The other day, I decided to take advantage of the gorgeous fall weather and take a walk outside to clear my head. I happened to be looking up at the colorful trees when I noticed several bird nests peppered among the branches, with birds sporadically flying to and from them. Seeing that ecosystem humming with activity made me realize how the trees provide such warmth and safety for the birds in the face of the upcoming winter.

In turn, that made me think about what we as humans are looking for when we sign on to be an employee at an organization. Each of us wants safety, security, and a certain level of warmth—warmth from leaders, peers and co-workers, institutional processes and the general experience.

Today, during a time of widespread division, creating safe spaces of emotional warmth for those we lead has never been more critical for an organization’s success. When I refer to safe spaces, I mean spaces free of fear and ridicule, where those we lead are free to express their opinions and concerns. A truly safe workplace is one where we can openly voice dissenting thoughts, show up as our fullest selves, and perhaps even bring a little levity and lightheartedness to daily conversations.

So how do organizations create this sense of safety for employees to flourish and grow? Below are 4 tips I expand on in my new book, The Art of Caring Leadership: How Leading with Heart Uplifts Teams and Organizations.

  1. Earn trust from others by welcoming their opinion, sharing emotions, and demonstrating compassion. Normalize the act of checking in with your employees’ mental and emotional wellbeing, so they feel they can approach you with any problems that may or may not be work related.
  2. If it feels comfortable for you, demonstrate vulnerability through humor. You can even act self-deprecating to a certain point so others see you as generous, flexible, and as a human being who makes mistakes like the rest of us.
  3. Examine the dynamics of group meetings, and consider who doesn’t feel confident speaking up. Might they just need an invitation to share their thoughts? Would they feel more comfortable in a one-on-one meeting with you instead of a larger group? Do they occupy a minority identity within the space, and therefore feel scrutinized? Determine what’s holding your team members back, and work with them to address it head on.
  4. Show a willingness to confront hard truths. Welcome tough feedback (about yourself or your organization), and demonstrate that you are resilient enough to integrate it moving forward. If you can show that you value all opinions—and not just the positive ones—employees will benefit from your candor and honesty.

As Chris Chauncey, Founder & CEO of Amplio Recruiting, wisely says, “there has got to be a shared trust that what you have created is a safe environment for your people, because if not, it can slow everything down.” In this sense, creating institutional safety and warmth is not only beneficial for our individual employees, but for our overall productivity and success as well. Regularly ask yourself what your team is doing to make the office a welcoming place for others, and what the organization can improve to achieve that goal more effectively. To return to my original metaphor, an organization should act like a strong & protective tree, shielding our various departments and bird nests from the chaos of the outer world. Is your own tree stable enough to welcome and care for its inhabitants?