How to increase employee engagement by creating a safe space while also holding space

Successful businessman smiling at the camera in an office

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I share this story often – particularly in the context of how not to lead, or how to ensure your team members become actively disengaged. 

Many years ago, I had a boss who, if a team member arrived late because they’d had to deal with a personal matter before work, would tell them (in a very open plan office) to “leave their personal sh*t at home” and not to bring it into the office. Or, if someone wasn’t “smiling while they were dialing”, he’d tell them in no uncertain terms to “leave their emotions at home”. I will never forget how he reacted once when a colleague received a phone call from the vet telling her that her dog would have to be put down. He let her take the rest of the day off (nice move, boss!), but as she was getting ready to leave the office clearly distraught, he actually said, “when you come in tomorrow, leave your emotional baggage at home or consider not coming in at all”. 

I very much doubt he’s reading this post today, but on the off chance that he is, I have one question for him. How can someone leave their emotions at home if they’re working remotely?  

As a leader, being aware of the emotions your team members might be going through (whether they are part of an on-site, remote, distributed or hybrid team), should be right up there near (if not at) the top of your list of key responsibilities.  

Emotions can’t be left at home, since that’s where so much of our work is now being conducted. We need to focus on transforming our businesses from a culture of performance management to one of performance enablement, where trust, transparency and respect for emotions are more prominent than ever before. 

This is exactly where the importance of both creating a safe space, while also holding space for your team members kicks in. 

In reality, we could have dedicated a separate article to each of these key leadership responsibilities, but for the purposes of this post, it’s important to see how they can work hand in hand. 

How comfortable are your team members in expressing their emotions in the workplace – either with their colleagues, or with you as their leader?

Do they hide their concerns? Are they afraid to speak up either because they feel they will be ignored, judged, or criticised? Would a team member be comfortable to admit they are struggling, feeling anxious, or overwhelmed?

If a team member cried in front of you, would they feel embarrassed, or have you created a culture where it’s OK to be vulnerable? 

An environment where your team members know they can be completely honest with you and where they are comfortable expressing themselves and simply being themselves at work means that you have successfully created a (psychologically) safe space. 

Previously we’ve written about how it’s totally OK for a leader to display vulnerability. However, even if this idea doesn’t sit quite so well with you, it’s important that you not only encourage your team members to express themselves, but that you genuinely support someone sharing their emotions with you without either of you feeling awkward about it. Open and honest conversations are an essential ingredient to any highly engaged team. 

In organisations where engagement levels are high, employees typically refer to their workplace as being a safe space.

Having said that, more newly established remote or distributed workplaces are not necessarily delivering such high levels of employee engagement, and this is often a result of lacking an element of emotional safety. 

With mental health and employee well-being a key item on most company agendas today, emotional or psychological safety should be a priority. Having said that, whether you are leading a team in a co-located, remote, or hybrid environment, creating a safe space certainly does not mean you have to suddenly become a 24×7 on-call therapist. As long as your team members can express themselves and share whatever is on their mind, and you can show them that you genuinely care, then you’re right on track. 

Often, one way to create a safe space is to simply ensure that your people feel heard.  

We’ve written about the power of active or deep listening in the past and this is certainly a great place to start. As a leader you want your people to feel that you are truly present to what they are expressing; that you are concentrating on them in that moment; and that you are putting yourself in their shoes. Hopefully your team members are comfortable approaching you at any time at all, and they don’t feel like any conversation needs to take place during a diarised weekly or fortnightly 1:1 meeting and that every agenda item or discussion point needs to be task related. 

Active or deep listening will also ensure that your team members feel supported, trusted, respected and included – feelings that can only be possible in a safe space. 

Let’s shift gears now and examine the concept of holding space more closely. 

Holding space is about letting others shine and bringing out the best in others. 

When I was a leader, whenever I would sit down with a new team member on their first day, I would tell them that it was my job to ensure that when they left the business, they were better individuals than when they started. They would all look at me strangely. After all, what sort of manager would plant the seed about someone leaving the organisation on their very first day? 

I was well aware that nobody would stay in my team or my business forever. However, I genuinely believed that it was my responsibility to teach them the skills and to provide them with the tools to flourish and be their best selves. And I also encouraged those team leaders who reported to me to ‘hold space’ for their team members, too. 

When leaders across an organisation are creating a safe space for their employees, while at the same time holding space for their employees by unlocking their true potential, engagement levels go through the roof. 

Holding space is another essential leadership trait that in addition to higher levels of employee engagement, can help foster a culture of innovation, collaboration, and goal setting. 

What are you currently doing to hold space for your employees to help push them outside their comfort zone? You might even have different strategies in place for individual team members, while also holding space for your team as a whole to thrive. 

Flourishing organisations start with thriving people. Remember hellomonday empowers and equips everyone to reach their full potential by providing coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching.

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