Today’s show is, Create A Felt Sense of Safety. Listen to the show on iTunes and Stitcher.

Don: [00:00:01] When an employee does not feel safe at work, that a significant part of their brain’s capacity is dedicated to dealing with that threat either real or imagined.

Don: [00:00:09] So there’s a significant cost, if you will, when employees get to work and they don’t feel safe in that environment. It robs them of their full capacity.

Don: [00:00:21] My name is Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions and author of the book, “Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.”

Don: [00:00:31] I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement, and I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level create engaging, workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized and validated. Employees who feel safe are happier, healthier and more productive. Each week my team and I take on topics impacting managers and we offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. And, you’re listening to Thrive By Design, a podcast created by E3 Solutions to give managers, CEOs and leaders the tips, strategies and tools needed to create an engaged culture at work.

Kelly: [00:01:13] Welcome. I’m your host Kelly Burns, vice president of client experiences at E3 Solutions. As always we tackle critical workplace themes each week with our resident expert and CEO, Don Rheem.

[00:01:25] Welcome Don and thank you for taking the time to be here with us.

Don: [00:01:29] It’s my pleasure, Kelly.

Kelly: [00:01:30] As we heard at the top of today’s episode, this week’s focus is creating a felt sense of safety in the workplace.

Kelly: [00:01:36] According to Gallup, 33 percent of employees say that they feel safest at work. You talk about this stat all the time done in our workshops. That’s a significant number of people and leaders shouldn’t underestimate the value and importance of fostering a safe and thriving environment.

Kelly: [00:01:53] How does this statistic help us understand the impact of a felt sense of safety in the workplace?

Don: [00:01:58] A really important issue and sometimes managers think that we’re advocating coddling employees and we’re really not. This is a felt sense of safety not of the roof falling in or an accident happening. But, this is the part of the brain that has control precedence, that is, the epicenter of fight, flight or freeze. It’s called the limbic system.

Don: [00:02:15] And the limbic system is hypervigilant for threat and it overexaggerates threat. But this is the key important thing for leaders at every level in an organization. When the limbic system triggers threat, it starts to hijack energy, metabolic resources, from the rest of the brain.

Don: [00:02:32] And, what this means is when an employee does not feel safe at work, that a significant part of their brains capacity is dedicated to dealing with that threat, either real or imagined.

Don: [00:02:41] What does that mean? That means IQ drops up to eleven points in that area. It means they start losing peripheral vision. So they’re not seeing things going on around them. They’re less likely to be attuned to the people around them and their needs. They’re less likely to be caring of others and supportive of others. They’re going to be less innovative. They’re going to be less curious.

Don: [00:03:00] So there’s a significant cost, if you will, when employees get to work and they don’t feel safe in that environment. It robs them of their full capacity.

Don: [00:03:09] One of our goals at E3 Solutions, is to make sure that employees have everything they need to thrive at work. We want to eliminate these threats that happen at work threats that range in everything from a toxic manager, someone who’s mercurial and they can’t be predictable. They’re not following the company’s values they seem misaligned. They have anger management issues, their facial expressions send signals that indicate to the brain that something’s not right and so now the brain needs to figure it out.

Don: [00:03:35] There’s a big cost here. And, this is why, when people feel safe and they’re fully engaged at work, they’re more likely to be fully engaged at work. Productivity goes up, the accident rate goes down, it changes everything.

Kelly: [00:03:46] Neuroscience gives us some pretty key indicators of how to create a felt sense of safety in the brain. So we’ve talked to neuroscientists and Don, I’ll let you get into detail here, but essentially we’ve learned that the brain is always asking two questions every single day. And, in answering those two specific questions a leader is helping create a felt sense of safety.

Don: [00:04:07] Exactly. So this is the work of Dr. James Coan at the University of Virginia Charlottesville, just a brilliant neuroscientist and clinical psychologist.

Don: [00:04:14] The limbic system is the part of the brain he’s talking about and of course that doesn’t speak in words or language. But, when they look at the research and how the limbic system responds to certain conditions, are the neurons lighting up in a very positive way, in the positive centers of the brain and when do the does the brain seem to be dealing with threat, and dealing with the trauma of threat.

Don: [00:04:33] Two key questions: what’s next and how am I doing?

Don: [00:04:36] And the what’s next, this is a simple question when you hear it, but it’s just not something that’s often done at work.

Don: [00:04:42] If an employee knows what’s going to happen next, either their shift that day, their shift that week, if they know for example that their manager, supervisor is going to treat them in the same way time after time after time that becomes consistent and predictable. And these are two key conditions.

Don: [00:04:58] When managers are consistent and predictable in the workplace their employees feel safer because they don’t have to worry about what’s next. And it turns out that a lot of the brain’s capacity, certainly and when we’re asleep apparently, is dedicated to trying to predict our future. It really wants to know what’s coming up.

Don: [00:05:15] So, here’s the question that sounds just too simple when you ask it. If someone knows what’s next, do they feel more safe or less safe? Clearly, they feel more safe. And if they don’t know what’s going to happen next, how do they feel more safe or less safe? And clearly, we just know intuitively they’re going to feel less safe.

Don: [00:05:31] What does this mean for the manager? Include employees in planning meetings. Be collaborative with them on issues that are coming up, don’t blindside them with things that deal directly with their job or their team. Be inclusive be collaborative. All of these things contribute to this sense of hey, what’s next.

Don: [00:05:46] One of the really important ones that we like is not just what’s next about today or this week or this month, but, how about what’s next for their career in your company?

Don: [00:05:54] That is coming alongside them and creating a flight plan for them. Here’s where you can go in the company. You can have an amazing career here. Let’s sit down and let’s map it out. What are the key competencies you’re going to need? What kind of training you need? And, really lay that out for someone. That’s just another example of being predictable and consistent.

Kelly: [00:06:11] So let’s talk about the second question.

Don: [00:06:12] The second question is, how am I doing? Now, this isn’t about ego, although there’s a lot of that in certainly in organizations these days as we’re finding out in our work. Homo sapiens are herd animals social animals and we’re hardwired to be in groups and clans. And, so I tell my clients just think back 10,000 years down on the open savannah and East Africa, the Maasai Mara the Serengeti. You’re out there alone. What were your chances of survival?

Kelly: [00:06:35] Pretty slim.

Don: [00:06:36] Very slim. You’re probably just a mobile protein source for other carnivores that were faster and stronger. But if you were out there in a group in a clan in a tribe What do you think happened your chances of survival?

Kelly: [00:06:48] They had to go way up.

Don: [00:06:49] Yeah. All you had to do is outrun one person. And you could survive another day. This is a condition that has been true for almost sapiens since the beginning. So much so that social neuroscientists are now saying that every fold of our cerebral matter, is dedicated to being inside a group, being accepted, being a healthy valued member of the group.

Don: [00:07:08] So of course the brain wants to know am I in? It’s like checking on its membership status. Am I in? Do you see me, do you know me? Do you value what I do and what I bring? And this is why recognition and feedback and validation is so important in the workplace, we’ve certainly talked about that in previous podcasts. But those are some of the lowest scoring items when we look at our global data.

Don: [00:07:30] There just isn’t enough validation recognition and feedback going on in organizations. These are not gratuitous social gestures to employees. These are conditions that signal to the brain especially the limbic part of the brain that says hey, I am noticed, I am valuable. I’m probably not going to be kicked out of the tribe today.

Kelly: [00:07:47] And, that sense of feeling safe in the workplace as you started is what drives performance and behaviors in the workplace. That’s what makes work thrive. That’s what makes businesses succeed.

Don: [00:07:59] One of the myths in business, since the Industrial Revolution for the last 250 years [is that] managers, leaders have told people hey, leave that personal stuff, that emotional stuff at home, you’re at work now.

Don: [00:08:09] The challenge is the limbic system isn’t smart enough to know whether it’s at work or at home. All it knows is whether or not it feels safe. So, of course, we want to create these conditions in the workplace, because it literally unlocks metabolic capacity for people, so they can do more.

Kelly: [00:08:25] Let’s get really practical. We often talk with clients about five ways to create a felt sense of safety in the workplace and I want to run through those five to give some very practical guidance to the listeners.

Don: [00:08:36] Sure. We need to take the research, obviously, and make it practical and implementable and actionable inside the workplace.

Don: [00:08:42] We have identified five different ways to increase a felt sense of safety in the workplace. And, the first one, is one of our most consistent mantras, ee predictable, be consistent.

Don: [00:08:54] Managers that are mercurial, that is one day or one moment in the day, they’re supportive and friendly to employees, but later in the day or the next day or later in the week, they treat employees, that put them in a one down position and treat them disrespectfully. Those kinds of managers, hot and cold, hot and cold, are crazy making for the limbic system because it never knows what it’s going to get. And, as a result, people kind of hunker down. They’re not bringing their full self to work in those conditions.

Kelly: [00:09:22] When somebody is predictable, even if it is in a negative way, at least an employee can adapt to that environment and can figure out how to best work in a negative environment like that. But when it is back and forth and up and down and you never know what to expect there’s no chance for adapting, which means you’re only in survival mode all the time.

Don: [00:09:41] I know managers and leaders they have tough days, tough mornings, tough weeks like every other human being on the planet. But, part of being a leader, in a role of manager, is to show up for your team in this way that’s consistent and predictable.

Don: [00:09:54] And, I don’t like the research that says that the consistent grump is more engaging than the manager that’s hot and cold but that’s what the research says. Because if I’m going to go in and see this grump, at least as you said, I know what’s going to happen when I get there. I know it. I’m not going to be blindsided. It’s more predictable and as a result. It’s safer.

Kelly: [00:10:14] What’s the next step?

Don: [00:10:15] Next step is just providing clarity and fairness. We had one employee in a survey who said, “I think my manager views information as money because she’s hoarding it.”

Don: [00:10:25] What we want you to do is to provide clarity, share information. One of the most common words we see in our open-ended question, what could we do to improve engagement in the organization is communication.

Don: [00:10:37] They’re not talking about a newsletter. They want communication and typically with their manager or supervisor. And, by the way, what that often turns out to be is an issue of access to their manager or supervisor. So when they say I want more communication, they’re saying I want more access. I never see my manager or supervisor, so that’s really key.

Kelly: [00:10:56] Well that reminds me of the whole question you brought up before, how am I doing? If they don’t have access to their manager, or if they don’t have access to that communication, how do they know how they’re fitting in that tribe and if they’re succeeding?

Don: [00:11:08] We have employees and this isn’t one instance, it’s multiple instances where they say, I just need to hear something. I don’t care if my manager yells at me. I don’t care if it’s all negative. Just tell me something about how I’m doing so I know.

Kelly: [00:11:24] But don’t be on negative.

Don: [00:11:25] But don’t be all negative. I’d rather you weren’t.

Kelly: [00:11:26] What’s the next step?

Don: [00:11:27] The next step is just to support collaboration, to be collaborative. And, that is, to encourage members of the team to do things together. To collaborate with team members yourself. If members of your team are sitting down to work on a project, you as the manager, leader, go sit in, listen show them you care, be there, help mentor and guide them in the process. But also collaborate across the so-called silos that exist in so many organizations.

Don: [00:11:51] We just see this all the time. You know the silos are holding us back and we’re not working well together and it’s either like sales and marketing or you know it’s these departmental issues that are going back and forth.

Don: [00:12:02] They don’t collaborate well and when I go to you, Kelly, and I and I’m working on a project and I need your input. And, I reach out to you to collaborate with you because I’m trying to do a better job and you either say, well you should already know that, you should’ve figured that out. Figured out on your own. Go talk to someone else. Just even the frame around the issue of communication that your questions aren’t welcome here. You figure it out. And, as a result, we feel more alone and isolated and in those conditions we underperform.

Kelly: [00:12:29] This reminds me of the language we use in our organization, regularly, about the concept of load sharing. And, the science behind load sharing and how much it alleviates a feeling that projects are too difficult or that you’re in it alone, which would obviously contribute to a lack of a felt sense of safety.

Don: [00:12:46] If we are alone to your point, if we do feel isolated in our work, for example, a manager’s not available, we don’t collaborate, I never see┬ámy teammates. We don’t feel as safe and the brain actually codes that as threat. The brain assumes that I will have people around me that I can load share with and when the brain realizes it doesn’t, then it goes into a coping strategy. And, what we’re doing once again, is we’re diverting, limited in some cases scarce metabolic resources in the brain to do the best job they possibly could. They can’t now.

Kelly: [00:13:18] All right. What’s the next step?

Don: [00:13:19] It’s offering meaning and purpose and we’ve talked about this and we’re going to talk about it some more in a subsequent podcast.

Don: [00:13:25] If people come to work and they’re finding meaning and purpose in their life as a part of their work and what they do, we see this in nursing a lot where the nurses talk about in the surveys, they do it not for the pay, they’re doing because they love helping people heal and get better.

Don: [00:13:41] When employees find meaning and purpose in their job, they’re more engaged when they do it and they feel safer about themselves and their own condition.

Don: [00:13:50] I’m going to save the meaning and purpose conversation for a subsequent podcast, but a major opportunity for every manager is to help their team individual team members find meaning and purpose in their work. And, they can best do that by sharing the sense of meaning purpose they find in the work, as the leader and let other people come alongside that narrative. Or share the narrative around meaning a purpose of the founder or the CEO, why do they do this, why are we here. It should be in the mission statement, could be partly woven in with the core values. But that’s a really important conversation to have.

Kelly: [00:14:22] Can you talk to us about the last step we took with leaders about?

Don: [00:14:25] The last one, these two things are almost synonymous, but it’s build trust and connections.

Don: [00:14:30] And, the fact is, that when you have connections there’s then more trust in the organization. The more relational the culture, the more trustworthy it is if people are aligned and if they’re predictable and consistent.

Don: [00:14:43] So, these are not like five, like do this, then do that. This is not a linear five-step process. This is an ecosystem of things leaders can be doing. They should be doing all five of these things, but don’t leave out the part about trust and connections.

Don: [00:14:57] Now. Trust is a word we use a lot. It’s almost every leadership book ever written talks about trust. There are books on trust. But, trust is a word the limbic system will never hear, but it does feel trustworthiness in other people. And that’s where it comes from. How do we come to trust someone? Why do I trust Kelly Burns, the host of this podcast, because over the years I’ve known her, I can predict her behavior. I know that she’s consistent and predictable. She’ll have my back. She’s going to cover for me. That’s what makes you and other members of our team trustworthy because we can count on them.

Kelly: [00:15:31] The data completely backs up what you’re saying here. There was a survey with the Society of Human Resource Management. They talked about 64 percent of employees rate trust between employee and senior management as the second most important contributor to job satisfaction. So trust in job satisfaction go hand in hand. They cannot be separated that one.

Don: [00:15:52] There you go. I’m glad you brought it up because we have two questions in our survey that are explicitly about trust. What we’re doing is we want to explore trust in both directions. One question is, I trust and respect my supervisor. And we’re looking for a really high score there. That’s what we really want. But then we ask it another way. My supervisor trust and respects me.

Don: [00:16:13] Because trust is the strongest when it’s reciprocal, when it’s balanced, it’s a two way street on trust. When we look at those questions in a survey, I’m always looking to see how far apart are those numbers. Because sometimes when we do, we always rank order the questions according to their score, and I love seeing one of those right above the other. And I don’t care which one’s higher than the other. I just want to see them close together. When they’re separated, when there’s a gulf, a gap between them, we know there’s an issue there that’s worth exploring, both as a culture for the company as a whole, but also when we’re looking at an individual manager’s scores. Why would those two things be so far apart if they were?

Kelly: [00:16:48] Leaders have a real opportunity to create a felt sense of safety in organizations. It’s not just the 33 percent of Americans who feel safest at work that need this environment to be healthy and thriving and safe on a day to day basis. But every single employee who shows up every day needs to understand that they have a sense of safety where they can thrive in the workplace.

Kelly: [00:17:11] So, in order to foster that the things we talk about are to be predictable and consistent, to provide clarity and fairness, to support collaboration, to offer meaning and purpose and to build trust and connection across the workplace.

Don: [00:17:25] Spot on Kelly and this is why I titled the book, “Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.” When we can design and build a culture, based on these five steps we’ve been talking about you just read, the human beings inside that culture will thrive. They will operate it closer to their full capacity and that should be what every leader is looking for.

Kelly: [00:17:48] That’s it for today. I’m your host Kelly Burns and thank you for listening.

Kelly: [00:17:52] Tune in to next week’s episode, helping your employees find meaning and purpose.

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Kelly: [00:18:24] Thrive By Design is produced and audio engineered by Megan Rummler. All music in this episode is sourced royalty-free from

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