Worker health and wellness Safety culture Leadership

Psychological safety

A hot concept in management, can it help create safer workforces?


The safety pro’s role

Although safety is in the concept’s name, experts agree that psychological safety should ideally be an organization-wide project rather than the sole responsibility of safety pros. The goal is to remove any barriers that keep workers from speaking up to colleagues across the organization, not just safety personnel.

The current state of psychological safety“In reality, you do need a full team effort to address psychological safety,” Cooper said. “You can’t do this without human resources, for example, because what if their policies don’t reflect what you’re trying to do?”

Without buy-in from stakeholders across an organization, progress can quickly be undone, Hambrick noted.

“It’s a snowball effect either way,” he said. “Once you get people to speak up and participate, they may encourage others to speak up and contribute as well. But any work we do toward building that can be torn down just as quickly if you have bad leadership or a supervisor who might not understand that their role is less auto-cratic and more as a facilitator.”

Chemours is rolling out its psychological safety initiative as a massive, company-wide training push driven by its HR department, with the assistance of operations, legal and safety personnel.

“We want everybody to own it,” Toto said. “It’s not just going to be our safety professionals driving this. It is going to be the role of everyone, if they see something, to say something and follow up.”

Of course, in organizations without this kind of commitment, safety pros who see value in the idea of psycho-logical safety may be going it alone – at least until they gain buy-in from managers, HR, etc. But where do they start?

“This is a long process,” Cooper said. “There isn’t a quick fix or a cut-and-dried implementation strategy.”

Fortunately, the experts agree, the role of safety pros and their contact with workers at all levels of the organization uniquely position them to enact small changes that can add up over time.

Psychological safety on a small scale

So, what does the promotion of psychological safety look like in practice? The experts list a variety of small but effective ways safety pros (and others) can begin cultivating it in their workplaces – many are things they might already be doing.

Ask questions. The first step is good listening. “Go out and commit yourself to learning as much as you can from colleagues,” Edmondson said. “What concerns, observations and ideas do they have? When you start asking questions of people in a curious and learning-oriented way, they will start speaking up. By inviting their voices, you make it safe for them to offer their voices.”

Be humble. Always learn from people before you try to teach them, Carrillo advises. “If you just go in and start telling people what they’re doing wrong or how to do things better, you will be creating a barrier because basically what you’re saying is, ‘I’m smarter than you. I’m better than you. I know more than you.’ And that closes the door.”

Build relationships. Remember to ask about people’s life outside of work, too. “Psychological safety is about creat-ing a sense of belonging,” Carrillo said. “And when you ask questions about someone’s family, etc., you’re build-ing a relationship, which is belonging.”

Value all perspectives. Psychological safety is built on the notion that everyone has something to offer the group. Every worker applies their own filter of knowledge and experiences to a situation, Hambrick said. “For example, someone with 20 years of experience versus somebody who literally just started their career – both of those people have things to offer,” he said. “The less-experienced person might not know the best way to do some-thing, but what they do have is a different risk tolerance, which can be eye-opening if we’ve normalized risks that shouldn’t be normalized.”

Foster autonomy. Hambrick has found that inviting workers to create their own solutions – soliciting ideas from as many members of a work group as possible – yields the best results. “I might have what I think is the absolute best idea for a particular circumstance, based on my experience and knowledge,” he said. “And it very well could be the best engineering control, the best practice or the best change to a process, but when I act as less of a subject matter expert and more of a facilitator, getting the people on the line level to come up with a solution – even if it might not be the best solution out there – it is the most effective solution because they own it and they try to make it work.”

This effect – what Hambrick calls the “force-multiplying” property of psychological safety – explains why the concept could be useful to even the most buzzword-weary safety pro. When workers contribute freely and fearlessly, openly discuss objections instead of quietly disregarding regulations, and are invited to give input and take ownership, safety pros might find that they spend less time auditing and “policing.”

“In the long run, it is going to help them do their jobs better, and also feel more fulfilled, because they’re going to be collaborating instead of fighting against resistance,” Carrillo said. “Trust is a great simplifier.”

Workers walk

Photo: gorodenkoff/iStockphoto

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