Creating Gracious Space in the Workplace
Patricia Hughes, Trillium Leadership Consulting

There is a saying that the "home is the garden where children grow," so parents need to cultivate a supportive environment. The same is true at work: The workplace culture is the invisible but very real ecosystem where projects, initiatives, research, and learning happens. 

A positive culture can attract, retain and bind people to the team or organization, so it makes sense that managers and supervisors be intentional about the environment they create. This is even more true when teams are stressed, undergoing change, or dealing with uncertainty.

Fortunately, leaders can take steps to help themselves and their teams to create supportive environments that build strong relationships and yield strong results. Gracious Space is a way to create that supportive culture.

Developed by the Center for Ethical Leadership in Seattle, Gracious Space is a proven, collaborative leadership model that fosters a safe emotional environment so groups can work better together. It is the "special sauce" that makes everything better — whether a planning process, performance review, new partnership, or team decision. Over the past 15 years, Gracious Space has helped thousands of people in 30 states and 35 countries collaborate more courageously and creatively around critical issues.

The Elements of Gracious Space

The Center for Ethical Leadership defines Gracious Space as “a spirit and a setting where we invite the stranger and learn in public.”  Each of the four elements that make up Gracious Space is simple to understand, although not always easy to practice.

Spirit. The spirit of Gracious Space is how you show up each day. It's like the wake a boat leaves in water — what do you leave behind when you pass through? Do you bring openness and a readiness to learn and collaborate? Or do you show up in a cranky mood that ripples over everyone you come in contact with?

We each carry many qualities that enable us to create supportive environments, such as trust, compassion, humor, and collaboration. When we intentionally bring these attributes with us, we activate the spirit of Gracious Space. The best news is that being intentional about your spirit requires no budget, committee meeting, fancy gadget, or permission from others. Your spirit is contagious for better or worse. What can you do about that? Decide each morning what your spirit will be for the day ahead, and watch how that simple commitment introduces positive change into a system (and your own life).

Groups also have a spirit, which is evident in how group members relate to each other, interact with others outside the group, and get work done. Too often groups assume that getting down to business is the best use of their time, and they give little time or attention to how they are when they are together. Just like individuals, groups leave a wake; therefore teams need to intentionally create a positive environment for their work together.

Another aspect of the spirit of Gracious Space is the greater vision or purpose the group works in service to. This higher purpose is often the bright spot that connects all players. Instead of getting bogged down in arguments and frustrations, groups can tap into the higher goal — and the spirit of Gracious Space that engenders — that tangibly contributes to making the world a better place.

Setting. Gracious Space has a physical dimension that can support or impede our work together. Scientific evidence is accumulating that the spaces we inhabit influence our ability to be productive and satisfied, feel healthy and safe, and connect with the work and each other.

The physical arrangement of the room needs to match the goal of the meeting. For example, if you want people to talk and learn from one another, set the chairs in a circle or in table clusters, rather than in rows facing front. Pay attention to simple hospitality such as food, drink, and room temperature. Be sure everyone can see, hear, has an actual seat at the table, and knows how to participate, and thus feels included and empowered to speak. Manage the dominant and quiet voices, and use an agenda with a clear and visible objective.

Setting also has an aspect of time to it. Often meetings come to a close just as the real discussion starts. Plan meetings with adequate time so the group can productively engage each other. These simple reminders to be intentional about space and time can go a long way toward creating a positive work culture.

Invite the stranger. In today’s complex and highly connected world, we are more interdependent than ever. The term “stranger” refers to the “other”: an idea, person, or perspective not typically involved in the conversation. This can be an actual person with a different background, perspective, gender, race, job title, education, or any other quality that may make them seem different. The “stranger” can be a set of ideas or simply the future, which is completely unknown and therefore a stranger to all of us.

Much has been written about the benefits of diversity, such as a greater adaptability to changing markets, a broader range of skills, a larger pool of ideas and experiences to draw from, better decisions, better solutions and services, and ultimately higher productivity toward the desired goal. Inviting the stranger is the business case for Gracious Space. It's an active, strategic choice which enables groups to become smarter before making a decision. Rather than simply tolerating or even minimizing difference, we can — as noted leadership guru Peter Senge says — use difference as "an opportunity to learn more about the system."

While difference can sometimes feel like conflict, wise leaders will help their groups use difference as an opportunity to learn and open up more possibilities. We need the stranger when considering complex and new ideas, lest we make narrow-minded decisions or take actions with only short-term benefits. And it’s good to remember that we are each the stranger to someone else, and perhaps even to ourselves sometimes!

Learn in public. Learning in public means judging less, listening more, and being willing to change your mind. It means letting go of being right and opening up to possibility. If you want your team to work successfully and cheerfully in changing times, they need to collaborate and learn from each other. When we hold tightly to viewpoints, we crowd out the ability to be influenced by others. When we hold closely to our expertise, we stop listening to the insights in others’ experiences. Our judgments and assumptions about others lock them (and us) into a rigid box. Acting on rigid images of others ensures that we will get the results we expect because we haven’t created openings for a different outcome.

Gracious Space creates the space to engage in deep listening — with a commitment to learning — with the diverse group we have gathered. Learning in public requires humility, a willingness to explore assumptions and to express — in a respectful way — our own thoughts and feelings that others need to hear in order to understand and learn from us.


These four elements of Gracious Space create conditions for people to be fully present, fully engaged, and fully alive in a supportive workplace culture. Breakthrough solutions emerge when people come together with their best gifts, different perspectives, and the skills to learn, innovate, and collaborate in new ways.

To explore the concept of the Gracious Space further, watch my TED talk or read one of the books I have co-authored on this subject, Gracious Space: A Practical Guide for Working Better Togetherand Courageous Collaboration with Gracious Space: From Small Openings to Profound Transformation.

Pat Hughes runs Trillium Leadership Consulting, is a Senior Partner at the Center for Ethical Leadership, and is a member of the University Consulting Alliance

Autumn 2017 | Return to Issue Home