Build a Psychologically Safe Workplace by Taking Risks and Analysing Failures

imageWhat do Sir James Dyson, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Vincent van Gough and Stephen King have in common?

They are of course all famous people, but what many people don’t know is that they had far more failures than successes before they reached eventual stardom.

The very key to their success is that they all had approach mindsets who acknowledged their trials not as failures, but just part of incremental learning which led eventually to successful creations in the future.

Unfortunately, in safety circles the opposite mindset is often adopted, where managers try to avoid risks at all cost, stifle innovation using binary systems and promote a zero-harm philosophy.

Every task we engage in involves an approach or avoidance mind-set. An example of both mindsets can be found at your local gym. People who have approach mindsets exercise to get fitter, while those with avoidance mindsets exercise in order to stop gaining weight or to prevent high cholesterol levels. In each case the action can lead to the same result, but the mindset or emotions which people feel when they are exercising, will have a significant influence on whether they will achieve their goals in the long term.

Research shows, when people are energized by the possibility of gain (approach mindsets), they adopt a flexible cognitive style that allows them to be more creative, to see the forest instead of the trees and explore a wider array of new ideas. Whereas avoidance mindsets try to evade negative outcomes and narrow their focus on what they know, instead of looking outside the box for alternative solutions.

Research has established that when people focus all their attention on one topic such as staying safe, work can become a lot more stressful and harder to do. And, over time mental strain can take its toll, resulting in less innovation, burnout and sometimes serious accidents.

A study conducted in the 1990s by Amy Edmondson of Harvard University, established that the more errors nurses made in hospital, the better the relationship they had with their managers and co-workers. But, when the consequences of reporting failures were too severe (when helping doctors treating patients with serious illnesses), the nurses avoided acknowledging mistakes altogether. The same often happens in safety, when people avoid reporting accidents instead of becoming the scapegoat for blemishing a zero-harm injury rate.

When work environments are psychologically safe and mistakes are viewed as a normal part of the learning process, employees are less prone to covering them up. The fascinating implication is that people with avoidance mindsets often avoid examining the causes of their blunders, making it more likely that their mistakes will be repeated in the future. Their natural action is one of self-preservation rather than innovation.

Having a team that’s afraid of reporting failures or blemishing a five-year safety record is a dangerous problem, particularly because the symptoms are not immediately visible. What appears good on the surface can easily blinkered by what lurking underneath and has led to many disasters such as Piper Alpha and Deepwater Horizon.

The challenge for businesses is that the pressures of avoiding failures is so strong that hardly anyone bothers establishing the root causes of incidents and merely put them down to a lack of training or not following the procedures. And, when failures and non-conformances are tarred with the same brush all learning and creativity grinds to a halt.

However, people who freely admit their errors are better able to learn from one another’s mistakes, take the steps to tweak their process and ultimately stop accidents occurring. Encouraging employees to acknowledge mistakes is therefore a vital first step to improving cultures and developing newer and better safety systems in the future.

So, what do managers need to do in the future?

Create a framework for effective reporting

Framing the work by ensuring that everyone is “on the same page about the risks that lie ahead,” invite engagement by asking good questions, and respond productively by not just appreciating employees’ input but by acting on it.

Get managers to acknowledge human fallibility

Managers can be the catalyst for this by acknowledging their own fallibility. Explain that most people are not inept or deficient, but complex and error-prone animals that make mistakes from time to time and don’t deliberately cause accidents.

A thoughtful manager will proactively invite input with good questions that signal he or she is genuinely interested in what people have to say. Managers of psychologically safe teams are generally seen as accessible and approachable.

Show civility

Being polite is the most available contribution people can make to creating and sustaining psychological safety. Attending to what others contribute and responding with consideration not only reduces anxiety but encourages creative thinking.

Reward the attempts, not just the outcomes.

Incentivise employees for trying new approaches and taking controlled risks. The only way to promote safety is to reward the attempts, reinforcing behaviours you want to encourage.

Dig deep for failures and opportunities.

Failure often contains powerful clues for improvement, especially when the focus is on what can be improved in the future. Be careful, however, not to turn post-mortems into witch hunts by fixating on who made the mistake. Far better to ask future-oriented questions like, “What’s one thing we can do better next time?”

Challenge ideas but show respect for others

Contrasting ideas are the greatest source of creativity.  It is important for team members to learn to be tolerant of other viewpoints.  Agreement should not be a mandatory value but agreeing to respectfully disagree should be.

Stay the course

Think like Google. It is not about safety performance today or tomorrow; it is about what you want the organisations culture to look like in five to ten years. The relationship between creativity and progress is messy and not straight forward with difficult challenges and setbacks along the way. Anticipating early struggles makes it easier to stick around for later gains.

Get workers to ask, “What have I failed at today?”

Developing workers skills is like waging a negotiation. If the opposition says yes right away, it might mean you’ve aimed too low.

Mark Taylor

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Mark Taylor
Mark Taylor is a key note speaker and trainer who has spent the majority of his career educating and helping people to take health and safety seriously. Over a period of twenty years he has worked across a broad spectrum of industries around the world and has developed a number of innovative safety tools that are now common in many workplaces. Mark continues to see things differently and push the boundaries in safety management beyond traditional systems and approaches, which he feels are dated and limited.

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