Safety Leader

Enhancing Psychological Safety: Helping employees feel safe in speaking up

Published On
Aug 4, 2022

While electrical contracting firms regularly invest a great deal of time, effort and resources in enhancing employees’ physical safety on the job, securing their employees’ psychological safety in the workplace is equally important to their company’s success.

A number of studies confirm that many employees don’t feel safe sharing their opinions, floating new ideas or surfacing potential work or safety hazards in their organization out of fear of retribution or other adverse outcomes. However, organizations thrive and are far more effective when they create a sense of psychological safety in the workplace and foster a “speak-up culture” where employees are encouraged to discuss ideas and voice concerns.

As founder and president of Culture Change Consultants, a Larchmont, N.Y.-based firm that helps companies of all sizes cultivate a climate of psychological safety, and co-author of the four-book “Grassroots Safety Leadership” series, Steven Simon has seen firsthand how a focus on psychological safety can transform organizations such as electrical contracting firms into world-class safety performers.

“In most industries, safety is often defined as physical safety, but being able to address what goes on in employees’ minds and how group dynamics affect their behavior is also important,” Simon said. He is a clinical psychologist who was the first to coin the term “safety culture” as an approach to improving workplace safety over 40 years ago.

“Psychological safety refers to the comfort employees at all levels feel when it comes to sharing ideas, raising questions or concerns or bringing forward mistakes of their own or others without fear of retaliation, and it’s equally important to physical safety,” he said. “If employees see a safety hazard, for instance, how comfortable do they feel sharing that and what kind of culture exists as it relates to supervisors or general foremen listening to them and truly hearing what they have to say? Without psychological safety, there’s limited information flow in an organization.”

While the term often gets confused with one’s mental state, “psychological safety isn’t about the mental health of an individual,” Simon said, “but rather about the company culture.”

Simon, who presented “Psychological Safety: Making It Safe to Speak Up” at the American Society of Safety Professionals conference in September 2021, discussed the characteristics of companies that are low and high on the psychological safety scale and offered tips to foster a culture of psychological safety in the workplace.

Traits of Lo-PS companies

In a “Lo-PS” (low psychological safety) organization, “Technicians aren’t willing to point out situations for fear of retaliation/repercussions, things technicians say are sometimes ignored, and some technicians may even be unaware of their responsibility to say something,” Simon said.

In such organizations, employees may also be hesitant to speak up because they’re afraid what their comments might say about them.

“The culture in some organizations may lead some employees to fear that if they ask questions or seek information, they’ll be perceived as ignorant,” Simon said. “Imagine being an apprentice working with high voltage for the first time and being told by your boss to ‘just do it and be safe!’ because the boss doesn’t want to be interrupted. This type of environment discourages engagement, creates fear and can result in a serious injury.”

“In other cases, an employee in a Lo-PS organization might feel that if they critique others or correct unsafe behavior they witness, they may be branded as overly negative, difficult to work with or a troublemaker,” Simon said. “For example, if one worker sees another not wearing PPE in these types of organizations, you might hear that ‘It’s not my job to call out other people on my crew—that’s my supervisor’s job’ or ‘The last time I said something, I got burned.’”

However, he said, “one of the holy grails of a strong safety culture is when workers feel responsible for each other and able to address practices that are unsafe in order to help prevent issues from arising.”

In a Lo-PS organization, workers may worry about being labeled incompetent if they admit mistakes or ask for help.

“However, one of the core elements of any safety program is having systems in place to report near-misses so that everyone can learn from them. If it happened to one employee, it will happen to another or already did, so creating a culture where there’s freedom to speak up about such situations helps raise safety awareness and  [enables] everyone to learn from incidents,” he said.

Finally, Simon said that some employees may also avoid speaking up for fear that if they disrupt the workflow, they will waste others’ time or their team will perceive that they are intrusive or not self-sufficient.

“For instance, imagine the case of a crew member asking a question about his specific PPE at the close of a safety meeting when everybody is getting ready to go to work,” Simon said. “It’s a real question that could take the supervisor a few minutes to answer, but in a Lo-PS organization, such a question could be met with frustration or hostility and/or never be asked in the first place, which again limits the flow of important information.”

“In the end, companies where low levels of psychological safety reside tend to inhibit innovation, productivity, quality and the open exchange of information,” Simon said. “In fact, a 2003 study showed that psychological safety was positively correlated to two different measures of a company’s performance—return on assets and achievement of sales goals—as well as improved safety performance in the form of reduced injury rates.”

For these reasons, Simon said that psychological safety needs to be part of a larger, holistic approach to safety.

A holistic approach

“Successful safety programs require a number of ingredients to be in place, including a focus on PPE, training, policies and procedures, safety engineering, etc., but all of these ingredients must exist within a wholesome culture where there’s good leadership, caring and responsiveness,” he said. “A company may have good safety programs, but if the culture is toxic and there’s a low level of psychological safety, it doesn’t matter how good its safety training and PPE are—the absence of psychological safety can have a huge impact on physical safety.”

By contrast, “in environments with high levels of psychological safety, individual employees aren’t afraid to be themselves, admit mistakes, point out problems and ask questions,” he said. “These organizations encourage contributions and creativity and subsequently perform more effectively.”

Boosting speak-up culture

As the first key step in improving speak-up culture, Simon recommends conducting an assessment of a company’s psychological safety culture, which provides a solid benchmark and can be done using surveys or focus groups. The assessment should be anonymous/confidential to ensure employees feel comfortable being honest and so that the findings drive appropriate change.

“You need to diagnose the problem before you prescribe a solution, but the assessment must be set up in a way that can lead to real action being taken,” he said.

E. Scott Geller, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va., has written about behavior-focused interventions with the goal of helping human welfare. Geller said that the concept of psychological safety is not new; corporate leaders have been working toward this goal for decades.

He recommends a culture survey or discussion on the following statements where employees give each one a score of 1–5, where 1 is “totally disagree” and 5 is “totally agree.”

  • I feel a positive sense of belonging within my work team.
  • I am comfortable asking my supervisor questions about my job.
  • I willingly ask my coworkers for their assistance whenever needed.
  • I often provide work improvement advice to other employees.
  • I contribute to the overall success of my organization, beyond just completing my job assignments.
  • I feel comfortable suggesting alternative work plans or practices to my supervisor.
  • I have voiced concerns to management about company policy without a negative consequence.
  • I have received words of approval from my supervisor after suggesting a change in a particular work procedure, process or plan.

“These are only suggestions, and could be used in an open discussion with a work team/group, or administered more formally as a survey to assess individual perceptions, followed by group discussions after the results of the survey are analyzed,” Geller said.

After conducting the assessment, Simon offered the following key steps for organizations to take:

Make the investment—“Be willing to set up task groups to work on findings from the assessment,” Simon said. “This involves a deployment of time and resources.”

Educate leaders—Simon noted that leadership needs to view psychological safety as a topic worthy of study, and that it’s a key factor in creating a safe workplace, “so it’s important that they be educated on it.”

Recognize Lo-PS behaviors—“An organization I recently consulted for introduced a program called ‘Ask Me,’ through which employees were recognized for asking each other for help, sharing near misses, etc., and new employees were informed that ‘we ask each other for help all the time,’” Simon said. “Needless to say, they flipped their culture around in six months and became a Hi-PS [high psychological safety] organization.”

Ultimately, “there’s no physical safety without psychological safety,” Simon said, “so we encourage companies to recognize the importance of a speak-up culture, include it within their company’s agenda and vision/mission going forward and make psychological safety a goal for every work group in their organization.”

“These days it seems we live in a conflicting win/lose society, and the United States needs effective leadership and a culture that promotes ‘psychological safety’ more than ever,” Geller said.

Understanding the Factors Behind Psychological Safety

According to Steven Simon, founder and president of Culture Change Consultants, Larchmont, N.Y., four major factors contribute to an organization’s level of psychological safety and the subsequent ability for employees to feel safe speaking up:

Individual factor—“We each bring our own experiences with family, friends and previous jobs to our current workplace, and this has an impact on how trusting and participatory we might be,” he said.

Team factor—“Everyone in a workplace is on one or more teams, and leaders need to understand how team dynamics contribute to each team member’s willingness to speak up,” Simon said. “Teams with high psychological safety perform better, and measures can be taken to help foster a positive team experience.”

Leadership factor—“Leaders cast a long shadow, and how they speak or behave can open or close the door to employees participating or feeling engaged,” he said. “Leaders need to have self-awareness about the culture they’re fostering and the way employees respond to them.”

Culture factor—“A company’s culture is instrumental to its performance and growth,” Simon said. “Culture needs to be part of the organizational vision, and emphasis should be placed on creating a climate where employee input is encouraged and valued.”                             —S.B.

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