Ep 117: Leadership Sandtraps #3 – Seeking Safety
The heart of leadership is about forging into the unknown, and the unknown, by its definition, is unsafe. In this episode, Adam Quiney talks about the leadership sand trap of seeking safety and why that is detrimental to what transformative leadership truly requires. Adam dives into the context around safety with what the world has been living through and the acceptable degree of unknown. Get to know the true definition of seeking safety as it relates to your internal experience versus external circumstances. Tune in and be the transformative leader by avoiding this sand trap.
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Leadership Sandtraps #3 – Seeking Safety
We are talking about our third leadership sandtrap in our series of Leadership Sandtraps. This one is called Seeking Safety. This is the sandtrap caused when people are caught in a context about being safe and ensuring everyone else feels safe as well. This is a prevalent context in light of the last couple of years that we’ve been living through collectively. We’ve had the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter movement, and COVID. There’s a lot of conversation with a lot of different nuance that all weaves itself into a context around safety. That’s what we’re taking a look at.
If you are interested in what these conversations bring to you, if you like these distinctions, and find yourself thinking, “This is great content and Adam is super cool,” or maybe not quite that extreme, but you think, “I would love to create these distinctions. I wish I could generate this stuff. How does he get this?” The answer is simple. It’s because of all the work I do with my coach and with the groups that I’m in which serve to develop my leadership. That’s what the work is. Listening to podcasts and books are great, but the deepest work comes from within. The Forge is an opportunity to take some of that work on for yourself. It’s a nine-month program.
It’s you and eleven other dedicated, devoted people committed to their own and/or your leadership breakthroughs like coaches and leaders. We do three things. We create transformation in terms of your being. Not changing the person you are, but having you be a deeper, fuller expression of the person you always have been. Learning and developing the art and mastery of coaching, which is the art of developing leadership. Not only doing your work to be able to see this stuff on your side of the fence, but to be able to artfully work with other people rather than run into pitfalls like their defensiveness or our own resentment about how they’re showing up or stuff like that.
Finally, we do a lot of work on enrolling people in whatever you’re committed to. If you’re a leader, that’s having them say yes to whatever project you’re working on and how to keep working with that. If you’re a coach, maybe that’s your coaching practice. If you’re a service professional, that might be whatever you are selling. Those are the three things that we create the pillars. Our promise is that you will not leave as the same person you came to us. If that sounds inspiring to you and speaks to you in any way, check out our website, EvergrowthCoaching.com/the-forge.
Forging Into The Unknown
Let’s talk about seeking safety. The heart of leadership is about forging into the unknown. The unknown by its definition is unsafe. What is known is what is safe. If I know the world around me, I can ensure that I’m safe within it. As soon as you introduce new variables, there’s a risk. Everyone is constantly playing off some degree. There’s an acceptable amount of unknown that is safe. I don’t know exactly what cars are going to be on the road, but I know that here in Canada when I cross the street, cars come at me from the left, and then they come at me from the right. I know that I need to look to the left and if I can see any car coming, I don’t cross and otherwise, I can’t cross. That’s an acceptable level of unknown.
I don’t know why I went into that digression. I felt like it’s worth acknowledging that we all live with some degree of unknown. Leadership, because it is forging into the unknown, by its definition is unsafe. This sandtrap seeking safety is the insistence upon an attachment to feeling and being safe as a function of someone’s internal experience rather than the facts of their external circumstances. How does this get created? The sandtrap typically gets created when people are raised with a strong emphasis on not being aggressive, strong morals around not upsetting, hurting, harming, judging, etc., in other people. It’s also created when people are raised in places where there was not a lot of safety.
As a reaction or in response, they create a strong internal need for ever-present safety, both for their own and for those of other people. People with this sandtrap can be crusaders for the safety of others as well as their own. They can be hyper-vigilant for dominance. Is this person trying to dominate me? Are they dominating someone else? Do I need to defend that person over there as a right to say what they were going to say rather than be interrupted by that person? This can also arise when people were abused or when people have trauma that hasn’t been resolved, or that they learned how to operate over top of. A lot of our sandtraps are like the pearl that forms inside of an oyster when there’s an impurity introduced.
Two Ends Of The Spectrum
That’s what the oyster does. It creates this pearl so that that impurity can’t harm the oyster. Sandtrap is a little bit like that too. Rather than remove the impurity from our system, it gets lodged in there, and then we build this whole way of being around it. That’s the nature of sandtrap. What are the two ends of the spectrum? Remember, every sandtrap has two ends. It has a giving end and a receiving end. Remember that this holds true for every pattern and every sandtrap. If you have people you notice exercising one end to the sandtrap, it’s worth noting that you quite likely will be acting at the other end of that same sandtrap with them. You will be in a dance with them and vice versa.
Also, remember, these sandtraps are never bad in and of themselves. Bad isn’t the context we’re operating in here. What we’re looking at is automaticity. When these things become an automatic, always-on thing. Before we go any further, it’s important for me to make clear that I’m not saying a willingness to stand for safety is a bad thing. It took years before hardhats here were mandated on construction sites and became an accepted part of what you wore when you worked on a construction site. There’s a lot of lobbying for safety and a lot of measures for enforcing safety requirements that had to go uphill to make that happen.
There are many other areas where safety is not regarded. I use that as an illustration of the fact that I’m not saying someone’s standing for safety is bad. There are plenty of places and times when it’s good. What we’re looking at is when that is the thing standing in the way of someone’s leadership or when it is a sandtrap. This isn’t a conversation about it being bad. It’s more the ease with which a conversation about safety gets brought forward and how it’s a trump card. On the one end of the spectrum, someone with a seeking safety sandtrap will be hyper-vigilant about a lack of safety. This hyper-vigilance will apply both to themselves as well as everyone around them.
Leaders with this trait will dig their heels in and absolutely refuse to move forward until the perceived breach of safety is addressed. These will be people that can be quite stubborn and dig their heels in. The way you’re doing that is unsafe. The way you were bringing that is not safe. I don’t feel safe. There’s a real hypervigilance to their internal feeling of safety and to how other people are feeling in the room. “I don’t think that person feels safe. I don’t think the way you’re doing that is safe.” On the other end of the spectrum, people operating with sandtrap tend to create a distinct experience of a lack of safety for some people and they do this in a couple of ways.
First, these people are like an antenna that is overly tuned. When you undertune an antenna, you tend to have a lot of false negatives. You falsely miss signals that probably should have been caught. When you overtune an antenna, you end up with a lot of false positives. You seem to pick up on things that aren’t necessarily there. A great example that I wrote about was the concept of pareidolia. You call it the optical cortex or whatever it is. The part of our brain that’s responsible for seeing and recognizing what it sees. The part of my brain that can distinguish a shirt from a pair of pants, even though they’re both swathes of fabric. That part of our brain is specially tuned to see, notice, and process human faces, which makes sense.
We pick up on so much in someone’s face. This person is aggressive, kind, happy, or sad. How do I need to be with this person? Pareidolia is the tendency for us to see faces in a random series of patterns. This is the kind of thing that has people see Jesus in a piece of toast. It’s the kind of thing that had us notice the face on Mars when the early images of the Cydonia area of Mars were photographed and sent back. In fact, it was just a mountain with some shadowing and some albedo, some light being reflected, but we saw a face because that’s what our brain does. We’re overly tuned to see faces. We’re going to sometimes recognize faces that aren’t faces and make meaning of them. This sandtrap is a lot like being overly tuned for a lack of safety.
As a side note, there’s the same thing that happens with people that identify as empaths and they fail to see this in themselves. They can insist they’re picking up on something over there with you without being curious about whether that’s accurate. They’ve decided or concluded they’re right about it. You might have had these experiences where you’re like, “This person is insisting I’m upset. I’m getting annoyed because of their insistence, but I feel fine.” There’s a lack of willingness to consider that their own radar may be off. As a result of this tendency to create false positives, leaders with the seeking safety sandtrap will sometimes label certain people, situations, and circumstances as unsafe when this may not be accurate.
In doing so, this will create an underlying experience of a lack of safety in those around them, especially in and for those people they’ve decided to label this way. If someone happens to get labeled the perpetrator, it doesn’t matter to this person with the seeking safety context. Whether that’s true or not, they’ve already decided it’s true and they’re going to enroll other people in relating to this person the same way. If I start talking to you about this person at work as though they’re a perpetrator, you’re going to start to listen, notice, and see that person’s actions through that lens. You’re going to watch the way they walk and be like, “That is suspicious. Why are they going to the bathroom twice every hour? What’s going on there? What would that mean if this person was a perpetrator?”
This lens creates a lack of safety, but in an indirect way. How is this sandtrap for leadership? Safety is a real trump card. As soon as we start talking about someone feeling unsafe, we’ve been collectively trained to drop what we’re doing and ensure that we create the conditions required for safety. You can probably get that already. As soon as someone says they feel unsafe, we’re all like, “Stop what you’re doing.” You’ve got to ask yourself, what are the conditions required for safety? With this sandtrap, how do we determine what is safe? The answer is the conditions for safety are given by how someone feels internally. This is a problem. Your feelings don’t provide us a lot to go on. They’re fickle. How you feel moment to moment is a constant shifting experience.
Parts Of The Sand Trap
Aiming towards the way someone feels is a moving target. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether there’s any risk, it has to do with their internal state. Remember that pursuing leadership, developing leadership, leading into the unknown, creating breakdowns, and supporting you to create breakthroughs in the face of your winning strategies falling apart and failing is not a safe endeavor. In fact, it’s the antithesis of safety. Leadership is not about safety. This is the first part of the sandtrap. With the modern era focused on calling light to all of the harm and wounding that’s been created in the world, it makes standing for someone’s leadership when this shows up especially challenging. The second way the sandtrap typically exists is because someone is confusing their discomfort for a lack of safety.
Having your leadership developed as a process of continually having your unchecked assumptions brought to your attention, reflected, and then being invited to notice and choose outside of the safety and familiarity they provide you. Consequently, the requirements to reassert safety based on someone’s internal feelings are typically going to be a function that whatever is challenging their assumptions, be set aside and removed. “Adam, I don’t feel safe of you inviting me to notice the shrillness in my voice. I feel like you’re making me wrong. I feel unsafe in this space.” There’s a trump card. The way to resume safety is that I or whoever’s leading you has to drop whatever we’re doing and handle you with kid gloves a little bit to get you back to feeling safe. It then ensures that you stay exactly where you are without any hope of growing beyond your current existing paradigm.
The third part of the sandtrap, the sandiness, is that leaders operating from the seeking safety sandtrap will be prone and vigilant for the safety of those on their team. This is going to result in two distinct roadblocks to developing leadership. First, for those team members themselves who are seeking safety, the leaders will be especially hesitant to reflect, call forward, or point to what is next out of fear of triggering the unsafety trump card. What this creates is people handling each other with kid gloves. Second, for those team members that the leader deems the perpetrators of a breakdown and safety, the leaders will be especially ruthless and unlikely to connect and empathize with their side of the story.
If you have a leader on a team operating with sandtrap, let’s say it’s you, the person you deem unsafe, you’re going to be much less likely to connect, open your heart with, and empathize and get their side of the story. Instead, you’re going to come down hard on them. Ironically, those that the leader deems perpetrators of a lack of safety are the ones that most experienced that lack of safety from the leader. It’s thorny. How do we work with this? This is a challenging sandtrap. I want to start by acknowledging this. The first thing that we have to do is you need to make sure with your own coach and leader that you identify their real places where there may be a breakdown in safety. Is there aggression? Is there bullying? Is there this thing present?
Before we can support someone to move forward, we have to ensure that everything in our house is in order. That doesn’t mean we have to do things perfectly, but if we’re not looking on our own side with our own culture leader, you perpetually insert that people have something for which they can dig their heels in against you. When the lack of safety is raised, the first step is to truly listen and get the complaint that’s being brought. You’ve got to give people the opportunity to be heard, especially when a safety context is raised. For more on getting people, I’d suggest checking out episode 78, the foundation for your speaking. One of the challenges with seeking safety sandtrap is being a stand for people to step past their own fears about safety rather than continuing to have the world rearrange itself to suit their own comfort.
That’s the game that these people are playing. “I’m willing to play. Stop. The world around me needs to change so I can feel safe before I’m willing to play some more.” This isn’t leadership. That’s inherent victimhood. It’s disguised victimhood. It’s like, “I’m doing what I’m doing, which is I’m standing for the world to be different. I’m going to ask for what I need. When I don’t get it, I’m going to go somewhere else,” which is great once, but if that’s the pattern of your life, your life will go a certain predictable, automatic way. As a leader, you need to do your own work to check and make sure that you’ve got your house in order, and then be a stand for people to get beyond this concept of safety and into discomfort.
It can be helpful to check out with people what their definition of safety is. Is it true that people aren’t going to agree or even celebrate them when sharing their opinions? Is that a problem? Is that unsafe? This is the nature of the world. The irony is that we all want to be able to express ourselves authentically, but then we don’t want other people to be able to respond to us authentically. We’re like, “I feel this way.” Someone is like, “You’re stupid for that,” and then we’re like, “See, people don’t want me to be authentic.” No. People are just responding in kind. They’re bringing their own authenticity.
Creating Brave Spaces
Our job is to practice expressing ourselves, and then working ourselves out to let other people do the same, even if we don’t like what they have to say. People expressing an opinion is not the same as a lack of safety. A threat is a lack of safety. Bullying, sexual harassment, and stuff like that is a genuine lack of safety and needs to be addressed. Someone being afraid that someone’s going to tell them their ideas dumb, that’s not a lack of safety. Remember that your job is not necessarily to create safe spaces as a leader. It’s to create brave spaces. Brave spaces are places where we are willing to lean in, be vulnerable, and be risky. If there’s never any risk of you getting hurt, there’s never any vulnerability. If there can’t be any risk like that, there can’t be any transformation and any more leadership. Standing with your people to support them in understanding this goes a long way.
It’s valuable to work with people to distinguish between safety and discomfort and invite them to start using that term instead of the first one. “I’m uncomfortable.” That’s okay. We can be with you in your discomfort. You can also invite people to notice how this pattern plays out in the rest of their lives. With altitude, meaning, get up out of the weeds and invite them to take a look like, “How does this go everywhere?” What happens when they demand the world around them rearrange itself to be safer? Explore this pattern. People do that or they don’t. What happens when they don’t? You leave, and then what? You go somewhere else, and then what? You find another place, and then what? Eventually, it’s great, and then what? People show up and it’s not that safe, and then what? Great. There’s that pattern.
What about if people do placate you, what happens there? We can start to see the greater wholeness of the pattern as opposed to this immediate thing. It’s also worth noticing for yourself where you cater to a need for safety and where you vilify or deem other people unsafe. Can you catch this tendency in yourself? Finally, it’s worth noticing the impact of these. The big impact to notice here is that things rarely move at any exponential or breakthrough pace when this sandtrap is at play. By ensuring everything is always safe and everyone feels alright, you also ensure that everything moves at a slow lockstep pace at best incrementally. There’s no possibility for breakdowns because breakdowns are unsafe.
Consider the breakthrough you want is to have a mansion. What you currently have is a condo. To create the mansion, you’re going to have to knock the walls of your condo down and the breakdown is that moment where you’ve finally done that and suddenly, a storm comes. You think, “This is terrible. I suggest this mansion because Adam invited me to consider the possibility of it, but now, I’m getting rained on and I’m cold. I don’t know what to do.” That’s the breakdown. That is not a safe moment. It calls you to create something. Most of us could manage that. We could find someone to stay with and we could be resourceful, but until we’re required to be resourceful, we won’t. Notice this lockstep, slow, incremental pace, and see if that might point to the sandtrap for you.
Do you have an experience of this showing up in your world or on your teams? Where might it be important to step beyond the context of safe and unsafe for you? That’s everything that we’ve got for you this episode. If you would like to check out The Forge, you can do so at EvergrowthCoaching.com/the-forge. It’s going to be an incredible year and we’re super excited with the people that we’ve already got. If you have a particular sandtrap you think might be a good candidate for a conversation on this show, send me an email at PR@AdamQuiney.com. Thanks for reading.
- Episode 78 – The Foundation for Speaking as a Leader
About Adam Quiney
I’m an obsessive perfectionist, high-performer, former lawyer, and now an Executive Mentor. I know what it’s like to succeed easily and quickly. To blindly put my happiness in the hands of achievement.
All the success, money and possessions in the world couldn’t cure my boredom. Couldn’t produce a loving, intimate relationship with my wife…and definitely couldn’t fulfill me.