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Creating A Foundation of Safety

Guiding Questions: How do you build a foundation of safety; how do you build trust and communicate that people belong, are safe, and have a future here so they are mentally free to do their best work?

Culture guru Daniel Coyle was asked, “What advice would you give to someone becoming a head coach for the first time and has to set the foundation for a cultural change in an organization they are taking over?”

Coyle says the first thing is, “You gotta build a foundation of safety. Take time early on to have individual conversations with everybody.”

Worhuman is a global software company building technology that enhances the employee experience and drives company cultures forward. 

They say, “When people feel seen, they give their all,” and for more than 20 years, they’ve pioneered this belief, fine-tuning a technology platform that proves the value of recognition. 

Coyle said one of the best examples of this was San Antonio Spurs head Coach Greg Popovich. Before they drafted and signed Tim Duncan, a new coach at the time taking over a very toxic environment, Coach Pop flew out to the Virgin Islands, spent three days with Duncan, and they NEVER talked about basketball.

This helped them form a fundamental foundation of human connection. He said great coaches know we all walk around with the same thoughts and worries: 

Do I belong here? Do I have a future here? Am I good enough? Am I safe here?

These questions are millions of years old and are wired into us for survival, but great coaches know they need to diffuse those questions early by overcommunicating safety and belonging, and by building safe relationships with people because this is the platform on which everything else is built.

If you come in talking about scheme, strategy, and technique, it will get lost. Great coaches know how to build that relationship over time and then build in the teaching of the technical and tactical aspects of the team and job.

THE 4 H’s

When Kevin Stefanski took over as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns during COVID, he did several experiments to try to get the team to come together, and one of them was the 4 H’s. Over Zoom calls, they would talk about four things:

1 - Your History

-  Tell me about yourself.

-  What is something that has happened to you that greatly affects how you think and live today?

- What is something that has happened to you that nobody knows about?

2 - Your Hope

-  What is something you hope happens this year?

-  What is one goal that you have for this season or year?

-  What is something that happens in the near future or distant future?

3 - Your Heartache

-  What is one of the hardest things you have had to go through, and what did you learn from it?

-  What is one thing you never want to have to go through again?

-  When was the first time you had your heart broken (it does or does not have to be about a relationship or break-up)?

4 - Your Hero

-  Who was your hero growing up?

-  Who is something you look up to now?

-  Who is someone who looks up to you, and if they watched you every day, what would you hope they said about you?

When you safely ask personal but answerable questions, I learn more about you, you learn more about me, and we learn more about each other. This is an opportunity to build a deep level of trust and safety.

Doing things like this is how you build chemistry, and building these kinds of connections helped the Browns make the playoffs in his first year as their head coach.

There is no magic thing here, so try, fail, refine, and keep trying to create meaningful and impactful conversations. You might just want to use 1 or 2 H questions, or you might want to ask something completely different, but keep trying to connect and find ways to help the people around you feel safe enough to be their best selves.

Being a leader does not have to be like being the captain of the ship where you have to have all the power and knowledge and tell everyone what to do.

That model of coaching and leadership doesn’t always work, especially in today’s society. The coaching model today is asking what we need to do, how we need to do it, what are the roadblocks, and how can we overcome them - TOGETHER - by maximizing the skillset and knowledge of the people in the group.


1 - How do you help welcome new team members?

2 - What do you do to help new or existing team members feel safe and like they belong?

3 - Do you have anyone on your team who does not feel safe or like they belong? If so, what can you do to connect with them?

For a PDF, click here: Creating a Foundation of Safety

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