Building a Culture of Safety

When I think back over the many communities I’ve been part of over the years — whether at work, as a volunteer, or in a church — those that were most vibrant had many things in common. They had leadership that was engaging, they had regular gatherings, and they were clear about who they served. As I’ve grown into my own concepts of leadership, I have come to recognize that one of the largest (and most hidden) things they had in common was a dedication to cultural safety. Letting people come as they are, and honoring that, was foundational to how they operated.

Safety can mean different things to different people, though, so here’s a quick overview of how I see it.

Types of Safety

  • Physical Safety – The ability to remain free from bodily harm. For my current work in the WordPress project, this mostly comes up in relation to in-person events.
  • Psychological Safety – The ability to express yourself freely. This comes up in all of the community’s communication channels, from Slack and team blogs to twitter and events.
  • Social Safety – The ability be your whole self among others. This, naturally, comes up in all of our spaces both in-person and on-line.
  • Moral Safety – The ability to reconcile your work with your morals. This comes up mostly with volunteers in WordPress.

Though I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, I do feel that these four kinds of safety line right up with some basic needs of healthy modern communities: personal safety, open communication, inclusivity, and aligned values.

Getting Started

As with so many things dealing with best practices, these are all very abstract ideas. I always recommend doing additional reading into the full theories behind things like this (and I’ve included a link at the end), but you might be looking for some changes you can make today.

Assuming you have an in-person community, here are a few things you can do now while you work on broadening your knowledge:

  • Physical Safety
    • Code of conduct – Even when you feel like it could never happen in your community, you should have one. Making it clear what you won’t stand for is as important as making it clear what you will stand for.
    • Weapons policy – I’m told this is distinctly a US problem and solution. However, if you’re in the US and you’re hosting in-person events, make it clear that you expect people to leave it outside.
    • Name tags – This helps in two ways: it takes away the anonymity that can sometimes let people be mean to one another, but it also helps people who have trouble remembering names. 🙂
  • Psychological Safety
    • Share expectations – Especially when working in a collaborative environment, sharing expectations early helps people know where time isn’t best spent. More than that, it helps people know how their success is being measured so they can collaborate confidently.
    • Acknowledgment – Not all ideas are what you need in the moment, but all ideas have value. Acknowledging that people having taken time and energy to offer solutions is an important part of respecting that effort.
    • Routines – The value of routine can’t be overstated. It lets people know what is normal vs what is extraordinary, but more importantly it gives them something to prepare with ahead of time.
  • Social Safety
    • Greet people – Joining a group of strangers for the first time requires bravery. Greeting people lets them know they are in the right place and sets a positive tone. Interestingly enough, small positive interactions throughout the day play a huge role in overall happiness and satisfaction with your community.
    • No “lurkers” – If your community (like WordPress) has gatherings that are open to anyone, then you will always have people who are there for the first time. I like to acknowledge them by announcing a welcome to “all our first-timers” or “curious observers” instead of newbie or lurker — being new is hard enough, we should pull out a chair for people as they get started.
    • Publish a diversity statement – Diversity statements help people know who is welcome in your community. I’ve written about it before, but it is the host’s responsibility to say that they accept others. It’s never the responsibility of a minority group to find out if others accept them.
  • Moral Safety (this one can be the hardest)
    • Set a North Star – Take the time to outline your guiding principles. It doesn’t have to be lengthy, it just has to be clear.
    • Set the purpose – Share the overall vision of your work. If your vision is large, consider sharing a mission.

Keep it Going

If you’re in a position to be able to set a community’s culture (or to change a current culture), you’ll find that it’s rewarding and important work. You’ll also find that sometimes it’s really hard and you don’t get it quite right. If you get it wrong, apologize and figure out how to do it better. Change starts somewhere and it might as well be with you. 🙂

Full Disclosure: I first drafted this post in 2015, at which point I only had the top three types of safety in this list. While I was refining it this week, I discovered that it’s close to the Sanctuary Model which is used in creating healthy human services organizations. You can read more about that here.

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