The Treasure of Safety

by Susie Amundson
Last Tuesday, I rooster-strutted out of Ulmer’s with my lime green shopping bag filled.

In 10 minutes, despite the crowd of locals, tourists, and cruise ship passengers, I seized my booty.  In one sweep, I plucked my beloved’s birthday card, found a plumbing fixture for our utility sink, spied a new carabiner for my daypack, picked up some child-strength allergy-relief tabs (I’m that child), and even perused the rad selection of leggings.

I love Ulmer’s and am queued up with many other locals. The store’s tagline could be “Everyone loves Ulmer’s.” Of course, for those of you who haven’t visited the place, it’s like Homer’s version of Target or Fred Meyer.  But better. 

It’s locally owned and operated, for over 40 years by one family. Yup. Its central location is easily accessible with a two-lane road zipping by. Parking is easy-breezy, only complicated if the winter snow mounds in the lot rival Monte Blanc. And once in the doors, friendly clerks greet you by name. Eye-catchingly displayed is the merchandise.

And best yet, the store’s stock is community-driven. In other words, it caters to us Alaskans. The owners know us: our likes, our quirks, our interests, and our passions.

They get us. They know who we are. They know what we will buy.  And they’ll meet us there.

Over in one corner, there’s a full stock of Carhartts – you know, that durable work wear serving as an Alaska uniform for stacking wood, cleaning fish, or styling at the Homer Docfest.  Across the aisle is recreational gear ranging from soccer balls to Xtratufs to cross-country skis. And then toward the back, there’s the stockpile of printed fabrics and zigzags for all of the quilters and crafties on a race to arthritic fingers.

When I walk into Ulmer’s, I breathe a sigh of relief.  Because I know their “what is” (stock) will probably sync with my “what if” (shopping list).

And it may sound silly, but I get a sense of security from being known.

Of Course It Got Me Thinking

It got me thinking about being known in the workplace.

Which winds us back to my last monthly newsletter in April (OK, May flew by) focusing on team effectiveness. If you recall, Google’s large study identified dependability as the #2 predictor for team effectiveness. Meaning when team members’ words and actions match, when they demonstrate reliability, and when they kindly hold each other accountable for work, words, and actions, the team performs and engages better. Voile’.

Of course there were some enthusiastic overachievers in the newsletter audience who promptly emailed me to reveal the #1 predictor of team effectiveness.

And that’s where being known enters.

Psychological Safety is the #1 Predictor

Psychological safety is the perception that you can take a risk of being known with your teammates and not face any criticism, punishment, or sarcasm (yes, even that joking kind).  Jenn can ask a question about a yearly grant funder and no one gives her the intense bovine stare. Or Travis can admit he needs some skill building in Quick Books and his boss is relieved he wants to gear up his efficiency. Or Gillian can toss out an innovative idea about a way to treat a knee injury and her colleagues don’t just dismiss it … and her.

When your team creates psychological safety in its operating system, you have confidence that no one on your team will penalize or embarrass anyone else for asking a question, admitting a mistake, or contributing an idea. You can share something about yourself with your co-workers – maybe something embarrassing or scary or something that reveals that you are not as smart as you might want to appear.

In my first (and only) corporate job, I went to work as a researcher and thought I was fairly adept at Excel. But within a week’s time I was stunned (and humbled, and delighted) to witness my colleague’s gazelle-like maneuverability through a spreadsheet while I clunked around in mine. Although slightly embarrassed, I remember shuffling over to my colleague BG’s desk and asking for help repeatedly. 

I didn’t receive negative repercussions, or eye-rolling or disapproving snorts! BG extended nothing but patience, goodwill, and sharp assistance to bolster up my skills. Being known as a researcher with clunky Excel skills was OK. I was accepted as is. And it allowed her to shine, me to learn, and a strong, warm working relationship to begin developing.

 

What more could we mammals want in the workplace?

The Pivot Point of Team Effectiveness

Through the science of work teams, we know predicting its effectiveness matters more about HOW a team works together than WHO is on the team. So it doesn’t matter if you have the project management guru, the VP of Operations, or all the noisy extroverts on your team. 

The pivot point is how team members together create a culture threaded with interpersonal trust, mutual respect, and a comfort of being known as a human. It’s about how teammates interact with one another.

A Gallup study in 2017 reports that only 3 out of 10 employees strongly agree that their opinions count at work. Youch. Is that your workplace? If so, it’s time for a climate change.

How Do You Build Psychological Safety?

Just like the merchandise selected and placed on the shelves at Ulmer’s, psychological safety on teams doesn’t happen by chance.  It’s intentional. It’s strategic. It’s planful. It takes some upfront work before you realize the profit for your team.

Build It Together

Your team’s HOW takes a thoughtful, open discussion to decide how teammates want to interact with one another. Some groups can do this on their own. Many need a facilitator (uh-um, I know one) to hold the space, mine for differences, and clarify conversations.

 

Typically, these team discussions manifest with clear and concrete terms of engagement (aka team agreements or team commitments). The open forum allows teammates to share what is important for them on a team, their personal and work style preferences, and how it affects the team’s engagement.

Here are a few heartfelt and spot-on agreements from a few teams I facilitated recently:

  • We ask for help when we need it.
  • We use a steady, professional, and authentic demeanor.
  • We offer goodwill to one another without making assumptions.
  • We listen wholeheartedly to one another.
  • We are courageous to bring up difficult topics in a timely manner. 

  • We learn together. 

  • We admit mistakes and make amends as soon as possible.
  • We keep the shared vision alive! 


These ways of being together are a transformative start for any team. And as you might already expect, each team determines methods to regularly revisit the agreements and hold one another and themselves accountable too.

Every Mammal Wants To Be Known

Whether it’s on your work team, board of directors, or community committee, each of us gets a sense of security of being known.  When our preferences, quirks, and interests are seen, heard, understood, and accepted, we experience both safety and social connection. We breathe a sigh of relief. We feel calm, alert, kindred, and engaged.  Ahhh.

Thank goodness Ulmer’s figured this out.

Happy Summer Solstice One and All!

Susie