Circle of Safety

Who Is In Your Circle?

Circle of Safety which highlighted the more compelling remarks made during a session I attended with Simon Sinek in New York City was my most read blog post in 2013.  I am thrilled that Simon’s newest book titled, Leaders Eat Last is due to be released on January 7th.  The book expands upon the brief overview I wrote up and introduces a network of associated ideas.  I have been reading the book and it explores inspired observations about creating a culture of trust and empathy.  I highly recommend adding Leader Eat Last to your 2014 reading list.  As written at the end of the book, “If this book inspired you, please pass it on to someone you want to inspire.”

The Cirlce of Safety and Profits

A case study to further illuminate the Circle of Safety.  I read an article by David Auerbach, a former Microsoft manager who discussed the pitfalls of the employee “stack” ranking system.  The stack predated Steve Balmer’s tenure as CEO but was continued as a core assessment process.  Mr. Auerbach recounted the fate of employees who were placed in a series of performance buckets on a scale of excellent to awful.  The rankings sealed the employee’s future career path at Microsoft and was the basis from which bonus schedules were calculated.  The manager’s job was to advocate for their best employees and allow the lower performers to drop as far as necessary in the rankings while maintaining negotiating power for employees they preferred.  This process was the antithesis of the Circle of Safety.  The stack does not promote human interactions and germinates distrust and secrecy.  The Circle of Safety does not avoid employee firings but it reflects on the impact to the community with a more thoughtful and humane approach to help those who may not be able to maximize their talents.

General Electric was the classic model of a company that would let go of the bottom 20% of its employees on an annual basis.  If you did not perform, you did not stay.  This created a very competitive environment but also one in which trust, innovation, and risk were not worth building.  Contrast this with Costco, a company that pays a living wage and invests in its people.  The Circle of Safety extends to the edges.  The investment community would suggest that GE practices the hard-hitting principles that make for strong quarterly results.  However, Costco has actually outperformed GE over long-run (see chart below), providing a blueprint that treating the employees as something other than a commodity is possible and prosperous.

Costco vs GE

A key attribute of an enterprise that embraces the Circle of Safety is that it does not make employment decisions based on a balance sheet.  Instead a Circle of Safety organizations think first about what is best for the community and then secures the resources to support the community.

* A continuation from the Day with Simon Sinek

Circle of Safety

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle has served as the headwaters from which highly inspired individuals have articulated their purpose and launched ambitious expeditions.  I recently attended a session with Simon in New York City to gain insight into the next chapter.  Simon previewed the Circle of Safety.  The concept was simple to grasp and highly applicable.

The Circle of Safety has a strong overlap with Seth Godin’s philosophy of Tribes.  A fundamental driving force for humans over time is the need to survive which generates a need for safety.  In the caveman era, those who got the most to eat were expected to be the first and most potent line of defense when danger appeared and threatened the welfare of the collective.  In exchange for the prime position after the hunt, the strongest and biggest were charged with the survival of the entire group.  It was part of the leadership agreement.

We see this same dynamic on a daily basis.  We interact with people who provide a Circle of Safety for us or test our circle.  Southwest Airlines is an ideal illustration.  They have intentionally created a Circle of Safety for their employees, inclusive of the gate agents and luggage handlers.  These individuals are in the circle and therefore can execute their best work.  Try a legacy airline where many a gate agent is left to protect their job and therefore is left to survive each encounter.  Southwest would rather have a disappointed customer patronize another airline before they disrupt the Circle of Safety for their employees.  Simon’s refrain is that the strongest organizations protect the people on the edges, not just those in the executive suite.

If we are hoping to inspire others, we must offer a secure place from which to feel human and facilitate genuine interactions.  If the employees are authentic then customers feel safe to interact with each other.  Notice the social candor during the Southwest boarding process versus a legacy carrier.  Southwest passengers actually talk with each other and smile.  Rare is the same experience on other domestic airlines, unless the journey has become so fraught with obstacles that passengers are placed in survival mode and start forming temporary Circles of Safety to overcome that which threatens them.  If we wish for members of our tribe to go forth and act as ambassadors, advocates, or even askers, we must provide a safe place from which they can launch their journey.  Transformational acts come when we feel powerful and want to leverage this privelaged opportunity to help others.  

How big is the Circle of Safety in your enterprise?  Does it extend to the edges or is there an inner court?  What would your members, volunteers, and customers say?  What is the most inspiring or innovative act a member of the tribe has performed on behalf of the cause?  Have they deconstructed what allowed them to undertake such a quest?  As social animals the greatest bond in conceiving a human Circle of Safety is our ability to provide for others.  If we wish to do our best work we must have a mindset that is more expansive than just surviving.