One afternoon the other week, I got off the train and emerged from the underground subway station into a literal rainbow. My neighborhood was festooned with every possible permeation of the symbol, ready to house the millions of people swarming to Manhattan to recognize and celebrate WorldPride.
I was painstakingly maneuvering through the crowd when I felt a hand gently touched my shoulder.
“Why not just ‘free hugs’?” a man asked.
I looked down at my shirt, emblazoned with “Free Mom Hugs” in giant letters surrounded by multi-colored hearts. I paused and looked up at him, trying to keep my voice strong even though my heart beat solidly with every word.
“Because mom hugs are ‘I will never give you up’ hugs. They are ‘I’m always here for you’ hugs. They are kind and soft and angry and protective, and the best ones feel like something you will carry with you forever. Mom hugs are unconditional— and everyone deserves one.”
He opened his arms, and I gave him a hug.
I thought of my own children and this stranger before me. I held him just a bit tighter. When I let go there were tears running down his face and I had to choke back my own.
“I will take it with me,” I heard him say as he turned and walked back through the crowd.
I hope he did. I know I have.
For a moment, I was someone’s safe space. I don’t take that lightly. Our world has few enough of those: places where you feel accepted and valued, where you don’t feel constantly attacked, or made to feel like you’re falling short, or relegated. A safe space is give-and-take: I promise to see the best in you and help you be your best, and you promise to do the same. We work on it together.
Safes spaces provide the feeling of being able to exist as who you are, to be accepted, and even loved and celebrated for it. Where you know someone will stand up for the good in you when you aren’t able to yourself. Feeling protected and valued for who you are is paramount to our experience as humans. While we talk a lot about equality. it can’t happen until we find ways to make the spaces we all exist in safe ones.
I am lucky to live largely in safe spaces, but that hug reminded me that too often and for too many, safe spaces scarce. Pride month reminds us all of that. It has everything to do with carving out and fighting for safe spaces for people who historically have been unable to have them, and to recognize that many people still live in fear and insecurity.
And yes, Pride is a lovely month. I revel in my rainbow-festooned neighborhood, adore the freedom and joy that overflows with the sheer presence of so many free to express who they are, and love who they choose, and exist in a space where that is celebrated. But one month is not enough, and a 30-day marketing scheme certainly is not enough. The rainbows, while beautiful, are not what we need.
As bosses and business leaders, our job is to create safe spaces for the people we manage that are capacious and live far beyond fleeting moments or commercial trends. Our job is to create an ongoing culture of safety. It is our responsibility to cultivate spaces that can expand to hold our whole team.
Creating a space of this type is an entirely different beast. Of course, everyone’s safe space is different, so developing them for our teams and the individuals that comprise can be difficult and unwieldy. But it is possible.
Below are a handful of practices we can put into place every day that, over time, can build an environment that fosters empathy and support, encourages bravery and acceptance, and that challenges and rewards our teams and employees.
Remember that failing is part of the process
The first step in creating safe spaces is acknowledging your own shortcomings and fears, and living them out-loud with your team. Vulnerability is courageous. Being able to admit that you’re having a bad day, or that you don’t know something, goes a long way in creating an atmosphere where failing is part of the process.
Remember that you are the living example of a good portion of your team’s five-year plan. They look to you to see what’s in the future, as a road map for what might be possible in their own careers. Your team members should understand that perfection has no place in a creative atmosphere and that it’s okay to ask for help.
The greatest work comes from teams made of people who feel safe to be who they are. Your team should feel free to speak their own individual truths. As their boss, you hired each one of them because they had something unique and beautiful to offer. From time to time, it’s your job remind them of that.
Work how you want them to work: fearlessly. This can be exceptionally hard some days and come as complete second nature on others. The hard days are the days I must quiet my ego and remind myself that leadership isn’t about building a blind following, but a unified and connected team.
I am not supposed to be a hero (as much as I would adore that title—stupid ego), but a leader: someone who is open and guiding, not someone who sets unrealistic examples of what to aspire to.
When your team sees you as impenetrable, unflappable, always confident without hesitation, they will also see someone striving toward perfection. Even more dangerous is that they might perceive you are living that perfection. But no matter who you are, the path to perfection is riddled with fear that every wrong turn or small misstep potentially adds up to ultimate failure.
When risks become liabilities, creativity cannot thrive.
The best work environments thrive in a space where creativity is free to roam and flourish. Creativity thrives in a space where you are safe to be yourself—an imperfect, curious, try-it-one-more-time self. Creativity fails more often than it succeeds, which is why it feels so good when we get it right.
So, admit your faults, your bad days, your struggles, and show your team how you overcome, push through, and deal with them. Reward curiosity and determination. Create an environment where upraised voices are valued and listened to.
This is the root of building a space where people feel free to be themselves and the beginnings of a space where the best work is fostered.
That starts with admitting that sometimes we falter, and sometimes we fail—and that’s okay.
Listen to the in-between
As much work as you may put in to building this culture of expression and support, remember that each member of your team will need different things in order to thrive in it.
We are, after all, individuals. One person’s safe space can look markedly different from another’s. That is why you have to pay attention to the “in-between.” There is often important information contained in the spaces between things that are said. Meaning, it’s important to pay attention to what is not explicitly said, and why.
Learn about your team members as individuals, outside of their projects and work activities. Pay close attention to what happens during work tasks. Hear when a person doesn’t speak, and listen to the “how” of when they do.
Most likely, this will tell you what empowers them and what makes them feel most themselves. Take note of the moments you can see them truly step into their own light and shine bright.
Then, find ways to recreate those moments for them and help them create more.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
None of this is easy. The hardest part may be confronting our own insecurities, faults, and biases. There will be conversations that feel uncomfortable and unexplored spaces where you may feel lost and a bit ungrounded. Know that finding yourself in those places likely means you’re headed in the right direction.
Creativity is a team sport. So is creating the best possible environment for it to flourish. Lean on your team when you need to. Learn from them. Shine light on them, unabashedly. Celebrate each other and revel in what you can become when you’re together. It will make all the uncomfortable moments worth it.
Safe spaces are hard to find and even harder to maintain; but opening your mind, heart, and processes to build them pays off in giant dividends.
A space where people are willing to help nourish one another’s growth, do the hard work alongside one another, and protect the hearts of those around them will foster the feeling of being seen, known, and protected. That, in turn, will grow astonishing things.
We all deserve to have the place we work every day make us feel appreciated for exactly who we are. As managers, leaders, and mentors, a safe space is no longer a “nice to have” on our list of responsibilities—it is an absolute requirement.
We can talk about diversity all we like, but if we don’t create the environments that will protect that variety of experience and thought, it’s all just sound.
So now that the rainbows have left our corporate logos and the posters have come down, it’s time to continue the real, everyday work.