hand experience of holding back and muting our voice for fear of what might happen if we speak freely. And equally, we will have experienced environments where listening also doesn’t come freely to us. We have our own views, which we hold dear and we may not be willing to really hear another’s views.

The benefits of a culture in which we can be free to speak are clear, but how do we create an environment in which it is ‘safe’ to do so? Leaders and Managers have a critical role to play in setting the tone and conditions for positive dialogue, yet this must be practised, rather than directed from the top. We must actually see it in action. Authentic role models are key to portraying their style and beliefs and assuring colleagues that they won’t be judged, nor will there be repercussions if they speak out. As a consultant and coach, I draw on a number of tools and techniques to guide teams, from shining a light on collective and individual dynamics to then supporting them to interact positively and support each other.


Personality plays an obvious role in individual dynamics within a working environment. For example introverts may by nature be less keen to speak out, while the extroverts amongst us are typically the colleagues whose voice will be heard. Regardless, most of us will temper our delivery in new environments, scoping out what’s acceptable and what’s not within that space. Yet there will be individuals within every organisation whose good intentions are marred by their delivery. Sometimes it can be best to articulate views and opinions clearly and directly – to advocate. Often, that will be enough to make your voice heard. But if not, try flexing to adopt a more curious, inquiring tone. When the annual planning meetings come about, rather than stating that the process rarely prompts change, why not ask the question, “I’m curious, how many of the points that we agreed last year have been translated into action?” in order to start a new conversation about the approach to planning.

And how do we mirror this by creating an environment through which it is safe to listen? Again, wonder and curiosity play a significant role in encouraging two-way dialogue in a way that is constructive, rather than inhibiting. The power of listening is immense – it can not only encourage speech and unlock potential, but also informs and empowers us to shift our own view with a different perspective or some new information. Stephen R. Covey said “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” We are usually so busy formulating our response that we do not truly listen to what’s being said. If we did, might our response be different?

Redefining a culture and setting the conditions through which we can interact within an environment takes time, patience and commitment. However, the impact of achieving this is inarguable. Only when we are in a safe and open enough environment, can we have effective two-way conversations. And, when these are entered into with the right spirit, they will lead to prosperous and fulfilling relationships that can be transformative on many levels.