When thinking about how to develop a strong safety culture, it’ll come as no surprise that it’s heavily reliant on the relationships between your workers and your leaders. Even if leaders are actively striving to promote safe behaviours, one aspect of effective safety leadership is often overlooked—the importance of building trust.
Unlike more tangible efforts like implementing training programs or enforcing safety procedures, investing in building trust rarely makes it into the list of strategic priorities. Because trust is not as tangible as other safety leadership activities it can be dismissed as a nice-to-have, rather than a necessity. Yet the research paints a different picture.
Researchers who studied the relationship between trust and workplace performance found that employees who viewed their leaders as trustworthy interpreted their actions as an indicator of how important a task was. In turn, they were more motivated to improve their own performance on similar tasks (Grant & Sumanth, 2009). This means that even if your leaders are showcasing exemplary safety behaviour, how trusted they are by workers could be the difference between teams following suit, or dismissing the behaviour as unimportant.
If you want your workers to be safe, you have to make them feel safe
One way to build trust for improved safety performance is to consider a concept known as psychological safety. In simple terms, psychological safety refers to your beliefs about whether you’re in an environment that encourages you to express yourself and share your thoughts, ideas and concerns without negative repercussions. When it comes to safety efforts, psychological safety relates to the beliefs your workers share about whether they’ll get in trouble for asking a question, expressing their concerns or reporting a safety incident.
The problem is that when levels of trust in your organisation are low, so too are levels of psychological safety and the likelihood of your team choosing to speak up or share their concerns. When they have a concern about a risky procedure or come across a safety hazard or incident, workers subconsciously weigh up the potential benefits of speaking up against the potential risk of getting into trouble.
The less trust they have, the higher the perceived risks involved with expressing their concerns and the less likely they are to discuss an issue or report an incident. In this environment workers actually perceive the social risk of speaking up as being greater than the potential physical risk associated with the hazard. This is backed up by results from our recent study which found that over 37% of workers who underreported safety incidents did so because they were afraid of negative repercussions. This issue is only made worse by negativity bias.
In the eyes of your workers, the bad really does outweigh the good
Negativity bias refers to the fact that as humans, we have a natural tendency to weigh negative information more heavily than positive information (Baumeister et al., 2001). In simple terms, it means that our brain remembers and is more heavily influenced by negative events and experiences than positive ones. Think about this in relation to driving your car. Are you more likely to remember the nice drivers that let you merge or change lanes, or that one driver that cut you off?
At its core, our brain’s primary role is to help us stay alive. So, while positive experiences are crucial for living a happy and fulfilling life, we aren’t putting ourselves directly in harm’s way if we miss out or forget about them. On the other hand, forgetting about a negative or potentially harmful circumstance increases the likelihood of us being in that situation again – increasing the chances of us getting injured, or worse. That’s why our brain uses negativity bias to help us stay safe, both physically and socially.
Negative interactions or situations that trigger a fear response have a larger impact on your workers than positive ones. Even if your leaders have had a strong track record of maintaining positive relationships with your workers, one major negative interaction could be enough to turn the tide in the opposite direction.
To compound this challenge, when it comes to workplace safety, what do we typically spend more time focusing on—when things go wrong or right?
Most safety programs suggest that we should not walk past an “unsafe act” or “situation”. There is obvious logic to this as we have the potential to correct behaviour or prevent an incident. But what about the numerous positive safety behaviours carried out every day? Are we recognising these at the same rate as the negative?
What is the impact of this scenario on a team member who works safely 99 percent of the time, but only hears from their boss the 1 percent when they behave unsafely or are involved in an incident?
Building trust starts with you
As a leader, the responsibility falls on you to create a positive climate of psychological safety and to nurture a sense of trust within your team. This means priding yourself on maintaining transparent and open lines of communication.
To get you started, here are four key strategies that you can implement today:
Lead from the front by showcasing the behaviours you expect from your team
As a leader, your workers look to you as a measure for what’s expected from them in the workplace. So if you’re verbally enforcing that they always need to wear the right PPE, while you’ve forgotten to wear yours, it can trigger a sense of distrust by making them think “If you don’t have to do it, why do I?”. Always ensure that as their leader, you’re holding yourself to the same standards of behaviour that you expect from your team by giving them a strong role-model to follow.
Balance your token economy
Psychology refers to a “token” as a unit of acknowledgement or recognition. These can be positive or negative, and as earlier suggested negative tokens tend to carry more weight. To create a culture of trust, your token economy needs to, at minimum, be balanced. This means directing conscious effort towards reward and recognition of positive safety behaviours and outcomes.
When an incident arises, play the ball and not the person
The best safety outcomes arise from the learning you gain from incidents—but only if the investigation is conducted in a manner that truly identifies the reasons for that incident occurring in the first place. Consider all factors of the safety culture model (people, practices, environment and leadership) in your incident investigations and if your investigation keeps pointing to people as the root cause, review your incident investigation process. It is rarely just a person’s decision—independent of external factors—that is the primary contributor to an incident.
Once the investigation has been completed, focus on collaborating with your workers to identify a solution to prevent it from happening again—instead of simply looking for someone to blame. Otherwise, when an incident does arise, your workers might second guess their choice to report it out of fear that they might be on the receiving end of blame.
Over-communicate and don’t assume your message has been understood the same way by all
Create strong communication channel and meeting rhythms in your business that allow for information to travel up, down and across the business. Use these meeting to communicate what is working well and what could be improved. The psychological concept of attention density focuses on the quality and quantity of information as being critical in the creating of focus and alignment. Keep your messages simple, repeat them regularly and check your team’s understanding.
As a safety leader, think of trust as a tide that ebbs and flows with the interactions you have in the workplace. That means that even if you’ve got strong levels of trust in your workplace, you need to actively ensure that you’re maintaining this trust by keeping open lines of communication and holding yourself to the same standards of behaviour. A little conscious action is all it takes to prevent the tide of trust from receding.
Baumeister, Roy F.; Finkenauer, Catrin; Vohs, Kathleen D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370
Grant, A., & Sumanth, J. J. (2009). Mission impossible? The performance of prosocially motivated employees depends on manager trustworthiness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 927–944