Championing Psychological Safety at Work

A recent BBC article, "Boeing: How much trouble is the company in?", highlighted the ongoing struggles at Boeing to ensure safety protocols are followed in aircraft production. The article dives into a concern often echoed across organizations: a "disconnect" between senior management and regular staff. An expert panel found evidence that Boeing employees were hesitant to report problems due to fear of retaliation. This isn't an isolated incident. We can recall a similar situation at Singapore Press Holdings, where a lack of psychological safety allegedly led to unethical practices. Here, production staff reportedly inflated circulation numbers by publishing excess copies to attract advertisers, a situation some believe could have been prevented with a culture of open communication. It's important to remember that corporations don't typically set out to be dishonest. Most likely, they have established processes for employees to raise concerns. However, the implementation of such processes can be flawed. Focusing solely on reporting mechanisms, for instance, ignores the potential conflict with employee performance metrics. Encouraging workers to raise a safety alarm about a product, while commendable, might also imply they're responsible for causing a costly recall and hindering sales targets. This lack of holistic support for a psychologically safe environment is exactly what breeds the disconnect we see in many organizations.

The Dangers of Apathy in Unsafe Environments

In the dark comedy "Greed," (spoiler alert) Amanda, the protagonist's assistant, attempts to justify releasing a lion that mauls her unscrupulous boss. Her reasoning? "It wasn't me," she argues. "He made the deal, the company cut costs, the workers suffered. He thinks it's not his fault." While Amanda's actions are inexcusable, the film highlights the significant damage apathy can inflict. This apathy often takes root when organizational structures fail to prioritize psychological safety. In the absence of a concerted effort to cultivate a safe space, employees may become disengaged and even jeopardize the company's true values.

Building Safe Spaces When the System Isn't Perfect

Organizations are run by humans, inherently prone to flaws and imperfections. Even with rules and processes in place, we may encounter managers ill-equipped to uphold a psychologically safe space, potentially impacting immediate performance goals. Many trainees ask - what happens when there's no safe space? My advice: shift focus from fearing repercussions to the bigger picture. Consider the integral harm that could befall everyone if you don't raise the issue. This reframing allows you to bring concerns to the table with a clear understanding of the situation's severity.

In addition, Amy Gallo, a contributor at Harvard Business Review, suggests establishing a process. Her approach involves proposing to your manager, "We probably won't always see eye-to-eye. How can I best share my differing opinions and thoughts?" This proactive approach sets a precedent for a safe space. After all, the ability to cultivate a psychologically safe environment, regardless of formal leadership titles, is a true mark of a leader. This is particularly valuable when joining a new team, overseeing projects, or experiencing management changes.

The Power of Championing Safe Communication

While fostering a psychologically safe space at work requires ongoing effort, the benefits are undeniable. By adopting a proactive approach, focusing on the bigger picture, and leveraging strategies like Amy Gallo's, you can become a champion for safe communication, even in less-than-ideal situations. Remember, a psychologically safe space isn't just about individual well-being; it's about fostering an environment where everyone feels empowered to contribute their best, ultimately leading to a stronger, more successful organization.

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