How to contribute to a safe work culture

In this video, Joshua Kerievsky talks about how he stress tested organisational safety. According to the management of this organisation, their culture was safe. Joshua’s test was to red flag something that was ok. The managers came raining down on the team. That’s not a sign of a culture of safety.

Joshua’s story is not uncommon. People are encouraged to take risks, to be entrepreneurial, to lean in and push back to drive better decision making, what have you.

The reality is that teams regularly end up in a real shit storm when things don’t work out. Problem situations lead to leadership demanding more and more detailed reporting, which in turn only triggers more questions and distrust both ways.

Trust is a critical factor in creating a culture of safety. A hostile work environment transforms into a high-performance professional culture when people trust each other and when teams are not afraid to make and own their mistakes. When problems don’t lead to shit storms, but in teaming up with management in the constructive way to solve the issues together in a graceful manner.

I have worked with teams that successfully managed such hostile environments. It wasn’t easy, but what they did worked for both leadership and the team. In this blog, I share the aspects that transformed their situation.

Are you feeling safe to fail?

How do you know whether it is safe to fail? Joshua’s experiment is interesting to run as a consultant, but be careful it doesn’t damage people. In an unsafe culture, this may backfire on you and worse, the teams with which you work. If you are hired to be a change agent, you don’t want that to happen. I expect that most employees also know without such an experiment. If you don’t feel safe yet, implementing the ideas below may help.

Be transparent and keep management informed

To create trust, you need transparency. That means: no secrets, no window dressing, show it how it is, no ugly surprises. It helps to be open about everything. That may not feel safe when you start and requires a bit of courage. Adding the elements below will support that this becomes safe to do. Sure, there are empty suits, but I am sure plenty of managers are interested in getting results and help where needed. If your manager cannot handle such open communication, start with being transparent about things you are willing to do what it takes to improve the situation. Build it up from there. Add more transparency gradually as you build trust. It’s important you know and understand what the key drivers are for your manager.

Know what drives your leadership and how they can help

If you don’t have a clue what is essential to your management, you won’t be able to collect data that helps them help you. All you can do is bring problems and delegate issues up in the chain. Most managers hate it. You are hired to solve problems. If they need to do it for you, they should also get paid your salary on top.

My experience is that most managers respond well when you have a clear ‘ask’ for them. Crisp, clear and to the point. It’s not that they don’t want to help. Their time is often limited, and they can also often help very well in limited time. However, to do so, they need to understand what you need from them as precisely as possible. That means you already explored all options that can solve a situation and can make a recommendation that makes sense to your manager as well.

Communicate often what you are doing to handle the situation

Managers do not like ugly surprises. Who does? I am sure you don’t like unpleasant surprises either. When there is a severe problem, it is crucial to communicate often about it. You don’t have to wait until the next report. Your manager should already be aware of all the information in your reports. No surprises.

Most managers I work with don’t like to be surprised by escalations. If you sense a problem is going to be escalated to your manager, make sure he/she knows about it before it reaches him.

Don’t delegate upward but have a clear ask for help

Sometimes teams give their manager a problem statement and leave it to that. What do you expect to happen? That your manager will now solve it for you? That’s unlikely to happen with an experienced manager. Presenting your manager with a problem and no solution is called upward delegation.

Be solution focused

Guess what, you are hired to solve problems. You can resolve some issues on your own, and for some you need help. How should you ask for help? Tell your manager what you need from them to solve the problem. Talk about the solution to a problem. Preferably, you have a few options. Don’t ask your manager to choose. Make a recommendation based on data. Have a dialog to discuss the angles you have considered to solve the situation and explain your ask. You can ask if he has any questions, concerns or doubts regarding the option(s) you are presenting. The dialog is to learn what important factor you may have missed. Your manager can usually put matters into broader organizational context and perspective.

Execute fact-based data-driven decision making

To make transparency work for you, you need data. Data that is not open for interpretation, that shows you where you are, and helps you in planning and decision making.

Facts are hard to argue with or deny, even in a politically loaded environment. High-quality data not only saves your ass, but it is also crucial to become better at what you do. Your emotions should not drive your decisions, but on real data. If you don’t have data or don’t know what data you should have, start figuring this out first. Having quality data is crucial.

Build a culture of ownership

One reason why managers sometimes distrust teams is because they don’t see them taking ownership and holding themselves accountable for results. It is easy to recognize a culture of ownership or lack thereof when things go South. When people start pointing fingers, make claims like “my work is done” or “not my problem,” you know there is a lack of ownership in the team.

I tend to install a mantra of ‘never get blocked.’ Don’t have excuses why something didn’t work out. I am sure there will be plenty of valid reasons. Things will go wrong, and you will make mistakes. That’s not the issue. The issue is how you respond when the shit hits the fan. Contribute to a culture of safety for your management. Safety works both ways. Joshua talks more about that in this video.

Some managers perceive explaining why things went wrong as excuses. You may be right about all the reasons why things went south. However, who cares? The question is, what you are doing about it? It is crucial the learn to have accountability discussions in and with your team.

When you implement the ‘never get blocked’ mantra, you and your team already informed leadership that something was up and you’ve either told them things are under control and can explain what you are doing about the situation, or you explicitly asked for your manager’s help.

Another way to recognize that you may have an accountability issue is to pay attention to how problems escalate. As mentioned earlier, be sure you are not delegating upward. How do you know? Proper escalation is not single-sided. That means you and your counterpart agree that you can’t solve a situation together and need help from your leaders to resolve the situation. Both of you inform your managers about the issue, what you have tried to solve it and what conflict of interest they need to help you with to get to a resolution.


You can test if your organization culture is safe by looking at how managers respond to red flags, problems, and escalations. You can contribute to a safe culture by:

  • Be transparent and keep management informed;
  • Know what drives your leadership and how they can help;
  • Communicate often what you are doing to handle the situation;
  • Don’t delegate upward but have a clear ask for help;
  • Be solution focussed;
  • Execute fact-based data-driven decision making;
  • Build a culture of ownership.

Hope you enjoyed reading this blog post. Feel free to drop me some feedback and questions. Let me know if there is anything you would like me to deep dive a bit more.

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