BY MARIA LEGGETT, MHI DIRECTOR OF EDUCATION
Are your employees safe? They may have protective gear, complete all the required safety training, and operate in a clean work environment. Yes, they may be physically safe, but are they psychologically safe? That might sound like a soft term but consider this: Are your employees empowered to speak up when they see a safety issue? Would they be comfortable questioning a more seasoned co-worker about how they were operating a machine? Are they comfortable speaking up about issues when quality is compromised, and company profits and reputation are at stake?
Companies know all about physical safety. They provide training, keep records, provide resources and are accountable to OSHA when there are violations. Companies invest time and money to create a physically safe environment. However, fewer organizations focus on creating an environment where employees feel safe to speak up, voice opinions and are comfortable being themselves when it comes to psychological safety.
According to Anthony L. Hemmelgarn, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist, psychological safety in a work setting is a climate where individuals feel safe to openly express conflicting ideas, take risks and discuss errors and barriers that might interfere with work success. What underlies psychological safety is human nature and socialization. “At a basic neurological level, we avoid potential threats to our wellbeing to minimize the risk of harming our self-esteem. None of us want to be seen or thought of as arrogant, incompetent, negative or disruptive,” said Dr. Hemmelgarn.
Dr. Hemmelgarn has spent over 20 years of building, testing and implementing strategies, training and tools to enhance leadership effectiveness and improve organizational cultures at companies.
According to a SHRM commissioned survey in 2019 published in the report, The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture, 1 in 4 employees do not feel safe voicing their opinions about work-related issues. One in five employees left a job due to workplace culture with a culmination of $223 billion cost of turnover due to a workplace culture over the past five years.
In contrast, a recent survey conducted by Gallup found that companies with high employee engagement outperformed companies lacking high employee engagement 147% in earnings per share.
During these times with COVID-19, safety is even more critical. Do people feel safe to come back to work? Do people feel safe to be themselves, be different in a homogenous work environment? The higher the uncertainty, the more psychological safety is required. More than ever, organizations need to ensure their employees that protection exists in all areas-physically on the production floors, the distribution centers and the company office buildings as well as psychologically in meetings, performance discussions and overall job performance. A culture of avoiding conflict about ideas or ways to accomplish work or ignoring unacceptable behavior results in low trust, engagement and profits. Companies who create a psychologically safe environment are aware of their impact on their employees and their bottom line.
With AI and automation, workplace culture is even more critical. In the manufacturing environment, where automation and robots are becoming increasingly common, humans are still essential in making judgments, solving problems and confirming quality. But if companies feel that machines never make mistakes, people might be less likely to speak up when there is an automation issue. If workers make a mistake, they might lose out on a bonus, be terminated and even die. There are no consequences for a robot making decisions or providing data that helps determine decisions. There are no consequences for a robot if it breaks down or makes a mistake. If the human workers do not feel comfortable making a mistake or speaking up, how comfortable will they feel to step in when they see a machine making a mistake? While it might be perceived that machines make all the decisions, it does not work that way. Without humans, problem-solving does not exist. When psychological safety exists, it enhances the organization’s ability to grow capacity, create employee engagement and drive innovation. Simply put, companies move faster.