Safety Check

©2005 Steven M Smith

He is wearing his traditional garb — dark suit, white button down shirt, red tie, and black tasseled shoes. The glare off his wire rimmed glasses makes it difficult to see those steely blue eyes. Harry Fox has all the right moves and his quick climb up the management ladder proves it. He is arrogant and ruthless. People who oppose his ideas pay a price. And the payment is extracted when they can least afford it.

We are both participating in a problem solving meeting. Well that’s not quite true, I’m observing and Harry is talking. He just stole the floor from Jim King a few minutes ago by talking louder than Jim. I hate this bully. Harry is dictating his ideas about how the team should solve the problem. But he is wrong. He has missed some crucial facts.

Should I share the facts? Wait a minute. Harry doesn’t care about facts; he cares about looking and sounding good. Harry is connected all the way to the top of the company. I’m connected to the people on my team. I hesitate. Wow, that’s totally uncharacteristic of me: I am known as someone who speaks his mind. I look over at Harry. He has taken his glasses off and is moving them rhythmically up and down as he talks. Although what he is saying doesn’t make sense, it sounds authoritative. Damn, I feel my gut twisting. Is it anger? No… It’s fear.

Harry wraps up his talk. There is a pause. If I want to speak, it’s time. I say nothing.


The omission of crucial facts and opinions happens in thousands of business meetings every day. If people don’t feel safe, they aren’t going to say anything. And you will have no idea about what you missed.

Too often the participants whose opinions count the most assume that the other members of the meeting feel as safe as they do. This assumption is wrong more often than not. But it is rarely ever tested.

You can help increase the safety of your meeting. Collect data. Share it. Interpret it. And decide how to respond to it. These actions will open the opportunity to transform your meetings. For instance, the opportunity to discuss and take action on previously undiscussable items, such as who was or wasn’t invited; what is and isn’t on the agenda; and how the discussions will or won’t be processed. I’ve experienced the power of this kind of transformation many times. You can too.

Collect the Data

Inform everyone that you will use a secret ballot to poll the participants about safety. Poll people with the following question, “How safe is it for you to fully share your ideas during this meeting?”

Write this question on the board or a flip chart. Clarify that the ballots are not identified, just a number on a slip of paper. Expand on what “fully share” means by listing some controversial ideas that weren’t shared at other meetings that would have made a difference.

An unsafe environment causes participants to share fewer ideas and to carefully filter the ideas that they do share to be sure they’re safe. Poll for the information in Figure 1.

Level Description Comment
4 Secure Everything is discussable without filtering
3 Safe Almost everything is discussable without filtering
2 Neutral Most things are discussable without filtering
1 Dangerous Many of my best ideas are undiscussable
0 Treacherous Most of my best ideas are undiscussable

Figure 1. A gradient of safety

Pass out a ballot — a small piece of paper, post-it note or note card — to each participant. Ask everyone to write either the number 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 that corresponds to their level of safety onto the ballot. My experience is that some people will, regardless of the instructions, write a decimal number. Simplify things for yourself by informing everyone that all the ballots will be rounded so that the results fit the range of the gradient.

Ask them to cup the ballot in their hand so that no other participant can see their rating. Stress to everyone that you don’t want anyone to share their rating with anyone else, regardless of how safe they personally feel. Again, emphasize that only you will see their ratings. Have the participants fold the ballot in half and place it in a container, such as a hat.

Share the Data

Ask a participant to help you build a histogram of the poll. I suggest that you use a flipchart so that have a hard copy of the histogram to use when your write up the minutes of the meeting. Pull each ballot out of the container one-by-one and read the score to the person building the histogram. Stuff the recorded ballot into one of your pockets or put them in your briefcase so no one else can or will ever see it. Note, you are not only revealing how safe people feel — you are also building safety by checking in a way that reinforces safety.

Figure 2 shows an actual histogram built during a requirements gathering meeting that I facilitated at a large manufacturing company.

Level Description Number of people
4 Secure **********
3 Safe *
2 Neutral ****
1 Dangerous ****
0 Treacherous  

Figure 2. The histogram of an actual safety check that was built during a requirements gathering meeting. How do the participants who feel completely safe help the participants who feel threatened?

Interpret the Data

Ask the participants, “What is your interpretation of the histogram?” A manager in the requirements gather meeting told all the other participants that they needed to start trusting each other. His management colleagues vigorously echoed his belief. And his colleagues had a lot more to say about the importance of trusting each other. I let this discussion continue for 10 minutes and asked, “What cluster of people on the histogram do you think is offering the most advice?” The room fell silent. The people who felt the safest realized that they were doing the most talking. And they realized that the people who felt threatened weren’t talking.

Telling people how they should feel doesn’t work. And, in my experience, people know that as a fact but forget to put that knowledge to work. It helps to give them a gentle reminder. Ask everyone, “How do the participants who feel completely safe help the participants who feel threatened?” The answers I have heard in meeting after meeting can be summarized in two words: 1) Care and 2) Listen.

During the manufacturing meeting, people did start to care and listen. The participants slowed down and asked each other questions. And, most importantly, they were okay with moments when no one spoke. I believe that silence is a gift. It shows people that you are ready and want to listen. And, in the case of a meeting, silence demonstrates that the group is ready and wants to listen.

These changes made a big difference in the requirements meeting. The discussions were deeper. And the enriched conversation enabled them to discover requirements that would have been invisible to them. They were more effective together than they had ever been.

Other Methods

Another method that can help create safety, especially in large groups, is to let the participants build the safety guidelines for their meeting.

Split the participants into small groups. The ideal size is a triad — 3 participants. Ask the groups to 1) introduce themselves to each other, and 2) create a set of guidelines for conducting a safe meeting. Give them a few test cases to ponder. For instance, someone starts blaming someone else, someone tells an inappropriate joke, someone dominates the meeting, and so on. Let everyone know that they shouldn’t limit themselves to the test cases. You want them to share any guideline that will make the meeting safer.

The hope is that the discussion will help remind people of what they already ready know about safety and remind them to practice what they know. And, just as importantly, the hope is that a connection with a small, manageable number of people will increase safety.

Have each small group introduce their members and share the safety guidelines they created to everyone. You will be amazed at the wisdom that people have about safety. Gain agreement from everyone on which guidelines to accept. Remind them that the guidelines are theirs rather than yours. If someone violates a guideline, you will call them on it.

Ask the group to monitor your facilitation and to inform you if you allowing any deviation from the agreed upon guidelines. When someone mentions a deviation, treat it with the utmost care and respect. It’s the ultimate demonstration of the value you put on safety.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of the method used, you can never be absolutely certain that all the participants feel safe. If someone would have asked me how safe I felt during the meeting with Harry Fox, I would have voted neutral or safe so that Harry wouldn’t find out.

The best that you can do is to solicit and respect everyone’s ideas. The leader that models appropriate behavior in meeting after meeting is constantly renewing and enriching safety and productivity.

Be a leader. Care. Listen. Model the behavior you want.


A special thank you to Jean McLendon for making me aware of the importance of safety and how to measure it; Jerry Weinberg for suggesting that the number one isn’t nearly as evocative as the number zero for connoting the absence of safety; and Esther Derby, Don Gray, and Jerry Weinberg for sharing their feedback about this article.

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