Even as companies become increasingly digital and data driven, their most valuable asset remains their people. Smart CEOs recognize the inherent value of their employees – the minds and hearts that drive true transformation through innovation and creativity. But this can only happen when people believe they are valued, and trust that they are safe to make decisions and to fail.
In his TED Talk, Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe, Simon Sinek presents the “Circle of Safety.” It’s the idea that by working together, we create a safe environment in which we can get things done. In the Paleolithic era this meant sleeping in shifts so that someone could watch for danger while the others rested safely. In today’s workplace, it means putting the people and lives inside the organization first.
But this isn’t how businesses typically operate. Sinek says, “In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.” In this type of environment, people are often afraid of their leaders. They rigidly adhere to policies out of fear of getting in trouble. Executives make disproportionate salaries and bonuses because they allow people to be sacrificed to protect their own interests. In other words, every one is in it for themselves. Employees want to remain employed, at the expense of each other (and, sometimes, the customer), and leaders want to protect their fortunes.
Sinek puts it this way: “If the conditions are wrong, we are forced to expend our time and energy protecting ourselves from each other, and that inherently weakens the organization. When we feel safe we will naturally combine our talents and strengths, and work tirelessly to face the dangers outside and seize the opportunities.”
The key words here are “feel safe.” When they feel safe, people are capable of amazing things. When employees are not worried about their job security or wondering how to “one up” a coworker, they can create and innovate, and address the customer’s needs in the here and now. In other words, employees can think beyond themselves for the success of the organization as a whole.
CEOs can’t simply tell their employees they’re safe. They must convey a feeling of safety so that employees feel valued and protected. Fortunately, we live in a time when this is made all the easier through technology. We have more ways to communicate than ever before, and that is critical. Leaders must understand what it is that employees want and need to feel safe, and employees must know that leaders are listening to those desires and responding accordingly.
This can be achieved any number of ways. For example, periodic employee surveys give people the opportunity to voice concerns. Regular communication from the executive team can provide visibility into the sacrifices being made in the upper echelon in the interest of the greater good. Leaders can make themselves accessible to all employees, welcoming them to share questions, concerns and success stories in a format they are most comfortable with.
Business needs to become personal. Going beyond survey data, CEOs need to make human connections within the organization, and video can help. The TED2014 conference in Vancouver is an excellent example. Speaker Shaka Senghor gave a riveting presentation about redemption, reinvention and hope. The honor roll student turned teen-age drug dealer turned respected writer, teacher and MIT Media Fellow brought the audience to its feet.
And, yet, he was 3,000 miles away from that audience. Canadian border security wouldn’t allow Senghor to travel to Vancouver, so TED organizers turned to Polycom to deliver the live presentation via video. As a result, the audience could see and hear Senghor as if he was in the same room. The body language and expressions he naturally used to convey emotion was perceived and felt by the Vancouver audience.
This is the connection CEOs and leaders need to make with their employees to create a feeling of trust and safety – and beyond that, to enable innovation and creativity.
Sinek sums it up nicely: “If you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do remarkable things.” As CEO, you have the ability to create the environment that allows your workforce to be remarkable. And it starts with personal connections.