Social Psychology at the Service of Safety?

Social psychology plays an important, and for many, unconscious, role when it comes to safety. In previous blogs, I have written about studies showing that psychological safety is at the forefront of opportunities to improve workplace safety and reduce accidents. So let's take a look back: why was that again? First and foremost:

Nothing robs the mind of its powers of thought and action so effectively as fear ~ Edmund Burke 1756

Blaming or learning?


And because of that, it hinders learning and collaboration. In the work environment, we should stay away from blame. Undoubtedly, things regularly do not go the way we would like. But we learn from that. And if not, we should. Safety knows no culprits. We only ask the question: 'What do we learn from this?' As I quoted the flip-think-quote in my book, "Blaming someone else is one of the best ways to get stuck with a problem." And so it is. You don't learn from it and the problem that caused the incident remains.

I still remember having felt such sense of guilt as a young employee. I should have paid more attention. Gosh, as if I would have liked that incident myself. Well, I can tell you that you will be less comfortable for a while. Because what happens is that guilt leads to fear and so it hinders your thinking process and freedom of movement. Being able to speak freely, and without fear of reprimand, offers people the opportunity to take an interpersonal risk. That leads to insight, new ideas through sharing.


More reports, less incidents


We now also know that good teams don't make mistakes; they simply report much which appears as more incidents, but it’s not, it leads to a better learning behaviour, better performance and research shows even lower death rates.


And such a climate is created by, yes: leaders. Leaders hold the key to psychological safety. A lot is being written about psychological safety lately, which is positive. It gets attention. However, there is still a lot to do (instead of writing). What many leaders still need to change is the 'mindset' for psychological safety which means to make listening highly important and to employees trust and confidence.


Risks and collaboration


In deciding on risks it is crucial to collaborate: Daniel Kahneman (one of the authors of 'Thinking fast and slow') has shown that people generally overestimate opportunities and risks (prospect theory) as a result of system 1 (thinking fast), so we can say that working together to classify risks is extremely valuable because in consultation we determine those risks much more accurately. Psychological safety is needed for that, but I wasn't going to talk about that anymore!


Group Think


And now then the link to Social Psychology because it is logical that if I put that in the title that I will also talk about it! Well, there is a lot to gain in addition to psychological safety for leaders who strive for a safer workplace and fewer accidents applying knowledge of the social psychology: a “negative” aspect of the behavioral sciences is the so-called "Group Think". That means the following:

We want to belong to a group so much that we comply to the norms, values ​​and beliefs of the group.

As a result of "Group Think" people are quick to respect choices made. And, many studies and experiments have shown that this tendency is very strong! And can be abused. But then it's manipulation. That's the negative thing I was referring to. But if it is used carefully and positively by leaders, there are gains to be made in safety. The message for leaders is therefore to put the team, the group, on a pedestal so that people want to belong. Then set the standards that promote safety. I refer of course to 'Safety from Within', because Safety from within works. And, if it's on your mind right now, no, "Group Think" is not going to disappear.