Why All the Fuss About “Psychological Safety?”

Psychological Safety

Back in the 80s, before I had even heard of the term psychological safety, I was the Safety Director for a nuclear plant that was weeks away from startup. As we prepared the plant to operate, several whistleblowers came forward with claims of serious quality assurance issues. Their claims were thoroughly investigated and found to be valid. It seems the Project Manager for construction had a zero-tolerance policy for common human errors (including unsafe behaviors that led to an incident). Disciplinary action was required for these failings and ranged from a letter in personnel files to immediate termination. Due to these misguided policies, thousands of deficiencies (e.g., inaccurate prints, arc strikes, bad welds on critical equipment, etc.) had been hidden by fearful employees. The defects were substantiated by various regulators and soon became public knowledge, with disastrous consequences. After a complete loss of public confidence, it took my utility nearly ten more years and BILLIONS of dollars to find and correct these deficiencies before the plant was operational. What led to this debacle? Fear was at its core. Today, many would say the plant lacked psychological safety.

We’ve seen what can happen from the lack of it, but what does psychological safety mean and how is it achieved?

What is psychological safety?

Simply put, psychological safety is the ability to show, employ, and express yourself without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career (Kahn 1990). It is the shared belief of team members that interpersonal risk-taking is safe. In psychologically safe groups, members are treated as equals and know their input will not only be accepted but appreciated.

The positive implications for workplace safety are fairly straightforward. Workers that feel respected and valued are not afraid to point out safety hazards and are more likely to engage in efforts for identifying solutions and opportunities for improvement. The benefits of psychological safety have had many years to be proven. It was first described by Schein and Bennis (1965) as a critical component for ensuring employees feel secure and therefore more likely to help meet organizational challenges, including workplace safety.

If you hope to have the workforce actively collaborate with you in safety, it is necessary to first ensure a work environment where psychological safety plays an active role. W. Edwards Deming, the founder of Lean Manufacturing and Total Quality Management, similarly urged organizations to “Drive out fear” to encourage employee participation and achievement.

Central to psychological safety, however, is trust (a component that seems in short supply these days). Many companies were founded on the 100-year-old theory first championed by Fredrich Taylor in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) that unfortunately is commonly translated into a command and control culture. Taylor’s premise has been boiled down to management making the rules that workers are expected to follow exactly. This belief that performance is optimized by “teaching” workers in this way is still prominent in many companies’ safety efforts.

The problem with this methodology is that it kills trust, enabling blame for safety lapses to more easily be laid on workers who just won’t behave as they were told. Personally, I have even experienced managers tell me they do not encourage input from their workforce because they do not have the time to deal with any more issues. This safety practice is often the most significant obstacle to fear-free worker engagement. I have witnessed many safety professionals genuinely threatened by worker participation on what they perceive as “their turf.”

We audit, inspect, coach, observe, investigate, and judge (declaring “safe” vs. “unsafe” behavior) our workers, but only rarely take advantage of their brains, experience, and talents to foster sustainable safety progress. This amounts to doing safety to workers rather than with workers and is a waste of the most valuable assets to safety. Embedding psychological safety into organizations requires eliminating blame from all acts that occur without malicious intent. Additionally, to demonstrate that worker input is valued and taken seriously, longstanding safety responsibilities must be shared with those most directly impacted by them.

Psychological safety encourages workers to become business partners and stakeholders in their company. Empowering employees naturally leads to a desire for their actions, and the actions of others, to contribute to organizational success. Driving fear out is the first necessary step to transform disaffected workers into work owners and champions for continuous improvement.  As this is often a formidable challenge, especially in organizations founded on opposing work ideals, it will not happen overnight. Within the realm of safety, promoting workers to be problem solvers (rather than liabilities to control) will help progress this change. A safer and more productive organization is the hopeful return on that investment of effort.

Author Bio

Jim Loud

Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all laboratory operations.

Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma, and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.

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