Cultivating a Safe Workplace

December 3rd, 2020

The modern workplace is evolving at a rapid pace. This is driven by many different factors including COVID which has driven the widespread adoption of working from home as a necessity, right through to the generational shift sweeping the world new workers having different expectations of what organisations will be like.

One area which continues to evolve is society’s view on acceptable behaviour. No longer does society accept people behaving poorly on account of their fame, fortune or their standing in the business, and nor should they. This change in societal norms has swept the globe and is bringing a safer environment for our children to grow up in.

In the backdrop of this progress, there are still people in workplaces today whose behaviour has a destructive effect on their co-workers. This can include disruptive behaviour (think constant disagreements etc.) to people who dominate discussions and won’t allow others to contribute. In extreme cases, this can also include verbal/mental and physical abuse which make it extremely difficult for the team to function normally, and impossible for that team to achieve their goals.

For people to achieve their goals, they need a safe environment. In this article, I will discuss some common behavioural problems found in the workplace, and map out the benefits of creating a safe workplace. Finally, I will discuss some strategies to create a safe workplace.

Common problems found in workplaces

Many problems occur in the workplace. I have selected a small subset of these to discuss below. All these problems are symptoms of an unsafe working environment, and they are all destructive for morale and the business achieving their goals.

The team argues all the time

Occurs when team members are not willing to listen to their teammates or feel threatened by them. This team struggles to get anything done and is generally a miserable place to be.

Alpha’s dominate discussions

When one dominant member of the team (gender not relevant) doesn’t value the opinions of other members of the team and will basically shut down discussion. This has a devastating effect on the morale of the team and makes the team very one dimensional in its decision making (given only one person speaks/thinks).

People afraid to speak up

This happens when management creates an environment where dissenting opinions are not welcome and are often punished with people getting fired. This permeates to the rest of the organisation, and in time people learn that it is easier to agree with their manager rather than being fired, thereby removing diversity of opinions and ideas that come with respectful discussion and debate.

Win/Lose mentality

Some people can develop a mentality that for them to succeed someone else must fail. This can manifest especially in companies with lots of big divisions which are essentially in competition with each other. This mentality is a sickness which rots away any sense of collaboration in a company.

People look to assign blame when things go wrong

Similarly to the above point, some people feel the need to find the next victim (person to blame) when something doesn’t go as management wanted. Rather than having an environment where mistakes are a learning experience, these workplaces treat mistakes as being fatal and a pack mentality develops where people look to find someone to blame. Working in this type of workplace is stressful and a miserable experience.

People are bullied for being different

Quite often, folks are treated differently due to their appearance, race, religion, sexual preferences or anything else that someone can pick on. This type of schoolyard type mentality can rob the organisation of valuable diversity (opinion/ideas/etc.) which is detrimental to the organisations ability to innovate.

A better way forward

The workplace should be a place that is conducive to people achieving their best. To get this, we need workplaces where:

  • People do not dread coming into work every day.
  • People can work together to solve complex problems.
  • People feel free to speak up and raise issues they see or great ideas they have.
  • Failure is something to learn from and not be fearful of.
  • People feel safe to bring their full self to work and unleash all of their creativity and intellect to the betterment of the business.

To achieve all these things, we need to create safe (inclusive) workplaces.

Benefits of safe workplaces

The benefits of having safes workplaces are many, and they all bring huge value to every business. These include:

Happy people get more done

Happy employees are more productive. Research from Oxford University found that happy employees are 13% more productive than unhappy employees. These folks are not working more; they are simply more productive. Happy people get more stuff done, and when you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Happy people can focus more on their work at hand and not on office politics or infighting.

Diversity brings more innovation

Inclusive business can attract and retain folks from a more diverse range of backgrounds. These folks bring with them their ideas and different ways of thinking, leading to greater innovation in the workplace. Research from Josh Bersin states that inclusive companies are 1.7% more likely to be innovation leaders in their market.

All Voices heard

A safe workplace ensures that all voices are heard and their opinions valued. This means that all points of view can be considered, not just the loudest voices.

People speak up

People will speak up when they see something wrong, and problems are resolved more quickly saving the company in time and money.

How to create a safe workplace

There are several considerations to create a safe workplace. If we look back at the common problems mentioned above around half, relate to behavioural issues with the rest more cultural in nature. To create a safe workplace, both behaviour and organisational culture need attention. Let us take a look at both of these in turn.

Cultural considerations

Organisational culture is the foundation of a safe, diverse and inclusive workplace. The first steps towards creating a safe workplace for your employees is ensuring we have the ground rules in place to support diversity and inclusion. Most if not all companies have their codes of conduct and training programs which should detail the companies mandate for a diverse and inclusive workplace and spell out what this looks like.

The company should also actively promote the culture they are looking too embed as opposed to paying lip service to it.

Areas that need special attention in a healthy organisational culture include:

Stop the culture of blame

Things go wrong in life and especially in business. It doesn’t mean that someone needs to be blamed. A culture of blame where the next victim is selected is a company killer and leads to not the smartest people working at a company but the most political and cunning people.

Make it safe to speak up

A culture where the executive suite cannot be questioned is a receipt for disaster. Cultivate a culture where people can speak up when they see things that need fixing or is something is wrong.

Win/Win culture

Cultivate a culture where winning doesn’t need to come at the expense of other folks in the business. This is difficult to achieve, but we are looking for one win we all win culture.

Going into depth on organisational cultural change is outside the scope of this article. However, a diverse/inclusive and safe workplace starts with a strong organisational culture.

Behavioural considerations

The second step for creating safe workplaces is the behavioural considerations. We can have all the culture we like, however, if a person is poorly behaved and cannot work with anyone, we have a real problem.

Managers cultivate safe workplaces

I feel the role of the manager is devalued in society, but I believe its a noble one. Managers have a massive part to play in creating safe workplaces. Managers set the foundation for a safe workplace, they embed the organisation’s culture. Managers enforce standards of conduct and behaviour to ensure people are working within the boundaries of societal norms.

Managers need to act when required

Managers should work closely with their staff in providing feedback on issues that arise, providing guidance to ensure their folks are aware of their actions and impacts to others.

Poor, or disruptive behaviour should be addressed via regular channels such as employee one on ones. The manager needs to address any behaviour problems promptly and explain the damage that this behaviour is causing. As a manager, I like to ask the employee what they will do differently to prevent this in future. Suppose the employee’s behaviour doesn’t change, and the appropriate number of warnings and disciplinary action (from HR) is followed without a positive impact. In that case, the employee should have their position terminated before doing any further damage to the team.

The team makes the rules

To properly cultivate a safe workplace culture, we need to have input from the team themselves. By having the team setting the ground rules for acceptable behaviour is a great way to cultivate a workplace which is safe and inclusive for all concerned.

A method that I have used in the past is called the team canvas. The team canvas is a model which helps the team align together on a shared understanding of each other’s values, goals, needs, strengths and weaknesses. The other aspect is that the team canvas allows the team to define a shared set of rules that the team will work by. Thereby allowing the team to self regulate acceptable behaviour.

The team canvas is typically facilitated when a new team is created or when new folks join the team and is an excellent method to put the team in charge of the workplace they want to achieve.


Creating a safe workplace environment has huge benefits for all businesses. I hope this article has provided some food for thought in terms of the pitfalls to avoid and the benefits for the organisation in cultivating safe workplaces for their staff.