‘Psychological safety’ the missing piece in workplace safety

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    Is it safe to speak up? That’s one question employers should focus on when trying to improve workplace safety, according to an expert on workplace culture.

    A climate in which members of a team or organization feel safe enough to speak up about problems, raise questions, point out conditions, confront behaviors and even bring forth new ideas — known as “psychological safety” — can have a great impact on workplace safety, according to Dr. Steven Simon, president of Culture Change Consultants, Inc., who presented Tuesday at the American Society of Safety Professionals’ Safety 2021 Conference and Expo, held in Austin and online.

    “High (psychological safety) organizations regularly and effectively tap employee expertise for innovative ideas,” he said, adding that “low (psychological safety) organizations, on the other hand, suppress employee engagement. Without psychological safety, fear can – and does – prevent employees from surfacing problems and as a result, the issues may never be noted or fixed.”

    Since he began consulting organizations on culture change, the needs of employees and the elements that embody a complete approach to ensuring psychological safety have evolved, but overall, Dr. Simon says there are four major factors: the individual factor, the team factor, the leadership factor, and the culture factor.

    “You have to work on all four levels at the same time,” he said, offering practical tools and tips to foster psychological safety in each category.

    First, establishing team norms around psychological safety is a critical start.

    “When teams have some ground rules or norms that they can work by, they tend to rely on those when they go through the storming period of a lot of conflict, and they get through it, and they become much more high performing,” Dr. Simon said.

    Paying attention to team norms leads to the leadership factor. Success in this area relies on three main “cliches,” Dr. Simon said: “Number one, practice what you preach. Number two, be collaborative. Number three, listen to understand rather than to be understood.”

    Curating a healthy, safe culture – the fourth factor – relies heavily, if not entirely, on leadership. To find success in the leadership factor, organizations must go back to the first, grassroots factor: the individual.

    In one case study, a former president of Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., a self-described “numbers guy,” was struggling to measure the true safety performance quarterly of the New Jersey utility giant, understanding incident rates alone weren’t enough. So he went rogue.

    “He said, I am going to create my own measurement and that’s going to be the quality of the dialogue that I hear when I’m engaging with employees of this company, whenever it comes to safety,” Dr. Simon recounted. “Each quarter I’m going to tell a story about a conversation that I had, and I’m going to tell you where I think that places our safety culture.”

    Not managing by the numbers, but by the human element of safety, had an enormous impact on the company, improving safety performance, company culture, and demonstrating strong leadership – and achieving an all-encompassing approach to safety culture.