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Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Karen Cates Psychological Safety in Workplace
September 19, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

By Karen L. Cates, PhD

In a psychologically safe workplace, employees feel confident that no one on their team will embarrass or punish anyone else for pointing out a mistake or asking a question

In the past, I’ve written about the need to get into the mind and the heart of the roofing worker to drive safety at work.  Training is important, but so is the emotional connection that makes safety feel like it’s the right thing to do – especially when workers find themselves making decisions on site in the midst of competing goals or demands.

Enter Amy Edmonson, a Harvard Business School researcher, who is pioneering a concept called “psychological safety” – in roofing, this is the perception a worker has of the consequences of pointing out a potential safety hazard or violation.  How this plays out on the job site is critical to driving safety.  Will he be perceived as ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive? Or can he communicate freely in the knowledge that others will listen to him and address his concern or observation? Will the team back him up and address the problem?  Or is he going to be ignored, subject to rolled eyeballs, ridicule or worse?

In a psychologically safe workplace, employees feel confident that no one on their team will embarrass or punish anyone else for pointing out a mistake or asking a question. It all starts with leadership. How can contractors, superintendents and foreman foster the communication channels needed to identify and address safety concerns before they become a problem?  Edmonson has a number of recommendations:

  • Welcome Curiosity: Promote a culture of learning and inquiry where questions are seen as an important opportunity to teach and develop. Does the phrase, “There are no bad questions” ring true in your organization?
  • Encourage Healthy Conflict: Teach all employees the art of asking questions that don’t convey judgement or blame, but instead invite responsiveness and discussion. Instead of asking, “Who’s the idiot who ran the cord across this work area?” (a possible tripping hazard), consider asking the team, “What’s wrong with this picture, and what do we need to do about it?”
  • Give Employees a Voice: Make sure that employees can communicate up the chain of command and provide means and opportunities for them to do so. Many companies engage in shop meetings and other strategies for conveying information.  Do you also have meetings with the teams on the roofs, where you ask for their input?
  • Promote Effectiveness, Not Efficiency: When leaders free the workplace from threats of ridicule from co-workers and encourage upward communication, workers are actually more engaged and productive in protecting the organization from threats, which might include safety violations.  In these companies, doing it fast doesn’t trump doing it right.

Driving safety into the minds and hearts of your workers is a long game that benefits workers, contractors and the industry.  There may be short term gains for cutting corners on safety, but the costs can be catastrophic.  By creating a psychologically safe workplace, contractors can help mitigate the risk of safety violations by making it a part of “the way we do business” for employees to call it when they see it, reaping long-term benefits for all.

Order Karen's Children's Books on Roofing and Safety

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