Are You Safe to be Yourself at Work?

Written by Amanda Kaiser on March 2, 2017

What makes some associations high-performing and the rest so-so? Why do some teams reach or even exceed their goals and why do some fail? How do some organizations embrace change while others can’t seem to get out of their own way?

These questions are coming up more and more in the association community. And the answer is…

Before I give you the answer, let’s step into the past for a moment.

In the 1990’s while working in corporate, I first heard the term Armani Armor (not to be confused with armored Armani). The idea was that beyond dressing up in a suit to look good, professionals donned their suits every morning, encasing themselves in a protective shield for the brutal day ahead. To make the protection spell complete we would leave our real selves at home and assume our professional identity. The professional persona was decisive, articulate, polished, no-nonsense, and bullet-proof. Every night we’d take off our suits, and as we pulled on our jeans, we would reunite with our real selves. And this example gets right to the root of the problem.

Lots of professionals don’t feel they can be themselves at work. They cannot be themselves because it is not safe. We have learned that it is not safe to say what we think. It is not safe to act how we act at home. It is not safe to fail. It is the lack of safety that prevents teams and associations from achieving their goals.

How do you know when safety is an issue for your team or association?

  • Team members don’t participate in meetings.
  • Folks don’t like being part of the team.
  • One team member hogs the air time.
  • Individuals defer to another person.
  • Meetings feel competitive.

If you have some challenging goals ahead for your association and safety is an issue for the staff or the board, reaching those goals will be all the more difficult. Lack of security will gum up the works and slow every initiative down.

How do you help staff and board members feel safer?

Understand the research and share it with your team – psychological safety is the key ingredient to high-performing teams. The team leader and team members should know this, and they should be aware of the warning signs people exhibit when they don’t feel safe. Google uncovered this insight while running Project Aristotle, a study on what makes some teams great.

Set the right cultural norms – Arlene Pietranton, CEO of ASHA, shared stories about the association’s highly-effective culture at MASAE‘s annual conference. Core to ASHA’s way are a few tenants, such as everyone is respected for who they are, diversity is highly prized, and everyone can come as they are.

CEOs make mistakes safe – in the Association Industry Innovation Research Study, respondents who were not CEOs repeatedly stated that the CEO motivated the staff to change by making them feel safe. CEOs of very innovative associations spoke a similar mantra: Sure, we could fail at this, but what if we succeed?

If you are bumping up against seemingly invisible barriers as the association makes transitions, safety may be the issue.

This article was originally published on the SmoothThePath blog and can be found here.