Our species survived through the generations by sticking together in clans, groups, and tribes. We are hardwired as herd animals for mutual support, safety, and survival. Today, we spend most of our time while awake with those we work with – which means that in the 21st century, work is the new tribe.

Recently, I wrote on several topics around the concept of creating a more compelling culture at work. This month, we’re digging deeper into what contributes to an engaging workplace, starting with one, if not the most important topic, feeling safe.

What is a felt sense of safety?

As presented in previous blog posts, a key role of the limbic system is to appraise security or insecurity around available social resources (coworkers, managers), and it doesn’t distinguish whether we are at work or at home. So, the notion that at work we become unfeeling cogs in the apparatus of the workplace, impervious to the emotions that exist in organizations is – to put it bluntly – delusional. We can only function at our full capacity when the brain feels safe. Once the limbic system triggers “threat,” it starts redirecting metabolic resources, the energy consumed in the brain, to responding to and coping with the perceived danger. Alternatively, when the limbic system feels secure, we have more mental amplitude. A critical part of this felt sense of safety, social neuroscientists tell us, is to have trusted relationships.

“Human beings are social creatures at our core, and the hardwired need to have safe and secure connections is as fundamental to our health as food and water… This need for social connection goes beyond the physical proximity of others (strangers are less beneficial than family) and it includes the mere perception of being alone.” The Oxford Handbook of Neuroscience, Jean Decety and John T. Cacioppo.

What does it feel like to be here?

The brain is essentially starved for energy; what is available has to be conserved and used for the most essential functions. According to the research of University of Virginia neuroscientist Dr. James Coan and other scientists, a key reason humans are prosocial is the brain’s penchant for conserving the limited energy available at any given moment. Our cerebral matter occupies about 2 percent of our body mass, but it consumes 20-25 percent of our resources. There is no extra energy floating around in the soft nervous tissue packed into our skull. Everything we do, we do for a reason, and the brain is trying to conserve as much energy as possible in the trillion-plus chemical and electrical transactions made every second to get us through our day. According to Coan, our brain uses trusted social resources to “economize its activity.”

Our brain feels safe when it’s surrounded by colleagues it trusts. When employees tell us their work environment “feels like family,” we know they feel safe. (Side note: We’re always talking about a healthy family!) When our brains feel safe, we do our best work.

The importance of consistency and predictability in a safe environment

When workplace cultures nurture the conditions where human beings thrive (i.e., predictable and consistent availability of resources), where the members of the tribe can safely load share with one another, leaders will see remarkable shifts in daily behavior that translate directly to the bottom line. This also reveals the key driver of employee disengagement – a scarcity of trusted connections, unclear expectations, poor direction, and a high-pressure or punitive boss.

The importance of feeling safe at work cannot be overstated. Employees who feel safe (or unsafe) directly affect your bottom line. Here are more key effects of creating a safe workplace environment:

Safety provides clarity and fairness

Employees who feel safe around their manager and colleagues will be more open to being a team player and support fairness across the team.

Safety supports collaboration

When colleagues feel safe, they are more likely to collaborate instead of compete with each other. The saying “two brains are better than one” comes into play here. When your employees feel safe to collaborate, they can put their heads together to find creative solutions to challenges and get their work done more effectively and efficiently.

Safety contributes to meaning and purpose

Many employees tell us in our engagement survey that their desire to support trusted coworkers provides meaning and purpose. In a safe and secure work environment, your team members will take greater ownership in their work.

Key Takeaways

  • Our brain must feel safe to do its best work.
  • Managers can create safe environments for their employees through consistency and predictability.
  • When employees feel safe, they’re more likely to be team players, collaborate with colleagues, and feel a strong sense of meaning and purpose in the work they do.