How to Create Safe Places for Tackling Difficult Problems

Stephanie Quirk Care for people, Leadership

4090221980_d666491ab0Imagine you are leading an organization facing an uncertain and changing future. The processes and products of the past are no longer functioning or performing, employees are experiencing challenges they have never encountered before, and leadership feels like they are jumping from fire to fire trying to manage risk. As organizations face the reality of a world where environments are in continual flux, it is understandable that a practical approach to addressing the changing landscape is at the top of most organizational wish lists. How can leaders address the need to be responsive to changes in the economy, with employees, and within society?

Enter the adaptive leadership model.

The model is based on work spearheaded by Ronald Heifetz, Founding Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Heifetz provides clear strategies for identifying situational challenges, prescribing leader behaviors, and engaging in adaptive work.

What sets the adaptive leadership model apart is the belief that leadership is a process, an interactive two-way street between leader and team. As Heifetz wrote in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994), “by unhinging leadership from personality traits, we permit observations of the many different ways in which people exercise plenty of leadership every day without ‘being leaders’” (p. 20). The stereotypical concept of leader as an individual with all the answers is put aside, and instead a leader steps into a facilitator role, equally affected by the process. The leader is responsible for empowering individuals to bring forth meaningful change through exploring and potentially challenging personal beliefs, anxieties, and values about the adaptive work.

Another unique feature of this approach is that it requires leaders to be what I like to call “all in.” Leaders must be able to lead with both their heads and their hearts as organization members begin to navigate and examine beliefs, anxieties, and values. Adaptive change seeks to move people who have not been convinced to address change by the facts around them and the way to do it is through the heart. Leaders have to know their own to connect with others.

For example, I work with a group of dedicated volunteers in an organization focused on improving the lives of children in our community. For many years the organization focused on reading to children with positive results. Over time our community began to change with the economic downturn. The most pressing issues shifted from one issue to a variety issues stemming from the larger problem of an increase in poverty. We are now in the process of this shift and have found that the issue of poverty is unfamiliar to many organization members. In general, many people have misconceptions about people in poverty. As we begin down the road of addressing the changing landscape of need in our community our adaptive work has the potential to challenge volunteer’s personal beliefs about people in poverty, anxieties about working with children and families experiencing poverty, and could possibly influence a shift in personal values in regards to how individuals and communities should support their most vulnerable members.

How do you identify opportunities for adaptive work?

The adaptive leadership model requires leaders to first identify if the challenge being faced in their organization is an adaptive challenge. In my volunteer organization example we knew the challenge was adaptive when we realized our leadership did not have the solution to addressing our new challenges and our organizational structure was not equipped to meet them either. Take a step back and view the challenging situation as a whole. From there you can answer these questions to find out if the challenge is adaptive:

  • Can this problem be tackled by a leader’s authority or expertise?
  • Can this problem be solved through the normal organizational channels?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, the challenge is likely technical in nature. If you answered “no,” there may be an adaptive dimension to the challenge. Consider the following questions:

  • Is the problem difficult to identify and define?
  • Would attempts to solve the problem challenge people’s beliefs, anxieties, and values?

Answering “yes” to these questions means the challenge is adaptive in nature. After looking at the big picture and identifying the challenge as adaptive, the next step is to begin to create a safe space where challenges can be addressed.

What is a safe space and why create it?

The creation of safe spaces is necessary when conflicts begin to arise between the perceived values in an organization and the reality of the situation. A safe space, or holding environment to use Heifetz’s terminology, does not have to be a physical space. Leadership theorist Peter Northouse says safe spaces rely on the cohesive relationships between people and can be structural, procedural, or virtual. Whether physical or virtual, a safe space should create an atmosphere where individuals can engage in critical evaluation of values, beliefs, and behaviors without feeling overwhelmed or threatened by the change.

How can leaders facilitate the creation of safe spaces for problem solving?

While there are certainly cultural differences in how organizations may approach the creation of safe spaces, the following considerations are vital to their development:

  1. Establish shared language, values, and orienting purpose for discussing and navigating difficult topics. Leaders can assist their teams with exploring their perspectives by providing guidelines for communication. This will ensure civil discourse and that all voices are heard. As conflicts begin to emerge in a safe space, a strong focus on the overarching purpose of why the team is coming together to solve the problem will keep progress moving
  2. Cultivate relationships built on trust with vertical and lateral bonds. This can be fostered by cultivating meaningful relationships focused on empathy and caring at all levels within the organization. Heifetz and his co-authors believe vertical bonds signify trust in authority figures in the organizational structure and the lateral bonds leverage the power of camaraderie.
  3. Regulate distress. As facilitators, leaders must monitor the issue’s progress and turn up the heat if necessary. Timing is everything here! Without some pressure, little progress on the issue will be made; but too much pressure and the process may be jeopardized as individuals disengage and avoid the adaptive work.

Final thoughts

Heifetz’s view on adaptive leadership was visionary in 1994 and continues to be a practical way to navigate change. It offers an opportunity to look at circumstances through a powerful new lens by harnessing the conflict arising from the gap between what we believe and value in our organizations and the reality of our situations. Doing this opens organizations and people to the possibilities beyond their own perspectives which can often be locked into place after many years of success or routine. In the end what we are asking individuals to do is to try a new way of being. The best thing we can do is set our organizations up for success beyond simply surviving as we journey into a new frontier.


quirk thumbnailStephanie Quirk is the coordinator of student life for the College of DuPage and a student in the doctoral program with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership.



Safe place photo Credit: Iain Farrell via Compfight cc

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