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Safety First!


Each of us strives to fulfill basic needs as humans otherwise we're surviving instead of thriving. When we perceive a situation isn't safe our fight/flight/freeze mode kicks in automatically so we can live through it. It's a great adaptation humans have developed over the millennia. We wouldn't be here without it. The problem comes when we live in this mode more than we feel safe. Cortisol and adrenaline flood our system even when we aren't actually in danger. Prolonged exposure to these environments has a negative effect on our overall health and well-being.

Organizations that are not good for the humans in them will always struggle to serve the community, state, nation, and the world they wish to. We know this from the consistency of the findings from studies by Maslow, Lencioni, Google, and many others. Intellectually we can know and understand all this, the challenge comes in actually doing something about it.

Culture = Values + Behaviors

When we don't feel safe our behaviors show it. We don't feel comfortable stepping into our individual values and beliefs. When we don't feel safe we act out in ways that aren't in alignment with who we actually are. Our basic need for safety isn't being met. Fear is present.

Is it what you want?

No matter what you're experiencing now, it's been perfectly organized to get what is happening now. How would people complete this sentence...

The way we do things around here is ______.

Now you have awareness from different perspectives on what's going on. It's not about judgment, it's about awareness. If what's going on isn't unleashing the collective abilities of the team chances are they're surviving in some way.

"My role as a leader is to pump fear out of the room."

-Rich Sheridan, CEO, Menlo Innovations

Regardless of what you find, it will take leadership. We must lead teams not manage them. Leadership is our behaviors which are our influence. We must honor people over process and be willing to change when it doesn't serve to remove fear. Fear kills creativity and imagination and keeps us surviving.

If it is to be it's up to me!

First, check out your informal recognition. When team members show appreciation for others this indicates they feel safe. If it's not happening, they are surviving and there's a need to build in ways to do this during working and meetings. If "Employee of the Month" and similar recognition efforts don't feel real throw them out. Figure out what's meaningful to team members and do those!

Second, check out your formal recognition. The assignments, promotions, and evaluation processes are great indicators of alignment of what you want for your team and organization. Are assignments made to help team members work inside their areas of strength? Does the evaluation process help team members grow from individual contributors and prepare them for people leadership roles? If not, people are likely "playing the game" instead of becoming the best version of themselves. This makes collaboration difficult and increases the challenges of turnover and retention.

No matter where you live and work you can make it feel safe to be there. Model the way in everything you do, and focus on how your leadership increases safety first.

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About the Extension Foundation

The Extension Foundation was formed in 2006 by Extension Directors and Administrators. Today, the Foundation partners with Cooperative Extension through liaison roles and a formal plan of work with the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) to increase system capacity while providing programmatic services, and helping Extension programs scale and investigate new methods and models for implementing programs. The Foundation provides professional development to Cooperative Extension professionals and offers exclusive services to its members. In 2020 and 2021, the Extension Foundation has awarded 85% of its direct funding back to the Cooperative Extension System, 100% of funds are used to support Cooperative Extension initiatives. 

This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Ag Extension (funding opportunity no. USDA-NIFA-OP-010186), grant no. 2023-41595-41325 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Extension Foundation. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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