Using Professional “Safe Words” to Defuse the Time Bomb on Your Team


Get Shift Done: Management

Most leaders manage to get through their entire careers without needing to deal with a highly talented team member who’s also highly volatile. But some of us aren’t that lucky.

I had an incredibly able and high potential team member who was passionate about her work and her area of expertise. Unfortunately, she was too passionate. She would get keyed up in discussions with anyone, at any level — people who were on her team, leaders of other teams, me, even the president of the company.

After several discussions on the subject, it became clear she was blissfully unaware of her reactions, or how it affected those around her.

What she needed was self-awareness, but she didn’t have the capacity for the “self” part. I had two choices:

  1. Separate her from the position and hope I could find someone else as talented and passionate about the job as she was.
  2. Or, I could try and give her some of the awareness she was missing, while at the same time, giving her the opportunity to learn how to self manage.

Support From the Outside

I went with option number 2. I would try to coach her, with the intent that she’d actively participate and gain greater awareness over time. My approach? I instituted a “safe word.”

A safe word (or phrase) is used to de-escalate a situation. It’s a signal to stop and back off. There is only one rule — when the word is used, you stop. No more yelling, no more talking, nothing. You back down, you back away, until some sense of equilibrium can be re-established.

There is only one rule — when the word is used, you stop.

Safe words don’t have to be limited to a single person. If you have a team that gets into emotionally charged discussions, establishing a safe word or phrase with the whole group can help prevent discussions from, at best, becoming unproductive or, at worst, damaging relationships.

In either case, it’s important to lay the ground rules with the person or team from the start, and they must agree. For instance you might establish “Let’s table that for a minute” as your phrase. Everyone must agree that when it’s used, everything stops — no further discussion, disagreement or argument around that topic will occur until everyone has had a chance to cool off.

There also needs to be clarity around consequences for ignoring the safe word. Those consequences should be established, and communicated, up front. Whether it’s removal from the discussion or more formal disciplinary action, your team needs to know that breaking the one rule will not be taken lightly.

The most important component of the safety word approach is trust. The person using the word to de-escalate the other(s) needs to do so when it’s needed and not willy-nilly. On the other side, the person(s) receiving the word must actually stop when the word is used.

Safe words can be a powerful tool in a leaders toolkit, but it isn’t a power tool.

Safe words can be a powerful tool in a leaders toolkit, but it isn’t a power tool. It must be established only in an environment of trust and mutual agreement, never forced upon the team member or team. You cannot swing it like a sword, it must be used as a teaching tool that can foster self-awareness and facilitate conversations.

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