Safe Spaces. Seems people support or deride them. But what purpose do they serve, and for whom?

Generally, safe spaces offer sanctuary from risk, injury, and adversity—often resulting in polite spaces that avoid controversy and contradiction.

In some academic settings, safe spaces provide important refuge for isolated groups during significant learning years.

In business, however—where the notion of power must be mitigated and navigated—we require brave spaces, and for a very different reason.

The Perfect Team

Google spent two years investigating what makes a team successful.

Google’s initial hypothesis suggested that building the best possible team means simply compiling the best people—the best experts, engineers, MBAs, and Ph.D.’s.

After studying 180 Google teams, conducting 200+ interviews, and analyzing over 250 different team attributes, to their surprise, Google was unable to reduce the “dream team” gene to any one formula or algorithm.

According to Julia Rozovsky, Google’s people analytics manager, “We were dead wrong.”

Rozovsky and her colleagues continually came across psychology and sociology research that had focused on “group norms”— the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how teams function together.

Google discovered five qualities that matter. The first four are: 

  1. Dependability. Team members accomplish things on time and meet expectations.
  2. Structure and clarity. High-performing teams have clear goals and well-defined roles.
  3. Meaning. The work is personally significant to each member.
  4. Impact. The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good.

The Fifth Quality: Psychological Safety.

Google also discovered that full participation depends on a fifth quality, termed psychological safety, in which everyone can take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture in which managers create safe zones so employees can let their guard down. That’s psychological safety.

The irony is that group norms informed by expertise, knowledge, and high education levels can actually undermine psychological safety. People feel controlled, micromanaged, judged, and not safe to question, learn, and grow.

Ask yourself, regarding group norms marked by power, fear, micromanagement, and control:

  • Can people take risks? Challenge managers and supervisors? Offer input that isn’t solicited?
  • Can people question leadership without being shut down? Are some questions allowed and not others?
  • Are these group norms meant for a single culture, color, or sex? Can they be questioned, and if so, by whom?

Google posited psychological safety as necessary to “engineering” successful teams.

Safety for Whom?

Now, we come back to safety.

What if all of this focus on safety is misplaced? What about teams that are informed by diverse experiences, thinking, and views?

What if safety is simply another way to comfort the comfortable and preserve the status quo? Or what if it conceals real issues and suppresses differences?

Most importantly, this kind of “safety” begins to feel like groupthink. It keeps those in power from being questioned, encouraging different views, receiving feedback, or risk-taking.

So then, what do we mean by “safe” in a business context?

  • One definition involves entitlement to comfort without conflict.
  • Another involves being secure in one’s position to speak their mind.

Safety as comfort preserves the status quo and encourages groupthink.

  • Safety protects those in power and the dominant group to prevent raising “uncomfortable” issues.
  • Safety offers comfort for those in power. We cannot speak truth to power or question the status quo. We can only share views that are comfortable for those in leadership.
  • Safety undermines true innovation, which begins at the margins. What seems odd or awkward today becomes tomorrow’s new products and services.

Safety as secure in our position to speak our mind involves brave spaces.

Secure in our well-being, we are encouraged to speak our mind. With practice, we learn to:

  • listen to different experiences, ideas, and ways of thinking;
  • handle questions, feedback, and opposing views;
  • consider new ideas; and
  • become agile and nimble, able to surface and question outmoded assumptions and beliefs.

Power and Fear

Unlike safe spaces, brave spaces dissolve and address the power and fear that can cripple team participation.

Power typically involves five dimensions:

  • Legitimate power: position of authority
  • Expert power: acquiring expertise and knowledge,
  • Coercive power: exerting force and control,
  • Reward power: offering incentives or reinforcement, and
  • Referent power: gaining approval through loyalty and admiration.

Power in teams is often used to control agendas, hoard resources, predict situations, prevent discomfort, or protect self-interests. This can lead to hostile work environments.

Fear typically comes from some perceived threat, such as loss of power and loss of self.

We can explain fear by how we perceive threats. Research by Carol Dweck on growth and fixed mindsets and Chris Argyris on Defensive Reasoning reveal how experts and smart people refuse to grow, change and learn.

Dweck found that children with fixed mindsets would cheat, lie, and give up just to preserve their “all-knowing” identity.

Argyris defines a “universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values: 1) To remain in unilateral control; 2) to maximize ‘winning’ and minimize ‘losing’; 3) to suppress negative feelings; and, 4) to be as ‘rational’ as possible—by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them.”

These values serve to “avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent.”

Shifting to Dweck’s growth mindset is one solution, but it’s not easy. It takes time to surface and evolve fixed beliefs, assumptions, and expectations about life, success, change, and leadership.

This brings us back to the group norms we internalize that often define how we operate in teams. Are these norms based on being challenged to grow and embrace change or preserving status, power, and identity?

Principles for Brave Spaces

In times of volatile change, complexity, and integrating diverse cultures and experiences, those in power often conflate their role with their ideas and expectations of comfort. They exact control to suppress dissenting voices and differences.

Their attempt to control behavior and resources often overlooks the very innovation they wish to harness.

To combat this, they would do well to build resilience and openness to opposing viewpoints, challenging questions, and critical feedback.

Brave spaces incorporate these principles to build such resilience:

Openness and Diversity. Embrace diversity in all its forms to include group identities and cognitive diversity. Beyond cultural fit, hire people who promote cultural fitness.

Cognitive Friction. Allow friction and tensions from diverse experiences, thinking, and views to surface multiple viewpoints.

Intellectual Humility. Encourage leaders to embrace their vulnerabilities and do not expect them to know everything or to have all the answers.

Unlearning Worldviews: Creating Brave Spaces

Such resilience begins with unlearning long-held attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs—worldviews that shape group norms.

Based on the research of oppressive and hostile organizational cultures, which also impede growth and learning, these five worldviews are ripe for unlearning.

1 – Fear of Open Conflict.

Unlearn: We equate raising difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line. Those with power fear losing control. They are scared of conflict and will deny or ignore it.

Brave spaces receive concerns openly, encouraging feedback and raising difficult issues. Avoid prescribing “acceptable” ways to raise difficult issues. Acknowledge those who surface difficult issues.

Practice: Avoid making the issue about yourself rather than the topic. Own both your intention and your impact.

2 – Hoarding Power.

Unlearn: Power is seen as limited—a zero-sum game—with no value in sharing it. Those with power personalize change; they feel threatened by change, viewing it as a reflection on their leadership. Loss of power is a loss of self.

Brave spaces appreciate questions. Leaders share power with others to cultivate trust and advance their goals and efforts. They appreciate that change is inevitable and understand that challenging questions can be healthy and productive (to leadership).

Practice: Develop the ability to live in the question. Don’t become attached to immediate answers or solutions. Avoid the need to always be certain, in charge, or in control.

3 – My View or No View.

Unlearn the attitude that yours is the one objective view of reality. When we are unwilling to listen to other views, people will shut down or merely agree with those in power. This leads to groupthink.

Brave spaces encourage opposing viewpoints. Realize that there isn’t one objective worldview; everybody has a worldview that affects the way they understand things.

Practice: Sit in discomfort when people express themselves in ways that are not familiar to you. Assume that everybody has a valid point and your job is to understand that point.

4 – Perfectionism.

Unlearn the attitude that mistakes should not exist—that it is impossible to learn from mistakes. We often confuse making a mistake or doing wrong with being a mistake or being wrong. Our concern with our “proper” image finds us controlling situations and hiding problems.

Brave spaces shift from controlling to learning. We cultivate learning cultures of practice, not perfection, where mistakes are inevitable, an expected part of uncertainty. We separate our views and ideas from our identities.

Practice: Become interested in the best ideas, not the best look or image. Frame mistakes as learning opportunities that cultivate humility.

5 – Intellectual Overconfidence.

Unlearn the belief that those with authority must know best. We all overestimate how much we know. Knowledge today has a half-life of 5–7 years. Overconfidence can lead to moral superiority, and we become susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect, and confirmation bias.

Brave spaces understand that knowledge evolves, so we invite everyone to examine their beliefs and surface their assumptions. Knowing is not as important as learning.

Practice: Become comfortable with uncertainty and share vulnerabilities that encourage more questions than answers.

Finally

Brave spaces include Google’s criteria of dependability, structure, meaning, and impact as being necessary for performance.

Brave spaces also expand psychological safety to encourage diversity and inclusion for people to speak up, express alternative viewpoints, challenge the status quo, and acknowledge issues in the power structure without fearing punishment.

Only brave spaces can marry performance and inclusion to create belonging.

Reading Time: 11 min. Digest Time: 17 min

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tony-zampella-headshot

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. 

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.