Safe Spaces Don’t Go Far Enough: Great Workplace Should Be Thriving Spaces

As diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) grew in popularity, so did the concept of the “safe space.” This blanket term represented a physical location where everyone – even those most discriminated against – could feel confident they would not be harmed. Ironically, allowing decision-makers with the most power to declare workplaces safe may actually do more harm than good. After all, what’s safe for one person or group of people might be just the opposite for another. Meanwhile, the finality of declaring a space safe implies an end to the ongoing work it takes to meet everyone’s needs. Finally, the idea of safety suggests a lack of discomfort, despite the fact that the work of creating safety requires the ability to have uncomfortable conversations first.  

Instead of safe spaces, organizations should focus on creating thriving spaces – workplaces that are alive with the curiosity, empathy, and accountability that will truly make employees feel safe. A place where mistakes are made and addressed and individuals are empowered to define what they need to be at their best. 

Thriving Spaces Start With Complexity

We are all human and we all have life experiences that shape the conditions that make us thrive or hold us back. And even if some of us haven’t experienced it firsthand, we all know people who have faced varying degrees of racism, sexism, discrimination, and harassment. With all of these various backgrounds and experiences thrown together, we are bound to encounter lumps, bumps, and bruises when trying to accommodate everyone. What offends one person, may delight another. What puts one person at ease, might put another on edge. 

This complexity makes creating a space that’s definitively safe for all through rules and processes alone impossible. Instead, the focus should be on the people participating in that space, and the agreements they share to do their best to create an environment where everyone can grow and thrive. 

The Fundamentals of Thriving Spaces

At Culture Refinery, we talk a lot about how creating cultures that work for everyone requires looking at every part of an organization – from hiring to benefits to the way work gets done. To key to producing that kind of culture starts with a shared set of values. Creating thriving spaces, whether it’s on your teams or organization-wide, works the same way. This approach is rooted in key values including: 

Clear, Open Communication: Authentic communication extends beyond message transmission. Integrating it into the culture involves considering the who, how, and what of communication. Establish clear reporting structures and equip managers with skills to navigate various conversations.

Accountability: Communication necessitates accountability. Trust thrives when individuals believe their contributions, from ideas to grievances, will be acknowledged and acted upon. Develop clear expectations, frequent progress checks, and cultivate peer accountability.

Transparency Balanced with Privacy: Transparency is essential, but striking the right balance is vital. Emotional intelligence and legal education are key, to preventing oversharing while maintaining openness.

Community: Building a sense of community requires structure. Shared values, transparent communication, reasonable expectations, and accountability systems form the foundation for a thriving community.

Advocacy: Empower employees to find advocates within the community. Enable clear communication channels for collaboration with advocates, fostering issue resolution in a solution-oriented culture.

Culture Refinery’s Approach 

In the same way  “safe space” implies the work is already done, thriving spaces send the message that the work is always being done. Mistakes will be made, conversations will be hard, and new challenges will always emerge. To manage this aliveness within your culture, it helps to bring in outside perspectives to ensure accountability.  

That’s what we do at Culture Refinery and how we liberate teams to have these kinds of conversations on their own, in a way that becomes second nature. We have to cultivate a culture that allows for difficult conversations to happen AND where we’ve built in so much accountability that it’s easy to assume good intentions when missteps do occur. We want those conversations to be an opportunity to educate and expand because this is how we create a culture that allows us to show up as we are.

Do you have a comfortable place to be uncomfortable within your organization? Contact us to learn how to create that thriving space for everyone. 

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