David Cant
psychological safety in construction workplace

The Importance of Psychological Safety On Your Site

We’ve likely all had thoughts about ways to improve processes at work – in safety and beyond – no matter what role we’re in.

Unfortunately, not everyone feels comfortable enough to voice their opinions at work, either due to fear of judgment or the risks of punishment in poorly managed workplaces, where employees’ opinions are not high on the priority list.

In workplaces where potentially fatal risks are everywhere, such as in construction or manufacturing, ignoring or reprimanding workers for voicing their opinion can have a serious impact on that particular employee and their safety and wellbeing.

What is psychological safety?

Feeling comfortable enough to voice our concerns, whether at work or beyond, is called ‘psychological safety’. It is essentially the belief that our opinions and points of view will be respected if shared, and we won’t be mocked or punished for voicing them.

One of the leading voices in psychological safety, Timothy R. Clarke, said: ‘Psychological safety is about removing fear from human interaction and replacing it with respect and permission.’

In 2008, search giant Google carried out a comprehensive survey to find out what exactly makes an effective team. Carrying out 200 interviews with over 180 active Google teams, the researchers found that the highest performing teams had one thing in common: psychological safety. The team members felt comfortable sharing ideas and support in pursuing goals that might not have been a safe bet.

The benefits of psychological safety for businesses like Google are clear: they thrive on innovation and need employees to feel safe enough to voice risky ideas. What is the benefit of psychological safety in other, more traditional industries, such as construction?

Psychological safety in construction and industry

Construction and labour-intensive industries are a world away from Silicon Valley. Despite recent modernisation, these are generally traditional industries where ’this is the way we’ve always done it’ is a sacred phrase.

There has been a noticeable divide between the new blood entering the workforce with fresh, novel ideas and the conservative old guard, who can be resistant to change in recent years.

This resistance can take the form of managers and senior workers, who may be set in their ways, outright rejecting or even belittling potentially beneficial ideas favouring the tried and tested. Conversely, experienced workers who have utilised their wisdom to identify new ways of working might be told to stay in their lane. Businesses that do not emphasise supporting new ideas run the risk of limiting their growth and seriously impacting workers’ mental health, who will eventually either leave or become apathetic to their role.

More crucially, however, an atmosphere in which employees are ignored, mocked, or even disciplined for speaking up can, in many cases, even be dangerous.

If workers feel like their word means nothing, they might decide it’s not worth saying anything if they spot a potential danger or risky process. The input of workers on the ground every day is one of the most important tools in combating the human factor.

Is your team psychologically safe?

You can generally tell at a glance the general measure of psychological safety on your team. Do employees often come to you with things they’ve noticed or ways to improve processes? Have you noticed employees supporting each other in bringing their concerns forward?

There is a way to quantitively measure psychological safety if it’s a concern for you, using the Likert Scale. It would help if you asked your team the following questions, then ask them to anonymously score themselves on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being low and 5 being high.

  • On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
  • We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to look busy’.
  • If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
  • When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find a systemic cause.
  • All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  • Members of this team never reject others for being different, and nobody is left out.
  • It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
  • Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

A high score will mean you have a solid basis of psychological safety within your team. A low score indicates you have work to do but is the first step towards improvement.

How can you encourage psychological safety?

Ultimately, the best way to improve psychological safety on your team is to listen, encourage them to listen to each other, and make sure their input is implemented. You can follow the below steps to improve your team’s confidence and reap the rewards.

  • Show that you are listening and engaged. No one likes being ignored, or fobbed off with the standard ‘uh-huh’ or ‘yes mate, send me an email’. Take the time to listen, be present during meetings, and set time aside for employees to bring their ideas forward.
  • Show you’ve heard what they’re saying with a recap. If you’ve been listening, you should be able to reiterate their point. Discuss ways to implement their idea with them, rather than taking it straight to the higher-ups.
  • Avoid blaming and shooting the messenger. If something goes wrong, it’s too easy to blame the guy who brought it to your attention. If an injury occurs, investigate as a team, get the input of others, and ask what can be done to avoid similar future events.
  • Be self-aware and honest. Always be open about how you work and encourage others to do the same. For example, in training, identify who is a visual learner, who is a practical learner, and ensure they receive training most suitable for them.
  • Create a negativity free zone. Building sites and industrial zones are full of banter, and that’s usually fine. However, pay attention to the banter and keep it from getting out of hand. Similarly, if you notice constant negativity from one worker about their peers, nip it in the bud. Talk with them and let them know they need to be a team player and express their concerns professionally. Negativity can spread quickly and wreak havoc.
  • Always include your team in decision making, and be open with feedback. This is the most obvious way to encourage psychological safety, but perhaps the most important. Workers should feel their opinions are valid and affect the workplace: have open forums regarding major workplace changes or risk management. Let them express their ideas and work together, offering feedback and encouragement. When people are listened to, they speak up.

What are the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace?

Google found that psychological safety increased risk-taking, but of course, in cut-throat Silicon Valley, that’s a good thing. In construction and industry, the aim is to minimise risk to everyone. By encouraging psychological safety in your workers, you’ll have more information to work with and a solid foundation to manage risk.

Psychologically safe employees won’t fear bringing their concerns forward, allowing you to act on potential risks more quickly. Generally, you might find that those with daily experience on the job have plenty of ideas to improve and streamline processes, saving you time, money, and stress.

Overall, a psychologically healthy team is a safe team, and it’s something all employers should consider.

For more information, or if you require a safety and risk management consultant, let’s talk things through. Get in touch via the contact options below.

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