Relationships at Work - the Employee Experience and Workplace Culture Podcast

How to Build a Safe Space at Work with Nikki Thibodeau

November 21, 2022 Russel Lolacher Episode 42
Relationships at Work - the Employee Experience and Workplace Culture Podcast
How to Build a Safe Space at Work with Nikki Thibodeau
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Relationships at Work, Russel chats with community creation expert Nikki Thibodeau on creating safe spaces at work so we feel comfortable being our true selves.

Nikki shares her thoughts and experience with...

  • Why organizations would need a safe space
  • How intention is necessary
  • The difference between in-person and virtual safe spaces
  • The benefit of creating a safe space to your organization
  • How culture or cultures can get in the way
  • The role of inclusivity and exclusivity in creating safe spaces

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Russel Lolacher 
Over there in this podcast is Nikki Tibideau. And here is why she is awesome. She's the former senior community strategist, the first ever at Shopify was a strong voice in their own creation of their women's employee resource group. She's in demand as well. She recently spoke at the CMX Summit, and grizzy interactives community refocus virtual Summit, both those conversations very focused on building community and safe spaces. And guess what we're talking about today. Hi, Nikki.

Nikki Thibodeau
Hello, thanks for having me.

Russel Lolacher
Happy to have you here. We're going to create an interesting space of conversation today. But first, what's your best or worst employee experience?

Nikki Thibodeau
Yeah, my best. So I'm a glass half full all the way human. So unless you like asked me pointedly about a negative experience, you probably won't hear one. Unless it's very important to tell. So my best experience that I had at work was when I had a manager who asked me to describe what communication style worked best, and how I best receive feedback, and how he could support me my work. And then he actually listened and followed through. And he called me on my bullshit when I needed it. And he trusted me to get my work done. And it was just a space of incredible growth for me as an individual in the workplace. Because I felt supported in the way that made sense to me, it was the first time that I didn't have to adhere to someone else's rules or change myself to fit in. And yeah, it was it was really a light, honestly, life changing experience to actually be listened to.

Russel Lolacher
Isn't that heartbreaking? In the sense that that... I mean, don't get me wrong, I love that my heart saw like three times bigger, but at the same time, why does that have to be such an anomaly versus the way the world should work when it comes to leadership?

Nikki Thibodeau
Yeah, the interesting thing, like I've seen this conversation happening very recently around managers, and how there are managers who are put in that place, because they're really good at the subject matter. And there, and then there's those who are put into place because they're really good at people leadership. And I think that you, there's fewer people, leaders, than you'll find those who have climbed the ranks due to being really good at the subject.

Russel Lolacher
My mom introduced this line to me to the level of his incompetence, right, he rose to a level of okay, now you can't go any higher, because you just you can't do more than what we're giving you even if you're horrible at that. So I hear that more and more. And and I think we spend way too much time focusing on thinking leadership is about delivery, rather than the people side of it when it should be both.

Nikki Thibodeau
Absolutely, you can't have a valuable leader without both. Because otherwise, your your humans can feel like they're being treated like humans. But if they don't understand the business and the scope of work, then your team is going to suffer, and then all of a sudden, they don't have jobs. And so there has to be that balance of being able to be your whole self, but actually bringing work to the table as well.

Russel Lolacher
This is such a nice transition into what we're talking about today. So we're talking about creating safe spaces. So I guess the first question I would ask, before we get into what a safe space is, why would an organization even need one?

Nikki Thibodeau
Yeah, I think this is the question that people ask at the organizational level all the time is like, why would I want to invest the time in this type of work, and what we were able to showcase. Now there's tons of studies around this, but when someone feels like they're safe to be there, then innovation is more productivity is higher. And then people want to come to work, which is not the case everywhere. But if you feel safe to be yourself, whether that means that you woke up today, and you're just not on your A game, or you woke up today, and you're ready to smash it out of the park, you get to because that space is created and it feels safe. You get to come and show up as you are. And it doesn't matter who you were yesterday if that made sense.

Russel Lolacher
So what is the safe space? Because maybe a lot of organizations think they already have them. Yeah. Or maybe they do and they don't know.

Nikki Thibodeau
I think that like safe spaces are actually created intentionally and I don't know that. There's necessarily longevity to a space that's Unint intentionally created as a safe one. It can happen for a brief moment like say you have a meeting, and you someone felt comfortable in that space to share, it could just be a lot of like unintentional things that occurred in that meeting led to that person feeling like they had a voice. However, if that's not intentionally kept up, then there's not going to be those folks who are maybe not as vocal are going to feel comfortable speaking up. And so creating a safe space is it has to be intentional. And the first way to do it is to consider who the humans are in the room. So you have to understand who you're building the table for, to understand what you need to build at that table.

Russel Lolacher
What is the safe space, even whether it's a feeling whether how does it show up? Like what are we creating here?

Nikki Thibodeau
The safe space, like a definition of a safe space to me is that anybody who enters it feels comfortable to show up as themselves. Very simple sounding, and very hard to execute.

Russel Lolacher
So how do you get to that point, you were saying that you need to do it intentionally? Well, intentional means I need to start somewhere. So where do you begin to get to that safe space?

Nikki Thibodeau
Yeah, this is like fundamentals of building community. So when you're trying to build for a community, and we can talk about it from like, a really business organizational standpoint, and not necessarily feely, because it has roots in like, accomplishing goals. And so when you are talking about creating a safe space, you have to understand what are you actually trying to accomplish with that safe space. Because there are a myriad of different things. Like if we're talking about employee resource groups, it's going to be different than like a team culture, makeup, or, you know, a good office safe space. And so if we're say, we were talking about the makeup of a team, and having a creating a safe space, within that team, the goal is likely rooted in business at a business school, like we're looking our OKRs are in acquisition. And so in order to acquire, we're going to see that you start working backwards. And so it's like, okay, our, our team's goal is purely acquisition or purely sales. And so what kind of environment do I have to create so that they can be them their best selves, and achieve that goal. And if you create a safe space, wherein there's, you know, encouragement to share your failures, there's encouragement to share your wins, then you're going to be able to foster an environment where your sales reps are starting to avoid mistakes other people are making, because there was the safe space created to share in those losses.

Russel Lolacher
Is there a difference between a virtual versus an in person safe space?

Nikki Thibodeau
Yes, but not necessarily in the ways that I think people inherently think I think like, it all comes back to what humans are going to be in that space. And so for example, if we're talking about a safe space in person, you could you could be talking about like, can they physically get into the building comfortably? Like, is there are there people who they may not have a disability, but going up the stairs is like, they'll be out of breath, and we don't want them to feel like they're being watched? And so can you create a space where they can come and show up and feel confident? And then in virtual space? Is it have you set this the rules in a way where people understand how to be in that space, like what's expected of them or what's not expected of them. And so being able to be really clear, one of the things so at Shopify, we created this program called M power hour, it was for our women's employee resource group, and it was a bi weekly one hour discussion on topics that you would normally not be able to have the space for at work. So it could be about talking about periods, it could be talking about being the daughter of an immigrant. And the way that you create a safe space and someone's coming in to talk about them, their deep rooted personal things that are not necessarily traditionally work related, is we would start every time it was always ritual, and we would start every meeting with the same language it was we are creating together a safe space. This means that we do not share outside of these four digital walls, what's shared within here, and if you do want to share because you believe it will have value out side of the space, you need to get direct permission from the person whom, who shared that. And so that we could all be sure that what happened within this space was going to be held sacred, or held as like a secret that only happened here. And so being able to create that space and say, like, if, if you don't feel you're able to do that, I'm gonna give you a moment to leave without shame. And there were times where someone was just like, This is intense, I'm leaving, like, and I don't know, I never followed back up with them about like, why you left, because I think you should be able to just go, this isn't for me, I'm going to leave. But through that time, people end up immediately being like, Oh, this is a space where I can actually tell you about the struggles that I have. This is that space for it. And it created this beautiful ability to have conversations with folks about topics that I literally like being a daughter of an immigrant, it's not something that I relate to, but I was able to be in a space with folks having that conversation, and they could feel safe. having those conversations.

Russel Lolacher
I love the bubble of empathy. I love that even even they're not experiences, there are other people's experiences that you can help with that connection. So that makes me think, okay, you're in this, you've created this community, perfect example of it. What were the benefits to those individuals? Did you hear back like, what were the aha moments of, oh, we're almost creating our own subculture here.

Nikki Thibodeau
The biggest thing for me was belonging, it was understanding that you are not the only person that this happens to. And when you when you recognize that you're not the only one, it actually gives you permission to use your voice more. Because if you understand that, when you say something that maybe you don't hear in the ether, that there's probably going to be someone who goes, I see myself in that, or Oh, yeah, I'll I'll support that. Because that happens to me, too. And how that benefits the workplace is that people will now actually speak up when they don't agree with something, or they'll give it it'll give people the ability to create new ideas, because they're not going to be like, Oh, someone's going to tell me that I'm an idiot. Someone's going to be like, Oh, wait, yes. And instead of No, thank you.

Russel Lolacher
How does culture and and as I mentioned, subcultures get in the way of you being able to create these safe spaces?

Nikki Thibodeau
I think it's like assumptions. So there are a lot of times where, so for those who can't see me, I am a white sis woman. And what ends up happening when you're trying to create spaces wherein there are intersectionalities, or that those subcultures, there can be there's tons of trauma that's experienced by those cultures. And so there's a hesitancy to allow a white woman into that space, or to allow someone or to believe that I'm coming from a place where I can hold space for you. And so where those get in the way is this assumed and like for for sake of protection, there's this assumed inability to share because of either your experience or your perception of the person you're talking to. And so one of the biggest ways is othering yourself. And thinking that I can only share within a certain this certain subculture and it can't be can't traverse a wall.

Russel Lolacher
I'm thinking of a lot of leaders that may not know how to even dip their toe in may even not know that they're not like their self awareness is shit, or their situational awareness is crap. And they're basically ignorant to the fact that they may not be creating safe space. How do you break that down?

Nikki Thibodeau
Yeah, so you'd mentioned that CMX talk that I did about building safe spaces, and the biggest thing I talked about, like three steps, and we all know steps, they have like 1000 Steps underneath them. But the first step is acknowledge and what that looks like is it's okay to be like unaware of the current space. I think one of the hardest things is when you've been a saving a manager of the same team for 10 years. And you're like, Well, if I were to try and create something different, is that saying that the last 10 years I've I've spent have been I've been doing it wrong. And so then it often comes to this point where people are hesitant for change, because they don't want to negate the work that came previous This, but to what I say to that is that like, continuous growth is continuous for a reason because the world changes around us. And we're allowed today to have a differing opinion on something that we had yesterday because of something we've learned. And if we can be the types of humans in these spaces that can come in and take a look and be like, I need a fresh perspective, I need to acknowledge what is and what should be, or what I'm trying to get to, and move forward. And so for example, we were coming back to being it that women's employee resource group I had created in Power Hour, and it became our flagship program, which was so great, but then we were including folks outside who weren't just women, were including folks within the gym, like outside of the gender binary. And what ended up happening was those folks felt safe within that employee resource group. But the reality was, is that we weren't building any other resources for those individuals. And so we came a time where we had to acknowledge that we had been unintentionally, including a group of folks who then felt supported by something that was not actually built for them. And so we had to come to the spot where it was like, I could have crumbled and been like, Oh, I've been doing this all wrong. But what I recognized was, I've now learned something, that means that I have a differing opinion today than what I had yesterday. And I now need to move forward. So the acknowledgment was, we now have two separate groups who need support. And we need to decide are we going to change the the makeup of the women's employee resource group, and become something like maybe a gender minority resource group? Or are we going to go back to our roots and be solely for women? And so within that acknowledgement, you go back to your community, or you go back to your team, and you say, Hey, this is what I've taken a look at the team makeup. And this is what I have to deuced Am I right? Am I wrong, and then you just sit back and you listen, and you create spaces. One of the biggest things I find that isn't done an error by leaders is that they believe that there's only one way to submit feedback. It's like, oh, we'll have a meeting, I'll give you some time to think about it. And we'll all come together and have a meeting and talk about it. When we're talking about building more safe spaces, there's going to be folks who have not been heard for a really long time. And you're going to need to figure out how do I get their voices heard. And so having a different ways of people submitting either anonymous feedback, or just written feedback, and having the the ability to have like, maybe a one on one or a group discussion, you're gonna want to have the ability to create the space to listen and figure out what it is that your team or your community want. And so we've got step one, acknowledge step two is listen, and then at the end of the process, you're gonna have to make a decision. And you're gonna have to decide, okay, well, what are we going to do now to move forward. And when I was referencing back to this women's employee resource group, what we did was, we recognize that through a lot of things, there's the fact that we were only a women's Employee Resource Group and only had resources for women, there was the fact that through our education, and talking to those outside the gender binary, realizing that there's a lot of spaces that were initially created for women that are actually traumatic for folks outside the gender binary. And so a space for folks outside the gender binary cannot be created by women. And so our decision at the end of the day was to go back, be a women's in ERG, and then move forward by helping them create a negative space. And so once you've made your decision, step three is inform. And the reality of inform is that it's been probably one of the most uncomfortable steps, because there's never ever going to be a world where you've pleased everybody. And so there's going to be and, and the informed step is the change. It's the ask of your team, it's the ask of your community, to come on this journey of change with you. And change is inherently uncomfortable. And so, creation of safe space means that like, people have had their ability to have a voice, but you've also taken a big leap, and you're gonna lose some people along the way. But what ends up happening is you create the space where people can then innovate and be themselves and grow. And the people who come along the journey with you are the ones that you're creating that space for and It's okay that you didn't create a space for everyone, I think that's impossible.

Russel Lolacher
And but there will be a lot of people that have flag going well, it's not being inclusive, then if everybody can't be a part of it, or everybody feels comfortable, then is it as inclusive, but you're saying by listening, and maybe there are other safe spaces for them that would show up differently for them.

Nikki Thibodeau
There's this really great book by Priya Parker called The Art of the Gathering. And in it, she talks about creating a dinner party. And at that dinner party, you have all of your friends. And so say you are a parent, and you have your parent friends. And then you bring you have another really good friend, but they don't have kids. And they don't like kids, they hate them. And you bring, but they're like a really good human. And so you invite them to that dinner party. But if you hadn't set the intention, like if the intention of that dinner party was to have a space where parents could talk to each other, being inclusive of someone, regardless of their intent actually takes away from the experience of those who need that space. And so by being exclusive, it's actually a mechanism of inclusion and deeper inclusion.

Russel Lolacher
So you've acknowledged you've listened, you've informed you're creating a safe space, you've set the dinner table, as it were in the rules and not rules. How do you keep this going? How do you maintain a safe space over because I'm assuming you don't want to want to create it, and then let it die in a heartbeat? isn't something you want to establish over time? So how do you go about doing that?

Nikki Thibodeau
Yeah, so within the space of you like figuring out what it is that you're trying to achieve, you're going to be able to measure against that. And sometimes it is actual metrics, like you can survey your team or survey your community and figure out am I doing the thing? But a lot of time, it's, it's just like, is this working? Are we like, if you're coming back to that sales team analogy? are we achieving our goals? Are we actually getting the sales output you need to, and if you're not, then you come back and you go back to acknowledge, like, you assess the situation, you acknowledge what is, and then you figure out what you need to change. And so it is a it's always going to be constant, because like referencing back to the beginning of this conversation, we were talking about how there can be unintentionally safe spaces. But if you don't continue nurturing that safe space or doing things intentionally, then it's just not going to maintain that space.

Russel Lolacher
Now, do you feel especially as somebody who create a community within a larger organization that it is, is success, just basically building a tons of little sub culture safe spaces that eventually join up bubble together into a big? Like? Are you just building a lot of them to build a big one? Or is that not how this works?

Nikki Thibodeau
No, I think like you don't build a safe space, just to build a safe space, you build a safe space out of a need. And so that could mean that you have a lot of them, like in a big organization like Shopify, we would we had, I think it was seven or eight employee resource groups. And then within those employee resource groups, you have intersectionality. So for example, we were a women's employee resource group, but we had Indigenous women or gay women. And so it's like you have all those intersectionalities. But it isn't on the organization necessarily, to identify what spaces need to be created. It's my belief that it's you as an individual, should you should you need to create a an organization where any individual can say, I don't feel represented, or I don't feel safe. And there's a mechanism to solve that. But it's not your responsibility as an organization to identify unnecessarily what safe spaces need to be created.

Russel Lolacher
So are you saying it's the responsibility of not executive but rather the management supervisors to do this? I'm just trying to wonder where the responsibility lies.

Nikki Thibodeau
I think that like the responsibility of creating a culture where people can speak up and speak out is important at the executive level. But I think that often times, as individuals, we feel like someone should recognize us, like see us we want we all everybody wants to be seen and recognized. But in the reality like I remember, part of my background is in helping small business entrepreneurs. And one of the biggest lessons that often they learn is that they have to nominate themselves for awards, or they have to submit themselves for like, if they have a product based business, they have to submit themselves to be on that top 10 list. The editor is not going out and actually finding 10 things. It's a curated list from someone who submitted. And so I think we often want, like we really deep down want to be recognized and something built for us. But the onus is on us to create what it is that we want. And regardless of whether or not you're capable of actually creating that safe space, it's on you, as the individual, not even a manager or supervisor, but the individual employee to recognize that you're not supported in a way and then ask for that to be supported.

Russel Lolacher
There are some people that might think, okay, I don't even know if I have safe space, I don't need to know where the subcultures of the safe spaces even exist. What are some of the red flags, people should be looking for that thank you know what you need to be focusing on this.

Nikki Thibodeau
I think like people, humans as they show up to work, if you find that they are quiet all the time, or they don't participate, or they're not proactively asking questions, if you're always having to chase them and direct where your team's going, I think you can understand you don't have a safe space. Because if people regardless of whether or not you're, their ideas are good. It's important that they have the space to be able to ask or say like, Hey, you know what I was thinking the other day about, maybe our team should be doing this, and then have it if you don't have anybody in your team coming up to you and saying, Hey, I was wondering what you think about this new direction, or this way to do my job? And you just have someone going, what do you think, what do you want me to be doing, then that's a really big indication that they don't feel comfortable that you're going to be able to be receptive of maybe them suggesting that they do something different that you haven't suggested.

Russel Lolacher
I hear psychological safety a lot. I hear diversity, equity inclusion a lot, but you don't hear safe spaces as much, are we kind of talking about the same thing?

Nikki Thibodeau
It's absolutely the same thing. One of the things about like diversity, equity and inclusion, like so Shopify is obviously a place that plays within capitalism, right? Like, it's like a harbingers of capitalism. And so if we talk about building a product for the masses, the masses aren't just white people. And so if you have just white people at the table, you're going to be missing a huge market. So if we talk about it in a capitalistic sense, the importance of including others in the conversation, is that you're then going to have diversity of thought, and be able to sell the product to more folks. And we can just put it to numbers. But if you, if you really think about it from a human level, then you think about it as like, again, that diversity of thought you can, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're selling the product to African Americans. And so you need an African American on your team. But it can mean that that person has had a lived experience is going to add a color. That's maybe a bad choice of words, but add color to the conversation, or add color to the thought process of how you go about creating a new product, or creating a new service. And so if we continuously have the same voices in the room, then we're just never going to innovate.

Russel Lolacher
I had some really great conversations on other episodes. What about accessibility? What about neurodiversity? And those are also voices that absolutely need to be and I'm not saying you didn't highlight that. I'm just saying that it is when people think diversity. Yeah, you have to think beyond color of skin for a lot of organizations, because they'll think they're doing a good job if they can visibly see diversity, rather than these people that are needing to be heard wanting to be heard, but aren't obvious.

Nikki Thibodeau
Yeah. And one of the big things like when we talk about building safe spaces, when we talk about events, for example, so say you're you're creating an event where someone can come and participate in an event could be a meeting, and you want to create a space where people feel like they can have their voice heard. While they're touching on neurodivergent sees it's not now just Can someone physically access the space. It's can someone actually engage in a way that feels comfortable for them. So I bet your your episode on neurodivergent see goes into it in more detail. But it's could be as easy as like sending forward your slide deck ahead of time so someone had the chance to be able to read it before coming and getting the fuller depth from your conversation. It's crazy. Eating accessible resources where someone can create the safe space for themselves. And or create a space where they can thrive. It's not always just like, can they physically make it to that room?

Russel Lolacher
Yeah, let's paint that picture. Imagine you're a neurodiverse person that needs to process differently than maybe what the leader quote unquote leader is used to. And then not getting that agenda ahead of time not getting that slide deck ahead of time. And then going, Oh, by the way, we got to do a meeting right now. Ready, go talk about this? How safe would you feel if it feels almost like an ambush, or you don't have the information ahead of time to make or put your best foot forward? I can see other leaders going, Hey, we need to meet in 15 minutes. Are you ready? how safe do I feel when I don't even know what the meeting is about? And I feel like I'm being ambushed, not led? That hurts my heart.

Nikki Thibodeau
Absolutely. And that comes back down to like, remember, at the beginning you asked me was one of my best employee experiences. And it was that my boss asked me, How can I help you best show up. And it was it's really comes down to as a leader Have you get created a safe enough space on your team where your individuals can say, I need a day's notice for a meeting, or I need to meet in the afternoon because I'm a bitch in the mornings like you just what's the safest space for them, or I need the the minutes of the meeting prior to meeting with you. Or I have a friend who their their team works really fast. And so those last minute meetings happen all of the time. And it may sound funny, but like, especially in this economy, they if their boss is going to say we need to meet in 15 minutes, they have to say your job is safe. It's about the work. Like and it's it's repetitive, but it's just like, that's their concern is I'm going to be laid off right now. Because layoffs are happening everywhere. And so it's like what do I need to give as a lead? What do I need to give my team which is just an extra line of text? Like your job is safe. I were just talking about the work. But that means you can meet in 15 minutes. It's being a human first. Who loves getting the job done.

Russel Lolacher
Nikki, what is one simple action people can do right now to improve their relationships at work?

Nikki Thibodeau
Listen more, but like listen to understand not to reply or have an opinion. That's like I think a lost art.

Russel Lolacher
Ladies and gentlemen, that was Nikki Thibodeau. She's a former senior community strategist. First ever, we should really stress that first ever over at Shopify. She was a strong voice in their creation of the women's Employee Resource resource group, which she was amazingly explaining today. Thank you so much, Nikki for being a part of this.

Nikki Thibodeau
Thank you