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Stop Obsessing About Workplace Failure: 3 Ways to Build a Safety Net

“Whatever you do, don’t screw up!”

“If you drop the ball on this, you’re toast!”

“Everything is riding on this presentation. Don’t let us down!”

Does this sound like your boss—or like you?

Too many managers obsess about the possibility of failure instead of building the safety nets that promote success. They spend far too much time reminding people about the consequences if things go wrong instead of clarifying what things will look like if they go right.

But why? Many people get promoted into the management ranks because of their critical-thinking skills, particularly in industries like consulting, engineering, and technology. Such skills allow for accurate problem-solving, and they help uncover flaws and mitigate, minimize, and control risks. The danger occurs, however, when critical thinkers place a disproportionate amount of attention on “all the things that can go wrong.” When managers continuously obsess about all the bad things that must be avoided, they end up injecting workers with so much anxiety that it creates an untenable amount of performance pressure, undermining their confidence and creating, ironically, an unsafe situation.

Three Ways to Build a Safety Net

If your aim is to help people to be more courageous—to trust your direction and take the kinds of risks and initiative that will benefit your company—you’d be wise to create safety nets. And because safety (and danger) occurs on many levels, weaving tight nets requires a multifaceted approach.

For some, safety comes in the form of financial stability. Such people will risk doing courageous things to the extent that those risks don’t jeopardize their job security. For others, safety has more to do with preserving their reputation. They will take risks as long as doing so won’t make them look bad. Still others find safety in belonging to a group. They will do courageous things as long as their place in the community isn’t threatened.

As a manager, you’ll find that gaining a clear understanding of each worker’s definition of safety will help you to craft each person’s net. That said, there are three specific ways of building safety nets regardless of which kind of safety is involved:

  1. Give People Permission to Be Courageous. The most powerful way to provoke courageous behavior is to give people permission to be courageous. Often, workers avoid doing courageous things because their heads are telling them they aren’t “allowed” to. As a manager, you need to give them the green light. You need to give them permission.

    How you carry yourself will make a significant impact on how safe workers feel and, thus, on how expressive they will be with you. By being fully present with your workers, you’ll make them feel valued. You’ll “allow” them to bring their fears out into the open. When they do, you’ll be better able to address their concerns and shift their thinking to all the ways they are prepared to meet their challenges.

  2. Value “Forward-Falling” Mistakes.Not all mistakes are created equal, and wise managers know that not making mistakes is just as dangerous as making too many. Growth is driven by innovation, and innovation often comes from making the rightmistakes. As long as the mistakes aren’t habitual, and as long as they key people into something they hadn’t known before, they’re worth making.

    When your people know that you value smart mistakes, they’ll become more willing to do courageous things. You have to be willing to let your people scrape their knees a little. By allowing workers to make their own mistakes and not berating them when they do, you create a safety net that enables them to be more experimental and innovative.

  3. Provide Air Cover. The job of a manager is sometimes like being on a medieval torture rack. You’re pulled at one end by the demands of your bosses, and at the other by the needs of your direct reports. It’s a tough place to be, because your bosses sign your paycheck but your people determine your success. More often than not, though, managers pay more attention to their bosses than to their employees.

    While workers recognize the legitimate need for you to be responsive to your boss’s demands, they lose confidence in you if you respond impulsively to executive requests without considering the impact those requests may have on them. After all, your decisions impact their lives.

    Workers want to know that you’re courageous enough to stick up for them and provide them with a safety net of “air cover.” They want to know that you’ll go to bat for them when they are overworked, or under-resourced, or burned out. They want to feel that they matter, too, and that their needs are considered when decisions that affect them are being made.

It’s easier for workers to be courageous when you create safety nets. Increased safety lessens workers’ fears and increases their willingness to carry out uncomfortable tasks. The more substantial the risk you’re asking workers to take, the more safety nets you’ll have to put in place. Although it’s rarely possible, and often counterproductive, to remove all danger from challenging situations, safety nets create the type of courage that inspires workers to innovate, take chances, and succeed.


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Bill Treasurer
Bill Treasurer is a workplace expert, courage pioneer, and author of Courage Goes to Work: How to Build Backbones, Boost Performance, and Get Results. Founder of Giant Leap Consulting, a consulting and training company specializing in courage-building, he advises organizations—including NASA, eBay, Lenovo, Saks Fifth Avenue, Spanx, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Pittsburgh Pirates—on teaching workers the kind of courage that strengthens businesses and careers. Bill is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.
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