Foster psychological safety
03 November 2021
Alex Minett examines how psychological safety can help us to improve health and safety at work.
IN 2016, Google identified psychological safety as the most important factor in deciding team success. Since then, the management concept has found its way into organisations and businesses all around the world.
Its influence in the field of health and safety is also on the rise as more leaders employ psychological safety techniques to help reduce workplace safety incidents.
What is psychological safety?
An idea first developed in the 1960s, psychological safety at work is a shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for mistakes or raising ideas, questions or concerns.
Its use in the workplace gained fresh impetus through research by Amy Edmonson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, and Google’s study on team efficacy, which found psychological safety to be key to employee engagement and team productivity.
When employees are fully committed, the organisation can leverage the strengths of all its talent to create a robust, dynamic and innovative work culture.
Health and safety
Psychological safety techniques are being used in the health and safety industry to encourage employees to speak freely of concerns or unsafe behaviour without the possibility of being shunned or humiliated.
A culture of silence can be dangerous when someone fails to report an error or a near miss through fear of reprisals. Some workplaces are particularly complex environments with inherent risk and the potential for things to not go as planned. It is therefore easy to understand why staff could be fearful of consequences and punitive action. However, enabling all employees to feel it’s psychologically safe to give management bad news, share mistakes or concerns, or even to provide critical feedback is essential if safety is to be managed proactively and effectively.
Nurturing the right cultures and enabling the right behaviours to support safety has become even more challenging during the Covid-19 pandemic with the rise of hybrid working in which employees divide their time between the workplace and remote working. In response, psychological safety is now being considered as a way of helping teams to come together and succeed even when they're working in different places.
By creating an environment in which change can be embraced, with the reassurance that there is a mechanism in which to resolve conflict, psychological safety is also thought to have a positive impact on employee wellbeing.
Here, we look at four ways to promote workplace safety by ensuring your workers feel psychologically safe.
Better conversations will lead to a better culture, making it easier for people to discuss concerns and or report near misses without fear of punishment or humiliation.
Promote honest dialogue and debate – think about how team members can communicate their concerns about a process that isn’t working and ask them for their ideas.
Try to remove any barriers that keep workers from speaking up to colleagues across the whole organisation, not just safety personnel. Getting buy-in from leaders and other stakeholders can also help to improve the quality of dialogue across the organisation.
If some team members don’t feel comfortable speaking up, Edmondson says to remind people why the work they do is so important as it “brings us back to the actual work that we do and away from that need to manage others' impressions of us”. Reminding people who work in complex environments of risks creates an invitation for them to take it seriously and to bring their full self to work, she says.1
Psychological safety removes fear from human interaction and replaces it with respect and permission. It's about embracing conflict – not avoiding tough conversations but working to resolve any conflicts productively.
To help achieve this, put inclusivity at the centre of your organisation. Everyone has something to contribute to the group due to their different experiences and unique perspectives.
Ensuring everyone's opinions and ideas can be shared with colleagues candidly in a respectful manner is key to collaboration. Employees should feel that it's safe to express their opinion, and that even if someone disagrees with them, the team will still have their back and they will have theirs.
Creating an environment where people feel confident to disagree with the way things are run without threatening the unity of the team is also crucial to the creation of new ideas and to driving innovation. Valuing diversity of thought and in gender, age and ethnicity is also vital to increasing learning and creativity.
When workers feel able to contribute freely without fear of repercussions, to provide feedback and to give input into rules and regulations, safety professionals may also find that they spend less time 'policing' and 'auditing'.
Respect is closely linked with trust as productive conversations between people are built on trust. By giving your colleagues the benefit of the doubt when they ask for help, take a risk or admit a mistake, they are more likely to do the same for you.
Psychological safety is about changing mindsets and turning what has traditionally been viewed as failure into an opportunity for growth.
When things don't turn out as expected, ensure that the responses are clear and constructive, and establish norms for how failure is handled. For example, allow time for reflection instead of being quick to point the finger.
Encourage learning from mistakes and disappointment; don’t punish experimentation or even (some) risk-taking. Doing so will help to encourage innovation, instead of stifling it.
If you're asking your workforce for feedback on what needs improvement, invite them to create their own solutions and help them to implement any that are green-lit. By fostering autonomy among the workforce, it can lead to greater ownership of new processes and practices as well as engagement.
The behaviour of leaders can play a pivotal role in the successful implementation of psychological safety. Ensure leaders are available to give help freely when needed such as listening to concerns and helping to resolve conflicts.
Leaders should also regularly ask for help and input from their employees. According to Edmondson, asking an employee a direct question lowers the real psychological cost of the employee having to speak up in a situation of hierarchy. It also positions management as a fallible human being who sees the employee's input as crucial. In other words: "By inviting their voices, you make it safe for them to offer their voices.”2
If an employee does speak up to point out a failure or offer an idea, it's important to be genuinely curious, honour candour and also express gratitude to encourage them to continue this behaviour in the future.
In turn, by giving help and asking for help, management can gain a proper understanding of how robust safety processes actually are, rather than just what they think they are.
Ultimately, psychological safety is about creating a sense of belonging. Asking questions about someone's life outside of work can also help to create this sense of belonging by building a relationship.
Alex Minett is head of product & markets at CHAS. For more information, visit www.chas.co.uk