The Importance of Psychological Safety for Safety Culture Improvement

The term “psychological safety” is having a moment. While on the surface it may seem like yet another organizational buzzword, this one has true merit, especially in safety. The term was coined by Amy Edmondson in 1999. In essence, it means the absence of interpersonal fear. In the field of safety, psychological safety is about ensuring people are comfortable reporting incidents, reporting near misses, discussing challenges with following procedures, etc. all without fear of being criticized or experiencing retaliation. From a behavioral perspective, psychological safety is about the absence of negative consequences for honest reporting.

Psychological safety is essential for creating an optimal safety culture. Organizations should encourage employees at all levels to openly discuss safety issues, mistakes, near misses, incidents, and safety concerns. It is particularly important at the frontline. They are often the ones who don’t feel psychologically safe, but ironically are the ones we really need to hear from. They are most likely to know what is working, what is not, and have ideas on how to improve. Frontline engagement is essential to safety, and psychological safety is a prerequisite to engagement. People will be fully engaged in trying to make safety better, only if they feel comfortable (safe) telling management what they really think and what really goes on at the front line.

Here are a few tips to build psychological safety into the safety management system in your organization (or your part of your organization).

  • Remove institutionalized negative consequences for admitting mistakes and problems (e.g., criticism or discipline for reporting a serious near misses).
  • Create scaffolding to bridge the path from psychologically unsafe to psychologically safe (e.g., anonymous near miss reporting systems that may be replaced once employees start to feel more psychologically safe).
  • Communicate norms for how people respond to each other (e.g., institute open forums to discuss why it is difficult to follow safety procedures, without fear of criticism or retribution).
  • Coaching leaders in how to react to at-risk behaviors, near misses, incidents, etc. (e.g., positively reinforce reporting through receptive body language, positive reinforcement for honest reporting, and links to how reporting will lead to prevention). Make sure leaders understand that very subtle things can be strong negative consequences (e.g., eye rolling, sighs, signs of frustration or disappointment).

Like most changes, developing psychological safety won’t happen overnight. Take a shaping approach by identifying one situation, or type of reporting, and work to create psychological safety around that. Near misses are a great starting place. Once people have positive experiences reporting near misses, they will be more likely to feel comfortable reporting their own at-risk behaviors, and incidents. Trust is built through experience, so the more reporting is encouraged and is met with positive not negative consequences, the quicker you can build an open, proactive, learning culture.

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.