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Moving from "Me to We:" Safety is Essential for Job Satisfaction

Last summer, I read Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek and I was struck by his assessment of the need for people to feel safety in the organizations that they work in. Now, more than ever this resonates even louder in my mind. We have known about people’s safety needs since Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs. Teachers talk about these needs frequently for their students and people recognize that students need to meet physiological needs and safety needs met to thrive. What many people forget is that ALL people need to feel safe and protected, and this includes adults in the workplace and people in society in general. The world can be a dangerous place, especially lately, people feel insecure and unsafe. The outside world can give us discomfort, but organizations must provide a sense of safety for their employees to thrive.

When organizations create a “Circle of Safety” they reduce the threat of the outside world, providing a sense of security for their employees on the inside. As Sinek points out, when people feel threatened, they will be “forced to spend much time and energy protecting themselves from each other”(27). The more we feel that our colleagues and our superiors in the workplace are looking out for us and protecting us, the more unified we are as a team and we will continue to pull for one another, rather than investing more in ourselves. The product of the work will improve because employees return the favor of protection from our group and they have the mental resources to do so.

Sinek compares the way in which Spartans fought together as the Safety Circles that workplaces need to foster. In Spartan society, warriors protected the man standing next to him more fiercely than he protected himself. “A warrior carries a helmet and a breastplate for his own protection, but his shield for the safety of the whole line”(27). It is the leaders job to ensure that everyone is holding their shield, looking out for the safety of the whole group. When a leader ensures a feeling of security for every employee, not just those at the top of the organization, a Circle of Safety will function fully. When one is in a “Circle of Safety” an employee feels secure, supported and safe. When one is in the Circle, they know that leadership is there to help them succeed and will have their back no matter what. This feeling of security is paramount for any successful organization- from classroom, to a school and any working environment. Once a Circle of Safety is achieved, innovation, creativity and problem solving are maximized. All fitting qualities for employees in many professions and necessary for the best educators. Further, once a Circle of Safety is in place, an organization is more equipped to deal with the dangers of the outside world (Sinek, 29). The problem for an organization is getting to the point where a Circle of Safety is in place. It takes time to build this Circle, it requires that leadership is continually fostering it and that they are selective on whom they welcome into the Circle. There is no checklist that allows a person or an organization to know if they have established a Circle of Safety, they can feel it in their work and in their relationships, knowing that people are working together, toward a common goal, without fear of retribution, competition or distrust. This does not mean that there is no disagreement but concerns are discussed openly, people openly acknowledge wrongdoing and/or mistakes because that culture has been established.

How does an organization get here?

  1. Fostering a culture of trust, empathy and care

  2. Creating a climate of trust and cooperation

  3. Nixing toxic cliques or small tribes

  4. Giving employees more voice and control in their workdays

In a true Circle of Safety, it is important that everyone feels safe, right down to the leaders, however, we also expect our leaders to look out for everyone in the group. According to Sinek (82), this goes back to our earliest days when we would pick an alpha for our group that would lead us in a hunt and look out for our community. It is natural for us to look to this individual to continue to look out for us. “Trust is a biological reaction to the belief that someone has our well-being at heart. Leaders are often the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us...when it matters, leaders eat last”(83). During such uncertain times of job instability and health concerns, leaders must show their employees that they are looking out for them and that they have their backs. When this happens, cortisol levels (the stress hormones, which can cause feelings of distrust) will go down and dopamine (the happy hormone) will increase. Teachers and all employees must feel secure and safe in the environment that they are working in. If they do not, cortisol levels will increase, as will feelings of distrust, disconnect from the organization people work for and perhaps even more importantly at this moment, it weakens their immune systems. Take care now, creating environments where teachers feel safe and in turn, they will work together more effectively and ultimately provide the best education they can offer for our students. We must place our shields and protect the person to our left and our right. When we protect those around us, our unit is more secure.

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