There’s no shortage of fanfare for the hottest corporate buzzword of the past several years — innovation. As Forbes noted in a 2012 article, the word has become the “awesome” of corporate speak.
Innovation is the quality desired by business leaders, who tend to believe that if you’re not innovating, you’re dying a slow death. While volumes have been written about the path to reliable innovation, corporate coach Maxine Attong has found none with the key ingredient that she has found so compelling in her work, safety.
“In order to take risks, which is the foundation of innovation and subsequent rewards, a team member has to feel safe,” says Attong, an author and certified facilitator.
“Anyone who has ever been in a classroom or company meeting knows the potential risk of making an out-of-the-box statement, which could be seen as silly, frivolous, or ignorant — or as a groundbreaking insight. Without a sense of safety, most employees will decide to silence an unconventional statement that could risk their standing.”
Unusual and unconventional ideas are a sign of strength in a company, Attong says. It shows that team leaders really are open to innovative ideas. She further explains the importance of the idea and how to create safety to voice risk-taking ideas.
• A safe space is the “office Vegas”: what happens in the room stays in the room. While business plans may be neatly fitted into a blueprint, the reality of any strategy involving humanity needs to account for our unpredictability. We’ve all had those days in which we were stressed out by personal matters. Meanwhile, deadlines and expectations loom as the workload continues to pile up. The more you try to ignore your personal problems the more they come to mind.
“What would it be like if you could go into a room where you have total support and have a good cry for the dead dog, vent how angry you are at your loved one, or rant about how stressed you are over your coworker’s behavior,” Attong says. “When you are done, you leave the room knowing that your behavior was not judged, and your statements were confidential. That’s the kind of safe space that can facilitate innovation.”
• Human beings have an amazing capacity for brilliance. However, the list of negative distractions is formidable: sick children, marriage or divorce, financial issues, and other problems can take a focused mind off track. A safe space can get a mind back on track and people working creatively on new solutions; enable leaders to develop an outstanding team and instill stability. Creating a safe space can create a work environment in which team members actually look forward to work, a place where they can drop off their problems at the door and deal with them later. A safe place enables members to keep their egos in check and feel open to explore ideas. Innovation is often fun; it doesn’t have to be scary.
• Safe spaces work on the inertia of several human traits. Safe spaces have been shown to work in other human affairs, including religion, addiction recovery programs, therapeutic counseling or coaching. People need to be heard, but they won’t reveal themselves unless they feel free from judgment. And, we need sensible guidance. After the safe space has been explained to team members, they’ll feel free to pursue productivity. The space assumes that the adults in the room want to be in charge of their lives and want to have relevant work experiences that contribute to their overall goals.
Maxine Attong has been leading small and large teams for the past two decades — both in organizational settings and in her private coaching and facilitation practice. She has helped organizations come to consensus, overcome the perils of ineffective leadership, redesign processes to suit changing environments, and manage the internal chaos inherent in strategy implementation. She has been trained as a Gestalt Organizational Development practitioner, a Certified Evidence-Based Coach, a Certified Professional Facilitator, a Certified Management Accountant, and is a former Quality Manager. Attong is a graduate of the University of the West Indies, and divides her time between the Caribbean and the United States. Her latest book is Lead Your Team to Win: Achieve Optimal Performance By Providing A Safe Space For Employees. www.MaxineAttong.com