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Creating a workplace where employees feel psychologically safe to voice their concerns is the best way to create a high-performing and safe work environment, according to a speaker at the American Society of Safety Professionals’ virtual conference.
“The objective of having a strong safety culture is to keep people physically and mentally healthy,” said Steven Simon, a psychologist and president of Culture Change Consultants Inc. in Larchmont, New York, during a virtual session Tuesday. “You cannot have physical safety and mental health without psychological safety.”
In companies that lack a psychological safety culture, workers are hesitant to voice their concerns, fear the response of management, and are uncomfortable asking questions, he said, while workplaces with a strong psychological safety culture use errors as learning opportunities and encourage employees to speak out.
“In organizations, only if an employee … feels psychologically safe or secure will they speak up about problems they see,” Mr. Simon said. “Only if they feel safe from retaliation, feel their ideas and contributions will be accepted and recognized, will they participate fully as a team member.”
In 2017, Google LLC completed a two-year study of its own workers on how to create the most effective and innovative teams, finding to its surprise that psychological safety was the key differentiator among high-performing teams, Mr. Simon said.
“What they discovered, contrary to expectations, is the ‘who’ you put on a team doesn’t matter so much,” he said. What matters is that the employees on the team feel empowered to ask questions, voice opinions and take risks, he said.
Bringing the idea of psychological safety to the workplace can come from the top or the bottom, Mr. Simon said as he highlighted case studies from both a grassroots-driven initiative led by power plant workers and a top-down, leadership-driven approach at a brewery.
At the power plant, workers organized themselves to drive a safety culture, and by bringing lower-level supervisors on board, they were able to eliminate employee fears of retaliation or repercussions for pointing out unsafe conditions.
“They came up with a project plan, conducted meetings with crews so they understood … why employees don’t ask for help,” Mr. Simon said. The efforts paid off, and the culture evolved so that technicians felt comfortable pointing out mistakes and everybody felt they could ask for help, he said.
In the leadership-drive initiative, a brewery conducted a safety culture assessment and learned that workers believed the employer placed a higher value on production than safety. The brewery trained its workers on how to report a perceived unsafe condition and celebrated situations in which workers had the courage to stop the line and report a safety risk.
“Stop managing by the numbers,” Mr. Simon said. “In the safety world, almost nothing has as chilling an effect on the free flow of information (as) feeding the matrix monster.”
Companies that want to create a culture of psychological safety need to understand that the change will not happen overnight, Mr. Simon said, recommending that they take the following four steps:
“Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” he said. “You’re better off starting with a pilot of one or two workgroups and gradually expanding.”
The American Society of Safety Professionals’ three-day virtual conference runs through Thursday.