While most of us would be stopped short by the violence and criminal activity, many of us have probably thought at least once that it would be awesome to belong to a gang. In interviews with gang members, Joe Killian, a writer for the News and Record, reported that they considered fellow gang members to be family and that they took care of each other. This surrogate family provides a sense of belonging, power, control, and prestige; all things that are commonly identified as absent in childhood among gang initiates. In other words, children that grow up without safety or a sense of belonging are at a high risk to join gangs.

Remember our bison herd? People, like bison, must have their basic needs met, must feel safe, and must be in community to thrive. So belonging to a group of people who are sworn to share what they have, defend you against enemies, and be your primary social group, meets those needs exceedingly well. While it is easy to dismiss gangs due to their criminal behavior, the feeling of belonging is something we all can relate to and desire.

It feels good to be protected. I was recently at a large event. I am not a worrier in general, and I rarely feel unsafe. The one caveat to that is how I feel about being in large, enclosed spaces with lots of people and a limited number of exits. I watch how difficult it is to leave after a Thunder game or a concert, and I think, “If there is a real emergency, people are going to panic, and we are going to die.” But that is a personal problem. Sorry, I got sidetracked.

At this event, Jeremy Biggs was in attendance. We were talking before the event started and he let me know he had a plan for how he would get me out of the building in case a dangerous situation developed. After the event, he stayed and floated on the perimeter of the space I was in, keeping an eye on the crowd and the room. He was protecting me, and it made me feel wonderful. To know that he was watching out for me, that he “had my back”, made me feel cared for and valued.

That is why the seventh way leaders can demonstrate that they care for their people is to Establish A Safe Environment.

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first. As leaders it is our sacred duty to make our workplaces safe from the standpoint of an industrial accident. We need to exceed OSHA standards. We need to stop training people how to do dangerous things safely and focus on removing the exposure to potential injury. Does it cost more? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Physical safety in the workplace is non-optional.

What is less obvious is the exposure many people have at work to emotional and mental danger and how little is being done to remove it. Interestingly, many of the social issues we have as a society stem from people feeling threatened. Because of Finite Reserve Capacity, people can only absorb a finite amount of external stress before they turn on the people around them. When people are threatened, they shift into “fight or flight” mode and stop using the rational part of their brains. Then they become a danger to other people.

Additionally, the threat of harm stifles creativity. This is true both for physical harm and for emotional danger. People in communities where there is a constant fear of being harmed are not capable of producing the best results in any endeavor that is not related to mitigating the threat or isolating themselves from it. The result of a community that doesn’t protect its members from harm is a group of loosely connected people who look out for themselves and rarely contribute to a group effort or cause—not the kind of team that leads to success in the game of business.

The key to our ability (as leaders) and our team members’ ability to move toward a safe environment is empathy. It is usually easy to recognize physical dangers. A saw without a guard looks dangerous. A sharp pipe sticking out of the floor is scary. We see these dangers and recognize them because we can see ourselves being hurt by them. Emotional and mental danger is more difficult to identify, but empathy is the filter that makes them visible.

Empathy is the ability to contemplate what it would be like to be in someone else’s place. Empathy allows us to ask, without judgment, what the situation and our behavior might mean to another person. It is important to understand that empathy is not about moral judgment. We are not saying that the situation or a particular behavior is immoral or wrong. We are asking whether what we are doing and saying is making the people around us feel safe and cared for, or not. Then we are choosing to do things that make people feel safe and cared for, and choosing to avoid behaviors, actions, and words that make people feel unsafe or harmed.

If the only result of this effort was people being cared for and allowed to thrive, it would be worth the cost. However, there are several tangible benefits that come as a bonus:

  • People in communities where they feel physically, emotionally, and mentally safe will be more creative, foster more innovation, and take more initiative. When the danger level around us is low, the adrenal medulla can relax and stop pumping us full of the chemicals that cause us to “fight or flight.” This allows us to focus on improving the environment rather than defending ourselves from it. This is where true improvement and development originate.
  • Organizations which provide a safe environment experience less downtime and disruption. People in danger of harm are experiencing unhealthy stress which leads to actual physical health issues, so absenteeism escalates. Additionally, people in danger are not looking out for others, which includes equipment and processes, so they are less likely to catch issues early before they become major and cause equipment and process failure.
  • People who are kept safe return home safe. Sounds obvious, but it is extremely important. As I have said before, we do not own the people who are part of our teams; we are borrowing them. Returning them in at least as good a condition as they came to us is a moral imperative. It is also good business. Over time, if we honor our people by protecting them and keeping them safe for their families, they will honor us and each other by doing great things.

Everyone has the need and an internal desire to belong to a community (or gang, or herd.) As leaders, we have the opportunity to create communities where people can fulfill the need to belong and be safe and cared for. There really is safety in numbers if those numbers care about you. Leading our teams to keep everyone in the community physically, emotionally, and mentally safe is like having a gang that doesn’t break the law. In other words, it’s cool, and it is the Kimray Way.