Lead With Inclusion

Do you value psychological safety as much as physical safety?

Published August 16, 2023

When you hear the phrase ‘workplace safety,’ what comes to mind?

For most of us, we tend to think about physical safety. Things like workplace injuries, accommodations, and workers’ compensation come to mind. Nowadays, workplaces are required to have protections in place to keep employees safe. There are laws and systems that are designed to hold organizations accountable to certain safety standards for a functional workplace.

But what about psychological safety? Does your organization have any guidelines in place to protect employees when it comes to their psychological well-being?

Psychological safety is an incredibly important factor in creating a healthy workplace environment, but most organizations don’t yet have any systems or guidelines to hold themselves accountable to psychological safety standards. And if you’re wondering why something like this would even be necessary, the answer is simple. It’s for the same reason we need organizations like OSHA. 

OSHA didn’t always exist (a quick Google search will show that it was founded in the 1970s). These kinds of regulatory agencies were created out of necessity, because there was a need for organizations to have guidelines on workplace safety. What this means is that when employees are put into a situation that compromises their physical safety, agencies like OSHA can provide the systems needed to ensure that organizations are held accountable.

But what about when an employee’s psychological safety is compromised? I’ll give you an example. I was recently reading an article about a manager at a large pharmaceutical company who played a significant role in positively changing their organization culture (you can read more about their story here). I won’t rehash too many of the details here, but to make a long story short, this employee had to face quite an uphill battle in challenging the status quo and encouraging senior leaders to think differently. Luckily, it worked out well in this case. The organizational culture shifted and the company was able to change their approach based on the feedback from employees. However, things often don’t work out this way.

When employees step out on a limb to challenge the culture or practices of their organization, they are putting themselves at risk: risk of retaliation, risk of losing their job, risk of harming their own well-being. At the end of the day, the responsibility should not fall on employees to take these kinds of risks with no protections in place. Here are my recommendations:

Lead With Inclusion

How does safety factor into the decisions you make about where you choose to work? Most folks would never choose to work for a company that didn’t have physical safety protections in place, right? So, let’s start thinking about psychological safety in the same way. Ask questions about what your employer is doing to ensure trust is created among teams. What are the current team dynamics? Is it positive or toxic? Do you feel safe to advocate for yourself? While it’s important for employees to speak up for their own needs and create change, keep in mind that you shouldn’t have to put your job at risk in order to do so. In a worst case scenario, have an exit plan in place should it come to a point where your workplace is no longer psychologically safe for you. And ask some of these questions of your new potential employer.

Be An Inclusive Leader

It’s time to start thinking about what it would look like to create systems and protections for psychological safety at work, the same way we do for physical safety. When issues persist within an organization, employees are often hesitant to speak up because they’re worried it won’t change anything. Rarely do I hear an employee say something along the lines of “I risked it all and everything worked out perfectly” (my example above is definitely what we’d consider an outlier). There should be varying levels of accountability for employees depending on the amount of power they hold in their organization. I’m calling this the sliding scale of accountability. Your responsibility to take action depends on where you may fall on this sliding scale. 

Speaking up is a risk for a reason; employees can face anything from alienation to retaliation. As leaders, you have the positional power to demand change in a positive way. If toxic behaviors have been allowed to persist, now is the time to use your power and influence as a leader to call those out. Pro tip: we spoke more about toxic teams in a recent issue of #LeadWithInclusion, and you can read the full post here.

If you’re struggling to understand the sliding scale of accountability and where your responsibility lies, this is exactly where my Unconscious Inclusion program can help. Taking the course can support you not only in gaining much needed context, but also in developing the skills needed to navigate these difficult conversations. Learn more about what Unconscious Inclusion can do for you here.

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