Feeling Safe: A Good Boss Watches Your Back

[tweetmeme]A couple of recent studies confirm that one of our most primal needs is safety.  We want to feel safe – at home, in our city’s streets and especially at the office.  Reuters came out with a report today that ranked cities on how safe they are for children.  I’m proud to say that my hometown, New York City, ranked first along with Louisville.

"Feeling safe -- he's got their backs"

Feeling safe -- he's got their backs

Another study by McKinsey this past summer discussed the importance of a boss making his employees feel psychologically safe by watching their backs.  This intrigued me because feeling safe isn’t usually found on the wish list of employees.  A good salary, a secure job (maybe that does equate with safety), meaningful work and a sense of community usually rank high.

So why is it important for a boss to “watch your back” and provide psychological safety?   According to the McKinsey study, “Why good bosses tune in to their people, “Good bosses spark imagination and encourage learning by creating a safety zone where people can talk about half-baked ideas, test them, and even make big mistakes without fear of ridicule, punishment, or ostracism.”

An Absence of Safety Can be Deadly

An absence of psychological safety, in concert with fear of the boss, can be dangerous or downright deadly….one study showed that when pilots faked mild incapacitation toward the end of a rough and rainy simulated flight, their copilots failed to take the controls 25 percent of the time—resulting in simulated crashes.

To lock in your team’s loyalty, boldly defend their backs, says the study’s author Stanford management professor Bob Sutton.

Fear Stifles Creativity and Productivity

Who wants to take a chance and suggest a new way of doing something and risk the wrath of the boss?  Says Sutton, “The best bosses invent, borrow, and implement ways to reduce the mental and emotional load heaped on their followers — followers who enjoy such protection have the freedom to take risks and try new things.”

Fear can be a motivator – of the wrong kind of behavior.  A fearful employee keeps his head down, does what he’s told and expected to do but rarely ventures out on the edge of the board.  I once worked for a CEO who screamed and tossed ashtrays.  He even resented the clack of his secretary’s fingers on the keyboard.  Do you think anyone voluntarily went to his office with a new idea?  Not on your life.

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