As a health and safety professional I’ve spent my entire career working to to reduce and mitigate health and safety risks. Certainly not psychological risks… Today this professional responsibility is now falls to me as well. In 2010, I was tasked with investigating a safety incident involving two employees putting out a fire at an oil field waste facility. The fire broke out in a large tank and the two employees went into action to put it out. Neither one physically hurt, but one employee ended up going off work, never to return to our employment.
So what happened to that individual… my skepticism all these years had over shadowed the real issue. He had suffered a psychological injury as a result of the fire. The memories of that incident have stayed with me. Fast forward to 2019… so much has changed. The OHS law has changed, society has changed, the world is a much different place from a decade ago. And so too has my perspective changed.
When I think back to the many tool box talks I observed and the lack of engagement I observed, it strikes me that the silence or disinterest perhaps was more to do with psychological safety then bad attitudes… perhaps those workers had tried to speak up once before, offer an opinion or idea only to be shot down or made to feel shame or psychologically unsafe. If our safety is threatened in any way, and this could be physical or even perceived psychological, our Limbic brain (our survival brain) goes into action setting off a series of actions intended to protect us from harm. For those workers, safe may have been to disengage or stay quiet.
Trying to get employees to report near misses or even hazards in the workplace is challenging. Why is that? Perhaps the last time that worker reported something his supervisor made him feel stupid or showed no real interest. These are all common situations that I have witnessed and considered to be just part of the work culture.
“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
Amy Edmondson Harvard Business School Professor
If psychological safety is really about the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up then consider this – if workers feel psychologically safe they will report things, contribute in productive ways, have great ideas to consider and be more engaged. Creating work environments that allow our workers to contribute, feel engaged, and able to approach their leader with a new idea or even share a mistake. Psychological safety like it or not, is the missing piece to the puzzle.