In recent months, the phrase “safe spaces” has flirted with buzzword status in the corporate world. Although its origins are largely unknown, many have traced it back to the 1960s women’s movement. The term was initially used to create protective spaces for women against violence. The creation of safe spaces empowered women to speak and act freely, form collective strength, and generate strategies for resistance.

Here in 2021, many organizations will use the term. But many are unaware of its origins, what it means or how powerful creating safe spaces can be. Every week, I run an HR community Power Hour. Recently one of the attendees revealed that there was a massive amount of frustration within their organization. Despite proactively creating a safe space for people to talk openly about issues related to race, prejudice, and other important topics, they were greeted with a tumbleweed moment. 

The leadership assumed that everybody would want to talk, and it would be a decisive moment where employees would feel empowered. However, engagement from employees was poor, and the leaders felt that nobody wanted to be involved or engaged with making a difference. I reminded the attendees that it can be a very slow road when creating safe spaces at work. It was not a time to give up.

Creating safe spaces in the workplace doesn’t happen overnight. When attempting to improve a corporate culture that is deeply embedded with an organization, it’s not as simple as making an announcement or inviting employees to a round table discussion. Without taking the time to build trust, people won’t feel safe, and many will be afraid to show up.

Rather than trying to rush change, your success will require a more slow and methodical approach that builds trust over time. In my book, I talk about how to foster psychological safety. For caring leaders, this will involve them authentically showing concern and kindness for those they lead. There is no shortcut to leadership success and ensuring that your people feel genuinely safe should always be paramount.

Amy C. Edmondson summarizes a psychologically safe workplace as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. “They feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up, and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They know they can ask questions when they are unsure about something.”

Leaders must remove the fear of retributions and potential concerns about their comments having a negative effect. At the very foundations, you will need to build up that trust every day. When you prove that you are holding to your promises, living out the organization’s values, and being there for your people are critical when genuinely building a safe space for your teams. That’s when you can begin to unlock the ROI of diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

If you are serious about promoting a culture of listening and want people to come forward, you cannot expect them to feel safe just because you’ve announced it. It is indeed a slow road to creating a safe space at work, and it’s not an easy journey. But the rewards will deliver inspirational results and benefits that will be felt across your entire organization.

If you need a little help or advice on your slow road to creating safe spaces in the workplace or explore this topic further, please reach out to me.