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Why safety at work is a psychological issue

Why individual contribution and great teamwork depend on the presence of psychological safety.

Safety at work is important, but it’s more than simply aiming for zero injuries or lowering the number of workers compensation claims. Psychological safety is essential for sustainable high performance in individuals and teams.

What is psychological safety?

According to Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School, it’s about interpersonal risk where an individual feels safe to speak up to voice a concern, share an idea, or ask a question without fear of reprisal or judgment.

Giving people a voice is empowering. When you feel heard, this creates stronger social bonds enhancing trust, loyalty and respect.

From the brain’s perspective, this is about feeling related to, acknowledged and valued as a member of the tribe.

As humans, we are highly sensitive to the social cues of others, noting facial expression and other body language to assess whether it’s safe to stay, to speak up or hold our tongue.

If the signals indicate ‘Danger!’ the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with processing emotion and the stress response becomes hyperalert making it increasingly difficult for an individual to retain access to their prefrontal cortex necessary for logic, analytical thinking and reasoning.

At the very time we need to keep our wits about us, we’re effectively less able to think things through clearly and at risk of making a poor decision or show poor judgement.

This is why strong positive interpersonal relationships at work matter. Gallup has shown having friends at work is associated with higher productivity and performance, not least because of the associated positive emotions and increased confidence. Getting on well with others leads to greater contribution, collaboration, creativity, resilience and job satisfaction.

The advantage of psychological safety

Google’s Project Aristotle discovered the number one factor that created high-performing teams was psychological safety, because:

  1. It provides the confidence to speak up when you’ve noticed something isn’t right which could prevent a costly mistake or potential business embarrassment.
  2. It leads to more robust and honest conversations because people are willing to share their opinion.
  3. It reduces risk aversion and stimulates initiative taking.

Creating greater psychological safety at work

This starts by adopting a human-centric focus to enable individuals to flourish at work:

  1. Know where you’re starting from.

    The best place to start is always at the beginning. A survey can provide a useful baseline of the level of psychological safety in an organisation.

  2. Be inclusive.

    Ensure everyone from senior management down adopts the same principles of inviting and appreciating the contributions of others, showing respect, seeking first to understand, encouraging clarification questions and making it OK to admit when a mistake has been made.

  3. Develop greater collective intelligence.

    This is about nurturing high-quality interpersonal relationships where all ideas are listened to and people take turns to speak.

  4. Nurture open minds.

    Diversity of thought avoids groupthink and confirmation bias. This stimulates curiosity and a willingness to examine all options presented.

  5. Lead with trust.

    Being really clear in what is expected, determining responsibilities and keeping people accountable provides certainty and lowers stress levels, while keeping everyone working towards the agreed goals.

  6. Stay human.

    Humans are imperfect and fallible. Showing vulnerability to admit when a project has failed, or a mistake has been made and then giving the benefit of the doubt and a second chance makes finding a way forward to salvage a deal or a solution to solve a problem easier to achieve.

Delivering great work requires the security of strong interpersonal relationships, which is why safety at work is always a psychological issue.

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