The Danger of Safety

May 4, 2018
by De Hicks

Recently I attended the memorial service of my 85-year-old father-in-law George. Held outside in severe weather, it was moving in unexpected ways. The cold wind and rain did not chill or dampen the smiles of those in attendance as they remembered his long life.

At one point the pastor, in a clumsy attempt at humor, remarked that George’s love of motorcycles was unwise and unsafe. The implied “Shame on him!” was obvious. Even though he was aware that many of the attendees were avid riders, including several of us from Rottweiler Motorcycle Company, the pastor forged on, awkwardly lecturing about the dangers of riding. I think he used the word “unsafe” six times. I couldn’t help but imagine George saying, “Aw, c’mon. I made it to 85, so I think riding is safe enough!”

This thought, along with the pastor’s extended bloviating puffery, made my thoughts wander to the overrated idea of safety. And to the nervous pursuit of security. Especially as it is used to justify one’s current habits and comfort.

When is safety essential? When is the compulsion for safety actually dangerous? When is standing still, or hiding, or retreating, or saving more dangerous than moving, advancing, spending? We know that making that decision alone is, in itself, unsafe. We know that a secure base makes for a better life. If I have a safe group of people with whom I create and build, I am grounded and perhaps the need for a risk-free life is overrated.

Safety with my teams, with my family, is essential. We know that groups of people in companies, for example, who have interpersonal safety are about 700% (yes, seven hundred percent) more productive over a ten year period than those who feel implicitly insecure and threatened.

We know that safety in groups arises from a deep sense of belonging, from highly energetic interactions, and from an assurance that the group will endure over time.
(MIT Human Dynamics Labs, Sandy Pentlon).

The outcomes that arise from groups with high levels of interpersonal safety are often transformational. We also know that, while the groups provide relational safety, they do not create risk-free environments. High impact groups are safe, but they are not risk-free. In fact, safe groups take more risks than groups without internal safety. Their risks are calculated. They know the opportunities are huge, and the risks high. But, because they are welded together like families, they take the risks. Safe groups threaten the status quo. Safe groups transform cultures, markets, societies. Safe groups make much of today unsafe.

Safe groups don’t look safe. Especially to those on the outside. They look terrifying. Much like riding a 103ci motorcycle at 70 mph down the highway, these groups look dangerous. But, they are behaviorally engineered to perform. But, they all send “signals” to one another that they are safe.

Interpersonally safe groups take risks because they have specific behaviors that signal safety. These signals arise from a belief that 1.) the work is important and, 2.) it’s impossible to complete without every member of the team. These “belonging behaviors” (Coyle, 2018) that weld the family together include

1. Physical Proximity: Members are physically close together as they do their work, play, and celebrate. Their personal space is very small. Groups that are physically separated rarely achieve belongingness and safety. Virtual groups never will. Sorry for those of you who have built your work on virtual groups, but they will never be “safe” and therefore capable of taking massive, high potential risks.
2. Eye Contact: They look at each other a lot. Healthy, safe and high performing groups look at each other, especially when they are in conflict. In our assessment of groups, one of the first behaviors we notice is eye contact. Little eye contact equals an unhealthy group. It’s that simple.
3. Energy: They have high energy, especially when listening to others on the team. And, being together fosters high energy. When they are tired, they want to be together.
4. Mimicry: They imitate each other. When they see behaviors that work, they adopt them quickly. They also use mimicry as a warm, humorous way to bond with each other. And, the imitation is not perceived by the subject as a slight, but rather as a sign of love.
5. Turn-taking: In everything from taking turns speaking and listening to taking the kitchen garbage out to taking on the next difficult task, vital groups demonstrate a rhythm that balances out work over a period of time. The leader washes dishes, too.
6. Attention: Focus on details and paying attention is a hallmark behavior of groups that create safety. Subtle changes, significant moments, shifts in perspective are noted openly.
7. Body Language is inclusive, open, energetic and respectful. Body language telegraphs the message that “you are important and I want to be here.”
8. Vocal Pitch: Cues are optimistic and authentically enthusiastic. Eeyore tones are non-existent, even in the face of massive threats. Debbie-the-Downer has little influence.
9. Consistency of Emphasis: From priorities to speech patterns, the vital group begins to develop a similar emphasis. Passions rise and fall about the same things. Passions are mirrored just as behavior is mirrored.
10. Everyone Talks to Everyone: There are no communication or thematic hierarchies. No awkwardly interrupted or encoded conversations. No “out of bounds” or “none of your business” responses.

Overall, vital groups that create their own culture have high energy, admire the individual, and are committed to keeping the group together into the future. They are interpersonally safe. And, from that strong base, the adventure springs.

It occurred to me at George’s memorial service that, as long as I have safety in my groups, I can continually advance into risky arenas. In fact, that is why I’ve been able to take the leap time after time. Conversely, if my group is unsafe, I will crave pseudo-security in other, more controllable spheres. I will begin to sound like the pastor who chided us all for living so dangerously and immorally (implied, but clearly so) by riding motorcycles.

In another blog post, I will share some observations about how safety is created. But, for now, it’s worth noticing if these belonging behaviors are present in your most important groups.

And, if you have a safe and strong group, you will be able to create adventure wherever you go. In fact, you will be compelled to do so.


More Culture Posts