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Written by
on 01 October 2019


While most people think slips, trips and falls as the main focus on health and safety, there are other aspects that are important to foster a sense of teamwork and psychological safety.

Psychological safety has been a concept since the late 1990s when a researcher investigating accidents in hospitals found that the more cohesive, more effective teams, were actually reporting more mistakes and errors than those which weren’t working as effectively.

The unexpected findings uncovered a truth which changed perceptions; workers in an environment in which they feel trusted and supported when they made mistakes, were more comfortable in owning their errors and working together to rectify mistakes.

While unexpected, this seems sensible now; that in a team where you are supported and helped to learn when a mistake is made, you’ll feel more comfortable and free to strive for your best, rather than working in a culture of blame where mistakes are pounced upon and used as reasons for not trusting people.

In the latter, people will not risk putting their head above the parapet, hoping that others will make mistakes, and by comparison, make their own efforts look better. But by turning this on its head and supporting team members, working together and helping others to learn – not just from their mistakes, but by those made by the whole team – a sense of trust and honesty is engendered.

5 key themes found in teams with good psychological safety are:

1. Individuals feel supported and trusted to try their best, safe in the knowledge that if something does go wrong, the team will rally around and work together to fix things.

2. No blame culture. A team is only as strong as its weakest member, so by working to learn and help others to improve their knowledge, performance and ability mean a team is stronger as a result, and all members benefit.

3. Teamwork. If workers know that their team is supporting them and will help them if they fall (metaphorically speaking) then they will strive to try harder, try new things, and go the extra mile – risking failure, but also aiming for higher things, achievements and goals, safe in the knowledge that their colleagues will help them if and when needed.

4. It all boils down to an open and honest atmosphere where people don’t feel pressured; don’t feel that they will let the team down if something doesn’t work. Rather, teams with good psychological safety know that their team has their back.

5. There have been examples of companies in some creative industries setting targets for failures. While this sounds counter-productive, the ethos behind this is that if the number of failures is too low, it means the team aren’t pushing the boundaries enough – they are playing safe.

What to takeaway

So the key thing to take away from two decades of research into psychological safety? If a team feels trusted and supported, their performance will grow. A culture of blame and finger-pointing will simply remove the impetus to try new things, to come up with new ideas and possibly the next major innovation.

Trust, honesty, supportiveness. With these three qualities in place in a workplace, then performance, success and innovation will follow.

If you want to make sure your teams and workplaces are providing these things, get in touch and let us help to assess and improve your workplace psychological safety today.

A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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