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Psychological Safety – the history and benefits

Christopher Clark, SHE Advisor at Morgan Sindall Group, discusses the importance and benefits of psychological safety in the workplace, to ensure your people can speak up without fear of reprisal.

 

Psychological Safety – the history and benefits f
Christopher Clark

Psychological safety was first recognised in 1965 by Edgar Shein and Warren Bennis in ‘Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods: The Laboratory Approach’ as an organisation factor to creating safer and more inclusive places to work, which in turn, generates creativity and joint accountability, they stated psychological safety reduces “a person’s anxiety about being basically accepted and worthwhile”.

Essentially, this means as a team, and as individuals, we can focus on collective goals and problem-solving rather than on survival. By removing the fear of reprisal by having an inclusive workplace where we can create a harbour of safety and which in turn creates the environment to learn from mistakes instead of harbouring risk secrecy which can ultimately end in catastrophe for our organisations and our people.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which is the worst nuclear incident of our time, has attributed to a lack of safety culture, a contributory factor of the disaster “was in large part due to a lack of psychological safety resulting in operators not speaking up about their concerns.” Gizenburg, (1993). By not having a culture of safety, the team running a safety test on that fateful day did not feel that they could speak up and challenge the management about the readings they were seeing during the safety test.

There are many factors that affected the final outcome of this catastrophic incident, including the lack of training and competency of the operators and supervisors, the perceived power of individuals due to cultural identity within the Soviet Union at the time, all of which meant that people were not allowed to challenge those that were above them in the autocratic society and a system design error within the RBMK reactors. Ultimately, however, the engineers and operators did not have the ability to challenge something that was unsafe and that they felt was going badly wrong, this was down to a lack of psychological safety.

Kahn, (1990) describes psychological safety as “feeling able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career. People felt safe in situations in which they trusted that they would not suffer for their personal engagement.” This essentially means we have the ability to speak up and feel safe at work.

As organisations grow and develop, they have the need to assess their culture so they can start to drive down risk, and in doing so, aim for less harm being caused in their organisations. Some organisations target “Zero accidents” others do not as they see this as unachievable and there are many safety discussions across the profession that discuss the pros and cons of zero accident target. For me, the aim is to ensure we send our people home safe.

Christopher Clark d

The DuPont Bradley Curve helps organisations place themselves on a curve and helps plot the route towards zero. It heavily relies on the honesty of those assessing the culture of the organisation and the tools used to assess the culture. The DuPont Bradley curve emphasises the importance of psychological safety as part of the organisation’s culture and reinforces the need for good leadership.

According to Dr Timothy Clark, author of ‘The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation’, employees have to progress through the following 4 stages before they feel free to make valuable contributions and challenge the status quo:

  • Stage 1 – Inclusion Safety: Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. In this stage, you feel safe to be yourself and are accepted for who you are, including your unique attributes and defining characteristics.
  • Stage 2 – Learner Safety: Learner safety satisfies the need to learn and grow. In this stage, you feel safe to exchange in the learning process, by asking questions, giving, and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes.
  • Stage 3 – Contributor Safety: Contributor safety satisfies the need to make a difference. You feel safe to use your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution.
  • Stage 4 – Challenger Safety: Challenger safety satisfies the need to make things better. You feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there’s an opportunity to change or improve.

Safety is ultimately delivered from everyone in the organisation, but the stall is set out by the management team and they must lead by example. A manager must be able to adapt their leadership style dependant on the individuals within their organisation and the situations they are managing at the time. This is known as situational leadership, Blanchard (1991).

Leadership and management are often cited as a single entity and yet have slightly different traits, but they are generally delivered by the same individuals. A good manager should have interchangeable skills to identify when they need to lead and when they need to manage. Management involves controlling an individual or team to accomplish a goal. Leadership refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organisational success.

Despite an individualist approach being needed, the purpose of the manager is to create a team with one goal, using their skills knowledge and experience to deliver the organisations objectives, this is summarised by Bruce Winston Kathleen Patterson (2006):

“A leader is one or more people who selects, equips, trains, and influences one or more follower(s) who have diverse gifts, abilities, and skills and focuses the follower(s) to the organization’s mission and objectives causing the follower(s) to willingly and enthusiastically expend spiritual, emotional, and physical energy in a concerted coordinated effort to achieve the organizational mission and objectives.”

Although a manager needs to change their approach for individuals the result of their management style is to motivate the team towards a single goal, this becomes an integrated approach to achieving the organisations objectives.

Psychological safety is essential for all organisations, it ensures our people are allowed to speak up without fear of reprisal, it ensures we hold each other to account for our actions and fosters a positive environment to challenge. It is driven by management and leaders that understand and that are sympathetic to their workforce and the reality of work. It is such a huge and important topic that I would implore you to research it yourself. I would recommend as a starter –

  • “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation” by Timothy R. Clark,
  • “The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error” by Sidney Dekker,
  • “The Relationship Factor in Safety Leadership” by Rosa Antonia Carrillo.
  • “The Safety Mindset” by David Voluer.
  • “Next Generation Safety Leadership: From Compliance to Care” by Clive Lloyd.

References:

Blanchard, K. (1991). Situational View of Leadership. Leadership excellence, 8(6), p.22.

Carillo, R. (2021).  The Relationship Factor in Safety Leadership: Achieving Success through Employee Engagement. Routledge.

Clark, TR. (2020). The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Dekker, S. (2014). The Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’. 3rd Edn. Routledge.

Ginzburg, H. (1993). ‘The Psychological Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident: Findings from the International Atomic Energy Agency Study’. Sage Publications. Vol. 108, pp.184-192. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4597338?seq=1

Khan, W. (1990). ‘Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work’. The Academy of Management Journal. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/256287?seq=17

Lloyd, C. (2020). Next Generation Safety Leadership: From Compliance to Care. CRC Press.

Voluer, D. (2019). The safety mindset – Building a Health and Safety Culture that’s Robust – Agile – High-Performance – Resilient. Paris: Les éditions Sydney Laurent.

Winston, B & Patterson, K. (2006). ‘An Integrative Definition of Leadership’. International journal of leadership studies, 1(2), pp.6-66. Available at: https://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications
/ijls/new/vol1iss2/winston_patterson.doc/winston_patterson.pdf

If you would like to contact Christopher, please email him at Chris.Clark2@morgansindall.com

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Owain Griffiths

Owain Griffiths

Head of Circular Economy at Volvo Cars

Owain joined Volvo Cars in June 2021 to lead Circular Economy in the Global Sustainability Team. The company has committed to being a circular business by 2040 and has financial, recycled content and CO2 based targets for 2025, all of which Owain is working across the company to make happen. Owain previously worked for circular economy consultancy Oakdene Hollins where he advised businesses on evidence led circular economy implementation. 

Turning into a circular business and the importance of vehicle reuse and recycling.

The presentation will cover the work Volvo Cars is doing to achieve 2025 but mainly focus on the transformational work towards 2040 and the business and value chain changes being considered. Attention will be paid to the way vehicles are being dealt with at the end of life and the complexities of closing material and component loops. Opportunities and challenges which Volvo Cars is facing will be presented including engagement with 3rd parties and increasing pressure from stakeholders.