Psychologically safe?

“You can’t fix a secret!”

In Australia, October is Safe Work Month, a time when I often receive requests from companies wanting me to deliver sessions on creating a culture of wellbeing and psychological safety.

One of them came from the head of safety with a global mining company, who wanted me to facilitate a series of webinars about creating psychological safety for leaders and employees, which is the type of work I do routinely.

As I described the content I would deliver, she asked me if I could possibly “couch” my language, concerned her managers would be uncomfortable with what I was saying.

I pointed out that she was seeking to manage (indeed, micromanage) my messages in a session about psychological safety, yet the irony seemed lost on her – she was so focused on (and anxious about) the anticipated reaction from her managers, she could not seem to grasp the absurdity inherent in her wish to dilute the core messages. Indeed, she actually suggested she could be fired if the session went ahead!

While I felt a degree of compassion for the fearful head of safety, I was not about to enable a toxic culture by complying with a directive to wear kid gloves for the benefit of an autocratic leadership team.

 

“A policy can’t make it safe to speak up!”

And here’s the challenge! Most companies want a culture in which people are willing to speak up, report hazards and near misses. Yet all too few create the psychological safety and trust required for such behaviours to become the unequivocal norm.

For example, leaders may have an “open door” policy, yet that will count for nothing if people are too afraid to walk through it.

Some companies seek to tick a few boxes to demonstrate they are promoting employee wellbeing (fruit bowls in the kitchen, discounts on gym memberships etc), yet ignore the very things that are essential to creating a climate of health, safety and wellbeing – trust, psychological safety and the subsequent willingness of employees to speak up.

The safety manager described above wanted to tick the ‘psychological safety’ box. However she was terrified that actually examining psychological safety within her workplace could result in her being fired by a management team who didn’t want to hear anything that might result in them feeling challenged or uncomfortable.

You can’t fix a secret!

 

“You can blame or you can learn, you can’t do both”

When companies (directly or indirectly) inhibit the sharing of ‘bad news’, learning will always be inhibited. Leaders who shoot the messenger are promoting a blame culture (“people are the problem”) rather than a learning culture, and over time this can become entrenched via a self-fulfilling prophecy that I call “the fear loop”.

Leaders in such immature cultures tend to see their people as a problem to be solved. In a recent workshop for frontline supervisors, I asked the group: “Why do we have incidents at work?” One of the supervisors responded: “Because they’re just bloody stupid!”

No doubt the “stupid” workers would receive the requisite punishment, to serve as a lesson to them and their colleagues. The next time there is a near miss or an actual incident, it is highly unlikely such events will be reported.

Moreover, if the limit of our incident analysis is “they are stupid”, we are just waiting for the next stupid person to get hurt in the same way. There is no depth of learning about system issues, why the behaviour made sense, or any other contextual factors.

As long as our fundamental assumptions are about the “problem behaviours” of our people, there can be no learning. We are doomed to repeat the pattern outlined in the fear loop, crushing trust, destroying psychological safety and ensuring our people remain silent. Without trust, it is almost impossible to get reliable and timely information, especially if someone has made a mistake.

 

“Behaviours are not the problem; behaviours are expressions of the problem”

More mature leaders recognise that behaviours per se are not the problem. However, behaviours can point to system issues and other opportunities for improving the safety of work (How does the system encourage or enable such behaviour? Why does that behaviour make sense? etc).

Rather than being driven by a fundamental assumption that people are the problem, they see their people as the solution. When framing our teams in this way, it makes sense that we will engage with them more frequently, ask them questions (humble enquiry) and involve them in identifying solutions, as well as challenges.

Over time, teams learn their opinions are valuable, that they can share challenges, ideas and ‘bad news’, building a sense of ownership, control over their work and psychological safety. This approach, when applied consistently, can also become entrenched via a self-fulfilling prophecy that I call “the trust loop”.

 

“Trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback” – Dutch Proverb

The companies I work with that have been successful in developing cultural maturity have been those whose leaders focus on relationships rather than rules and enforced compliance – they engage with their people, building psychological safety and trust.

A plethora of studies have identified trust as a key predictor of safety performance and an essential component of proactive safety cultures. Specifically, findings from these studies show that trust in management can increase employee engagement in safety behaviours and reduce the rates of accidents.

Conversely, other studies noted that mistrust is associated with diminished personal responsibility for safety and increased injury rates (Lloyd, 2021).

In short, trust is the primary currency for leaders. Without it, nothing else you do will make much difference. A fruit bowl is very nice, yet such gestures, however well intended, can never be a substitute for the consistent efforts leaders need to make to create and sustain trust within their teams.

Queensland-based Clive Lloyd is a psychologist specialising in safety leadership and culture development. He is co-owner of and principal consultant with GYST Consulting Pty Ltd. His book Next Generation Safety Leadership: From Compliance to Care was published recently.

QUESTION: Clive Lloyd says that after an incident you can blame or you can learn, but you can’t do both. Describe an incident from your working life that best illustrates this.

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