Safe to speak up; building a culture of psychological safety

What is psychological safety?

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill’s wisdom points to the power of visibly leading and choosing to know and act, which is critical for organisations whose very reputation rests on the 1% of what goes wrong rather than the 99% of what goes right.

Psychological safety in organisations means a culture where all employees can speak up confidently, contribute new ideas and questions and admit fallibility without fear of retribution or humiliation from colleagues.

Cultivating trust and sustaining psychologically safe teams is becoming a key competitive advantage not just for organisations which have a higher risk of physical or mental injury, but also for those at risk of potential misconduct or risk to reputation. In industries which have an increased risk of physical injury a lack of psychological safety can be associated with higher injuries/higher risk.

Why is it important?

A report released by the NSW Resource Regulator ‘Weekly Incident Summary: Week ending 17 January 2018’ revealed 41 high potential incidents, 22 dangerous incidents and 1 serious injury occurring in the NSW mining industry throughout January 2018. Recommendations made to the mining industry included ensuring reporting was done well, inspections were carried out correctly and reviews conducted of their preventative inspections. While these recommendations do not explicitly reference psychological safety, their focus is geared towards encouraging reporting and adherence to safety procedures.

Psychologically safe teams are characterised by their ability to admit and learn from mistakes, to challenge processes and innovate new ideas and solutions. Encouraging psychological safety where people are safe to speak up and be heard in industries like the mining industry could be a game changer in increasing safety incident reporting and innovation in better and safer ways of working.

Advantages of a psychologically safe organisational culture

Many organisations face risks to their reputation or integrity from exposure to misconduct or public scandal. An endless number of cases appear in the media with reports detailing unethical dealings and misconduct and often refer to the individual reporting the behaviour or misconduct as a ‘whistle blower’. In Deloitte’s conduct report it is noted that in an environment of increased scrutiny and shifting expectations, businesses need to look at their entire trust ecosystem. This way they will understand and protect the pillars of brand and reputation, and realise the opportunities good conduct can unlock. Cultivating psychologically safe teams empowers all members of the team to feel confident questioning decisions of both colleagues and superiors as well as challenging the status quo. In essence, this culture ensures that those who do question the decision and behaviour of others without retribution are the majority rather than the ‘whistle blowers’.

Since the focus of psychological safety in industry has emerged, much research has been conducted into the benefits of cultivating psychologically safe teams. Google’s “Project Aristotle” in 2015 found that employees in psychologically safe teams were less likely to want to leave Google, more likely to enjoy the benefits of diversity and inclusion, brought in more revenue and were rated as effective twice as often by executives. Deloitte’s research shows that inclusive leadership behaviours and styles create the conditions for psychological safety to emerge. Capitalising on the six signature traits of inclusive leaders (cognizance, curiosity, cultural intelligence, collaboration, courage and commitment) leaders can establish an open and respectful culture within their teams that drives psychological safety which in turn fosters high performing teams.

An example of psychological safety in action

We saw this in one of our recent partnering’s with Level Crossing Removal Authority (LXRA). Responsible for overseeing the removal of 50 dangerous and congested level crossings across Melbourne, this organisation’s vision is to deliver great change for Melbourne and also as a client lead and influence safer outcomes across the construction industry. Together, we developed a combined Safety and Wellbeing Culture Program called LeadSafe that identified actionable, critical behaviours that would drive culture change from the ground up. Enhancing leadership capabilities was a key focus area enabling people to start and promote safety conversations within their teams and across industry. The LeadSafe program was rolled out in 2017 and delivered to all staff. It encouraged LXRA people to connect with and care about one another as well as take time out to look after themselves both at work and at home.

Since the rollout of the program LXRA has spent in excess of 13 million hours injury free. In late 2017, the LeadSafe program was nominated and awarded the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR) 2017 Achievement Award for culture.

Our approach emphasises changing mindsets and behaviours of leaders and teams to build trust and cultivate psychologically safe teams. Our purpose is to help organisations to create an environment where speaking up and engaging are considered safe actions and avoiding challenging conversations or staying quiet are discouraged. By establishing a common understanding about what behaviours are considered safe and a collective commitment from teams to work on this common goal together, psychological safety can be built from the ground up.

We can help you move from information about building cultures of trust and care to targeted practical action. Learn more about our services.


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