Creating Psychological Safety through structure and human interaction

BusinessManagement

  • Author Paul Hylenski
  • Published May 5, 2022
  • Word count 1,171

Manufacturing and psychological safety are normally not synonymous. The current American manufacturing environment is very competitive and normally fear based. If you miss a production goal, there is a negative consequence. If you create a defect, there is a negative consequence. This type of environment has been in effect for the last 20-30 years. This has created a workforce that is afraid to admit mistakes, speak up to superiors, or contribute. In this type of environment, the workforce is not innovative, and focuses on protecting themselves versus improving the environment. Companies have instituted processes and engineered equipment to mitigate the current unengaged workforce.

Current leadership of companies equate psychological safety with allowing employees to do whatever they want or a passive leadership style. There are multiple examples where companies have gotten it wrong and employees have made large mistakes or actually committed fraud by not feeling they could challenge the leadership direction. There are also examples where psychological safety has been instituted and collaboration and innovation have grown. Google is a perfect example of this. Google completed a study in which it determined that “Psychological Safety is the #1 predictor to team success.”(1)

With ample evidence on why psychological safety works, why then are current manufacturing environments so driven on the archaic style of leadership and fear based management. The answer to that lies in the statement; Change is scary and uncertain. The current environment provides mediocre but stable results. These results are predictable. This gives safety to the companies. Change is scary and unpredictable.

What if you could forge an environment where the average manufacturing worker could feel safe to contribute, safe to challenge bad ideas, was well informed on trends in the environment and was truly engaged and empowered to make the environment better. This type of employee would work to improve the quality and speed at which they did the job. When problems arose, they would be safe to stop and ask the questions, ask for help, or even admit that they made a mistake. Employees that feel safe in their environment to make a mistake focus on improving the process so the mistake cannot happen to others, rather than protecting themselves. Focus on innovation and improvement versus self-defense. This type of employee is more collaborative and works better in the team, which then makes the team closer and more cooperative.

Some leaders would think that this is not achievable or that this type of environment would produce less efficient results or more quality defects due to the lack of so called discipline or fear. As the current workforce becomes more and more infiltrated with millennials this will become more and more important. This type of psychologically safe environment is achievable. This is the future. It will be needed for American manufacturing to grow into the future. If we fail to change we will not continue to be competitive in the ever changing manufacturing market.

The answer for how to change the culture and erase 30 years or more of poor manufacturing practices is not easy. It takes bravery and open mindedness. There will be resistance and skeptics throughout the entire organization. This cannot be done like the standard marketing campaign that companies often use when changing culture , or attempting to. It is important to focus on creating the correct framework prior to actually shifting to a psychologically safe environment. People will not believe you, as a leader, just by your words, but it will be how you live the vision.

Create Structure First. This seems like this is opposite to a psychologically safe environment, but this is the foundation of the environment. Creating expectations and transparency in work areas will eliminate hostile environments of the past that bred animosity and conflict within the work teams. These goals will be the framework for success. They give the teams safety. Goals breed a safe environment. People know what success looks like and they will most of the time drive to achieve that success. When misses happen, these expectations gives the leader a launching point to start conversations focused on improvement. Allowing employees to explain misses in a safe way and focus on how they will improve their own performance can drastically improve their daily performance. Build the system and the system will build the team.

Empowering leaders of all levels to each own a piece of the leadership responsibilities will delegate duties while ensuring that the vision is spread at all levels. Creating the ability to effectively learn and contribute in teams as leaders is important. If the shop floor leadership feel that they do not have a voice to improve the environment, then this will follow to the rest of the work force. It is important to realize that the other employees are watching how their front-line leaders are being treated and listened to. Listen and empower them to contribute, disagree, and improve their environments.

Focus on Human interaction next. Making people feel as if they are important and have a voice. In a psychologically safe environment people feel like they are part of a team, they can learn effectively, and that they are empowered to contribute and challenge the team if needed. This is critical. Every employee at any level is a human. Everyone is looking to survive and belong. As leaders we have to care about the people in our charge in order for them to truly care about us and our companies. The current manufacturing environment treats people as if they are disposable, and then we expect them to care about quality and efficiency of the same company that would discard them as if they were a piece of trash. That is not realistic and we, as leaders, would struggle to do the same if we were treated identically. Human interaction and investment of the team can change the culture from within the teams. Invest in your teams. Train them, talk to them and, most importantly, listen to them. Make them feel as if they are critical for the team’s success. Include them in planning, solution brainstorming and provide transparency and vision to them. If they understand the vision and feel empowered, they will make the vision a reality. Spend time trying to grow their careers, focus on personal interactions and be genuinely interested in their day or the specific interactions. This builds trust, and through trust comes the culture change.

Be brave, it will not be easy. Excellence never is easy. Be consistent and change at all levels. One bad interaction or example will derail the culture shift. Decide to be different and to make the people who are the backbone of the companies feel like they are the company. There will be skeptics and people who don’t agree, but the future will show that they were wrong. The future will be bright if leaders are willing to be different. Lead through empathy, positivity, transparency and accountability. Lead through psychological safety. Change the environment and together we could change the face of American Manufacturing.

  1. “Psychological Safety: Guarantee Team Success & Winning Corporate Culture.” Psychological Safety | Guarantee Team Success & Winning Corporate Culture, 16 July 2019, https://pivothrservices.ca/psychological-safety-predictor-of-team-success/.

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