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Safety’s Evolution Towards Psychological Safety Programming

Early in my career I was responsible for employee safety at a warehouse that had over 100 employees. It was the hardest job I have ever had. Initially, I was skeptical about my influence. What could I possibly do to ensure that people behaved safely? Yet, over the two years I was in that role, I learned more about influence than I had in any book. I started off by asking for volunteers for our safety committee. I visited each team startup meeting at least once a month and began regularly sharing safety tips and information with supervisors to share in their daily meetings. I engaged supervisors in safety issues, and their teams helped develop solutions to problems we had with equipment and policies. While our recordable injury frequency (RIF) was not perfect, we improved over the two years, and I was proud to leave that facility safer than I found it.

I was only one leader at a global organization of 80,000 employees. The prioritization of safety was set at the top. Leaders regularly said that “no job is so important that it cannot be done safely.” It was modeled in everyday behavior, with rush shipments being delayed if safety was compromised. The overt focus on safety was not just at my organization. Other organizations have realized the cost savings of avoiding injuries, and also the moral advantage of prioritizing safety to increase employee engagement and well-being.

In fact, safety remains a top priority for business leaders today. According to a recent PwC study:

  • Sixty-two percent of leaders indicate they will need to aggressively ramp up their safety efforts to attract, train and retain skilled labor.

  • Eighty-six percent of leaders said safety was an important factor in creating a positive workplace for front-line workers.

  • Mentoring, flexible scheduling and front-line supervisor engagement are key to increasing employee safety.

Twenty years later, I realize the same phenomenon is likely happening with psychological safety. Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor and thought leader in psychological safety, defines the concept as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” The connection between physical safety and psychological safety is strong. If people don’t feel mentally safe, it is hard to feel physically safe. And if people don’t feel safe, they cannot do their best work.

Psychological Safety Best Practices

According to HBR, leaders have to model psychological safety for it to take hold. Modeling these behaviors sets the tone for the culture and what is expected of employees. Leaders can do that in the following ways:

  • Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.

  • Speak human to human.

  • Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves.

  • Replace blame with curiosity.

  • Ask for feedback on delivery.

  • Measure psychological safety.

Much like my experience spearheading our safety program, everyday behavior is what matters most. When you say psychological safety is important and allow unsafe behavior to happen, it is the same as saying it is not important. Everyday behaviors such as sharing vulnerable stories, stimulating inquiry before advocacy, rewarding challenges to the status quo, celebrating failures as learning opportunities and admitting mistakes make a difference.

Psychological Safety is About Modeling

When leaders don't pretend to have all the answers and behave more from a place of curiosity than judgment, it naturally facilitates an environment where people feel more psychologically safe. Questions are key to curiosity. Consider asking these questions more in your daily interactions:

  • What am I missing?

  • That's one viewpoint, let's hear other viewpoints.

  • Let me share my perspective.

  • What's the best way forward?

  • What story am I telling myself?

  • What do I not know yet?

  • What did we learn from this?

  • What else are we not considering?

Modeling is the best teacher. Try saying these phrases more:

  • “I don't know yet.”

  • “I appreciate your feedback.”

  • “I expect you to challenge each other’s ideas respectfully.”

  • “That feedback hit me harder than expected. I'd like a break to think before responding.”

  • “I don't have a great answer to that question right now.”

  • “I want to make sure I understand your perspective.”

  • “What I hear you saying is…”

  • “Is that right?”

  • “What makes you think that?”

  • “Tell me more…”

  • “Yes and…”

  • “Even though I see it differently, I appreciate...

  • “This is new to us, so we should expect failures.”

  • “What can I do more of or less of?”

  • “What will we do differently next time?”

  • “What would support look like from someone else (e.g., an inner critic)?”

  • “Look at how much we've learned.”

As the workplace continues to evolve, the importance of psychological safety is likely to grow. For leaders, this means modeling curiosity and asking more questions to ensure people feel safe to do their best work.

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