Creating a Safe Space for Candour


Many people talk about creating a ‘culture of disagreement’ or ‘Collision rich spaces’ to enhance business’s success and creativity.  I don’t mean having heated arguments  – disagreement culture is about making things greater by stress testing them.  Encouraging questions, challenges, input and healthy debate means ideas or initiatives will be better thought through and more likely to succeed. 

But how do you do this?  It’s not as simple as asking people to ‘speak up’ as there are so many elements that need to be built up to ensure a safe space for candour.  We must be mindful that in our own culture, from a young age we’ve been encouraged to respect senior people and not to cause trouble.  There are many other dynamics in a room full of businesspeople, from egos through to insecurities and vocal extroverts versus quieter, deep thinkers.  All of these elements make it harder to great a safe environment for honesty and debate.

Having observed and facilitated hundreds of groups across the years, it’s as much about who is in the room as it is who is leading the team or discussion. Groups can be creatively choked by negative moods and feedback of others. Groups perform well when everyone is working towards a common goal, sharing ideas and opinions in a ‘non-confrontational manner’ and appreciating and elevating each other’s inputs.  However, this requires a very safe space to reach the ‘holy grail’ of group performance.

A truly safe space exists when people are free and encouraged to share misunderstandings or shortfalls in knowledge as much as sharing their bright ideas or moments of brilliance.

We must not forget it takes a lot for people to feel safe to open themselves up to public scrutiny and be able to say exactly what is on their mind, or what they think of the boss’s new idea. In some cases, millions of lost spend could have been saved if only people had spoken up about bad concepts that made it to market and subsequently failed, if people in the room had been candid and risked offending the boss.

I’ll never forget attending an event with a high-profile speaker, a businessperson who shall remain unnamed, where at the Q&A section someone asked a question in a nervous and long-winded way.  Instead of being congratulated for having the guts to ask a question, that person was promptly told to ‘sit back down as your question took too long to ask’.  I’d imagine they wanted the ground to swallow them up at that point and were probably scarred for life in terms of publicly asking questions at events.  Whilst somewhat an extreme example, it’s the opposite of what we should do to ensure employees feel safe to contribute and debate.  

Some of the key challenges we face in creating a Culture of Disagreement are:

Fear of judgement:  The fear of being under the spotlight and being dismissed, or worse, ridiculed.  It’s often high risk for people to move out of their comfort zone and step up to the podium.  Perhaps they have been embarrassed by others in the past or don’t feel they have the experience or that their opinion will be of value.

Deep critical thinkers:  There are often many ‘quieter’ people in meetings who often have some good input, but often don’t manage to get their voices heard.  This may be due to taking more time to come up with thought out responses, by which time others have moved on.  It can also be the case that the quieter voices get drowned out by the more opinionated or extrovert characters in the room.

Personal agendas Some people make calculated decisions on when they should or should not disagree with others.  Being ‘liked and positive’ to other people’s ideas is a nice quality, but not if you fundamentally don’t believe they are good.  In some cases, people who agree with the senior people in the room believe this will get them further quicker, and in some cases this is true.

We’ve all been in meetings where we’ve said something a bit foolish and been looked at with pity or disdain. Laughing off these moments in a kind way ‘I’m not sure if I can see the CEO buying that one’ and making the moment ‘light’ means others will feel free to metaphorically faceplant at future meetings too. We all have these moments no matter how experienced or intelligent we are. It’s these moments that make us human. 

Group format should be considered. If you have a diverse team from interns to senior management then you’ll need a very experienced facilitator to umpire and bring out the junior personnel. Negative voices should be curtailed, and clear meeting rules set e.g., no criticism or judgement of others, build don’t knock. They will also have to moderate the room and ensure deeper thinkers contribute whilst handling the louder voices sensitively.

Here’s some quick tips on building a safer space:

  • Set the meeting rules – safe space, no criticism, everyone inputs, and keep reminding anyone who strays off track
  • Show humility: leaders who admit they don’t know it all and ask for help and input will be respected more
  • Compliment and acknowledge: Keep sessions really positive using complimentary and thankful terms
  • Bring the right energy: you get back what you put in so if you start a meeting lacklustre and downbeat then the others will mirror that
  • Listen listen listen: Can’t stress this one enough. Leaders who go on their phones during meetings suggest a lack of respect for others and appear disinterested, so why would anyone make the effort in this scenario. Have breaks built in to check on emails or missed calls
  • Write it all down – maybe even use a flip chart – a bit old school but if you put everyone’s (or most) comments down on paper it acknowledges that you’ve heard them and are considering the points. It doesn’t mean you have to use them all later. When people write down comments from some and not others it creates a divide. People notice these things
  • Actively encourage debate: ‘I want you to tell me about the flaws in this plan because I’ve devised it so I may not be able to spot them, then we can work through any challenges we face’. Linked to humility, acknowledge that pointing out the imperfections will build better ideas

Bringing in a third-party expert facilitator can be money well spent, especially if the team need to co-create or address a business challenge. They also have the benefit of being able to tell the CEO to put his phone away, without fear of reciprocation!

Ultimately, teams that thrive are ones that feel safe to input, safe to question, safe to learn and safe to disagree, so get those debates up and running.