Accident investigations around the world have often established psychological safety, leadership, and cultural issues as contributory factors in many major incidents. There’s also research which shows that the level of psychological safety that exists between team members is a critical success factor in building high-performance teams. With so much at stake, and a clear link between psychological and physical safety, how can we as leaders and safety professionals nurture a psychologically safe workplace culture where people feel comfortable speaking up, secure in the knowledge that their organization welcomes diverse views? As part of a research project to gain insights into this question, I interviewed a number of global senior business leaders and change agents across a range of industries.
Why don’t people speak up?
There are several environmental, cultural, and individual reasons why people choose to stay silent about their safety concerns. These include thinking their point of view won’t be valued, that management doesn’t want to hear it, or it won’t be acted upon. Other reasons are peer pressure, not wanting to be seen to be disloyal to the group or ‘sucking up’ to management and personal characteristics including national traits, level of confidence, and natural disposition.
What can leaders and change agents do to create a more psychologically safe workplace?
The research identified ten critical safety leadership behaviors and practices to build a psychologically safe environment:
- Personally express your vision and commitment. Have a clear articulation of why health, safety and wellbeing are important to you. Very often leaders talk about safety as an organizational priority but fail to express why it’s important to them on a personal level. Doing so makes it much more human and shows your vulnerability. People tend to respond in kind. Be willing to go out and engage with others. Share why it’s important to you and listen to why it’s important to them.
- Make yourself both ‘visible’ and ‘accessible’ as a leader. You can be visible by doing a town hall meeting, conducting a site visit, or participating in a large group Zoom call. All these actions help you set context, send a message, and communicate outwards, but that doesn’t make you accessible. Accessibility is about genuinely engaging with people, preferably in their own workplace, and creating a safe space where it’s easy and comfortable for every individual to communicate with you. Which groups in your organization do you rarely visit or spend least time with?
- Build relationships. Take time and invest in establishing relationships with people on a personal level. What do you have in common? Where have you career paths crossed? Who do you mutually know? Which sports teams do you follow? What family connections might you have? Show an authentic interest in them as individuals, not just the work they do, and be willing to share information about yourself.
- Take action. One of the primary motivations for people to speak up is when they see it will be valued and acted upon. It’s critical to demonstrate you’ve heard their input, considered it and it’s been acted on. If you’re not going to take action, go back and tell people why. This encourages people to speak up again in the future knowing their input didn’t go into a black hole.
- Be authentic. One thing that turns people off is if they sense you are being inauthentic. People are wary of managers who say one thing and are inconsistent with their actions. If you’re going to ask people to speak up and be open and honest with you, you need to lead by example. Show you don’t hesitate to speak when there’s something you think is unsafe and protect those who speak up to you.
- Be a ‘learning’ leader. Be curious and, no matter how senior or knowledgeable, adopt a growth mindset. Look to ‘explore’ learning opportunities with colleagues versus feeling the need to ‘explain’ based on your seniority and experience. What can you learn from your colleagues? Value the diversity of thinking, make it safe to talk about errors and difficult issues and react positively when people speak up.
- Demonstrate humility. Very often leaders in senior positions assume they have the most knowledge, but you can’t be an expert in everything. Acknowledge that the people doing the work are the experts in how that particular work is done. Be prepared to get into a dialog with them. Find out why they consider something to be safe, what risks they see, and listen to their ideas for how the task could be made safer.
- Acknowledge and appreciate people. Acknowledge and thank people for their contributions and the difference they are making. It makes a difference for people to know their work is noticed, appreciated, and valued. It doesn’t have to be financial reward, but public recognition and celebrating people’s contribution will create positive reinforcement for them and encourage others.
- Create a ‘just’ culture. We need ‘just’ cultures, not blame cultures. If we’re looking for people to feel psychologically safe, they’ve got to feel they will be treated fairly. In a ‘just’ culture, discipline and standards are applied evenly and consistently. People remain silent if they are unclear about the consequences of speaking up. How will they be treated?
- Manage complexity. As a leader, when you’re thinking about your organization, think about the dynamics affecting it, for example the markets and environment you operate in, risks, competing commitments and changes occurring. Reflect on how they impact the activities and mindset of the people working within your organization and its supply chains. How do they affect morale, level of distraction and introduce possible safety risk?
If you would like to discuss any of the topics raised in this article, please contact Mark Britton.
For over three decades, JMJ has been delivering impactful cultural change to help executives, leaders and front-line workers transform safety, sustainability, and business performance. We combine the deep experience of our people with our proprietary Transformation Cloud platform to deliver breakthrough results, making the impossible possible. www.jmj.com
Have questions or want more information? Contact us