It is sometimes difficult to speak up in the workplace, even if we know it affects our own health and safety. For example, think how you might respond in the following dilemmas:
- You’re new to the job. There’s an apparent defect with the equipment you’re using, though everyone else seems to be using it without issue. Something doesn’t feel right, but should you make a fuss in your first week at work?
- A good colleague has taken on a second job to meet their financial commitments. When you see them nearly falling asleep whilst operating machinery, you decide to have a quiet word with them. It keeps on happening, but you are finding it hard to report them, even though it could cause an incident.
- It’s near the end of your shift and everyone is eager to go home as soon as they can. You’ve observed a working practice which seems unsafe to you. If you raise the issue now, it is going to make you unpopular. Should you just keep it to yourself for the time being?
In all these scenarios, many people would argue there is a reportable safety issue that should be tackled there and then. Yet social or peer pressure can stop us doing what we think is the right thing.
A safe place to talk: using CIRAS to speak up
Is there something you would like to bring up at work, but are afraid of the potential consequences? If you don’t feel confident that it is safe to speak up about health or safety in the workplace, CIRAS is here to listen. You can always report to us in complete confidence knowing that your identity will always be protected. There have never been any confidentiality breaches.
Speaking up in tough environments
There are many situations where speaking up could improve health and safety. This isn’t always easy, so here are some tips for overcoming the barriers:
- Don’t be afraid of raising a concern just because you are new to the job. The chances are that others feel the same.
- The taboo against ‘grassing somebody up’ may need to be broken to help someone do their job more safely. They may end up thanking you for it.
- If you’re finding your concern falls on deaf ears, or it is proving too much of a challenge to raise internally, report to CIRAS.
To speak up we need a new kind of safety: Psychological safety
A new concept called ‘psychological safety’ can help us understand why we may not feel able to bring up health and safety concerns in the workplace. We talked to Leadership and Team Development Consultant, Rosa Carrillo, to find out more about the right conditions for speaking up in the workplace. She explains what the term ‘psychological safety’ means and how relationships play a key role in creating the trust necessary for it to happen.
So, what is psychological safety?
The term ‘psychological safety’ describes the condition that needs to exist in the workplace for people to speak out or admit a mistake without fear of losing face.
Does it have roots in the past?
Yes. In fact, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to worry about how they were perceived because it had life or death consequences. Thousands of years ago, our anxiety about social interaction had a survival purpose. For example, the fear of ostracism was connected to the fear of being cast out from the tribe and dying as a result. Today, we can still get caught in that fight, freeze or flight mode and it can affect our decisions. We might be hesitant to tell the boss we need more time to do a job, so we rush to finish. Later, when things go wrong, we find out we could have got an extension.
Can policies or training create the right conditions for people to speak up?
No. Getting people to speak up to power or approach a peer doing a job unsafely is not going to happen through policies or training. Leaders are the only ones who can change the system by setting up expectations for both speaking up and valuing other perspectives.
What does the neuroscience say?
It says that the human need for relationship, belonging and inclusion is as strong as the need for food and shelter. Scientists can see from brain scans that our brains perceive being socially isolated as a threat to life. Our need to belong and be accepted is so strong that we will hide our real thoughts, feelings or needs. Traditionally, we call this ‘saving face’.
What does ‘saving face’ mean in terms of workplace behaviours?
We do it for ourselves when we don’t ask a question because everyone else in the room seems to know what something means. We also do it for others when we don’t question them if we think they are making a mistake. We don’t want to embarrass them. This is also a big reason some people retaliate or get angry when they are told about a mistake. Their natural instinct is to feel a loss of face that could threaten their standing in the community.
Is our need to save face necessarily a problem?
Yes. The need to save face is a response to mistrust and fear of retaliation. This drives people to hide information and prevents important safety lessons from being learned from mistakes, close calls or near misses.
Could the quality of relationships hold the key to speaking up?
Yes. People rely on them for validation, emotional support and ultimately, survival. It is in the context of relationships that listening takes place. People can tell when you’re not listening to them. But by listening well, people know that you respect them. It is in these conditions that they feel most able to speak up – that is important and counts for something.