Change Management Incident Investigations Psychological Safety

What exactly is psychological safety?

Where does the concept come from in the first place…? In the organizational research literature, the construct of psychological safety finds its roots in early discussions of what it takes to produce organizational change. In 1965, MIT professors Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis argued that psychological safety was essential for making people feel secure and capable of changing their behavior in response to shifting organizational challenges. Schein (1993) later argued that psychological safety helps people overcome the defensiveness or learning anxiety, that occurs when they are presented with data that contradicts their expectations or hopes. With psychological safety, he reasoned, individuals are free to focus on collective goals and problem prevention rather than on self-protection.

Amy Edmondson Harvard Business Professor also coined the term “psychological safety” describing it as an individual’s perceptions about the consequences of interpersonal risks in their work environment.  The taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts themselves on the line, such as asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea.  She argues in those instances, that  organizational culture must be one of learning and accountability.  Failing forward, learning from each other through honest discussions, vulnerability and openness.  Most of us have learned to arm up at work and conform to the norms that exist, the outcome being to protect ourselves from ridicule and feelings of unworthiness.  Shot down and shamed into not speaking up, sharing an idea, or admitting failure.  The result when we don’t, a lost opportunity to learn and improve performance.

Psychological safety is how one view’s themselves in terms of the team and the norms of those teams.  Essentially, can workers speak up and be innovative without feeling disrespected or shot down.

Think about this in the context of occupational health and safety… if people at work are arming up and choosing not to engage from a safety perspective – are those workers speaking up when they’ve had a near miss or perhaps observed at-risk behaviour of a co-worker or a supervisor?   If they’ve previously been ridiculed, or fear retribution for speaking up they will most likely continue to do so.  Or perhaps they’ve tried to add their input but their supervisor hasn’t responded in a reasonable way.   Supervisors that are unapproachable, don’t listen to feedback, and aren’t supportive of their work teams are then hampering a psychologically safe work environment and any opportunity to learn or improve will be lost.

Will workers raise a safety concern?  If we want to change the behaviours of workers, we need to pay attention to not just the physical work environment but the psychological aspects as well.  Feeling psychologically safe at work means workers will behave in more open, authentic, and accountable ways.   In 1965, Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis the forefathers of organizational change said, “A psychologically safe workplace is necessary for individuals to feel secure and thus be capable of changing their behaviour.”

In my past I have investigated many incidents where psychological safety played a role.  I recall one incident that involved an apprentice electrician.  We were working for a large owner doing a demo and rebuild at a compressor station.  The young apprentice was installing cable trays when he cut a live line.  He was not injured but, in the world, we were in, this was considered a potential catastrophic event.  We handled the incident like we always did.  We investigated as per our process.  Focused on the worker and his actions.  But did we truly consider the psychological aspects of the event.

The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety describes a psychologically safe and healthy organization that actively promotes emotional well-being among workers while taking all reasonable steps to minimize threats to worker mental health.   Psychological safety is present when workers’ psychological safety is ensured.  Workplace psychological safety is when workers feel able to put themselves on the line, ask questions, seek feedback, report mistakes and problems, or propose a new idea without fearing negative consequences to themselves, their job, or their career.

Considering these definitions what are some of the things at your workplace that make it hard to speak up, identify a risk, or report a near miss?  Are there 1 or 2 things that can be done to create more openness and learning? During an incident review are the psychological aspects of the event considered such as demands of the job, role clarity, and/or working relationships?


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