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Moving from Safety Culture Models to Social Systems and Psychological Safety

I am recommending moving from safety culture models to social systems and psychological safety. Before I tell you the reasons why it makes sense to adopt a different perspective on how to improve performance I want to explain what I’m proposing as a replacement. It’s based on neuroscience findings that the human need for relationship, belonging and inclusion is as strong as the need for food and shelter. The evidence for this lies in neuroscience. Now that we are able to map brain reactions through MRIs, scans and electrodes, scientists discovered that the brain perceives exclusion and ostracism as a threat to life.

As the implications of this insight kicked in I began to explore how meeting or not meeting those needs would impact workplace performance—especially safety performance.

What unfolded was mind-boggling. The research pointed to a human condition where the need to belong and be accepted drove most people to consciously and unconsciously hide their real thoughts, feelings or needs. Traditionally, we call this “saving face.” 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 because we don’t want to embarrass them.

Saving face is also a big reason why 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. Of course this causes tremendous problems and stress in the workplace because it leads to not sharing or asking for the information we need to be successful. It is also a root cause of mistrust and fear in the workplace

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. I highly recommend Edgar Schein’s early work in Process Consultationand more recently Humble Inquiry. His early work completely changed my approach to coaching.

I have written a book on this topic called “The Relationship Factor in Safety Leadership” where I explain: the science; the behaviors that trigger the fear of exclusion; and what successful leaders do differently to generate psychological safety. Getting people to speak up to power or approach a peer doing a job unsafely is not going to happen through policies or training. The consequence of acting outside of what is allowed by our social systems is that we get sidelined. Leaders are the only ones who can change the system by setting up expectations for both speaking up and valuing other perspectives.

Social Systems

Another thought I want to share in this article is about the term “social systems.”  The safety field adopted systems thinking to manage safety. It was ridiculous to expect good safety performance if every part of the organization wasn’t aligned with that outcome. The actions of each part of the organization have an impact that determines results sometimes for the better and sometimes not. In organizational development I was taught that the management systems included people, structure, processes, technology and rewards. Culture and leadership were overall influences in the system. We were also taught that we could adjust each of these elements to achieve a strategic objective. In other words, we could design and construct the perfect organization. Getting to this vision is called “managing change.”

Since many change experts assert that 70% of change efforts fail to achieve the desired results, we might conclude that the organizational systems model didn’t work very well. But instead we claimed there was nothing wrong with the model. It was the people who didn’t buy in or comply that caused the failures. People were so resistant to change!

It’s time to explore new ways of thinking. If we think of culture as a an evolutionary development for human survival, we have to ask, “What exactly does it do?” The answer is found in the importance of human relationships and the social systems. People rely on them for validation, emotional support and ultimately, survival. Unlike safety culture, relationships and social systems are not conceptual. They are physical and visceral. People know you respect them because you’re listening.

So to transform an organization you must transform the relationships.

The Social Systems framework presents us with the challenge of developing leaders who understand and embrace these social needs in themselves and others. Nature gave us the amygdala to warn us of danger and help us survive. In many ways the dangers that the amygdala senses are no longer real. For example the fear of ostracism is connected to the fear of being cast out from the tribe and dying as a result. In reality now if we get cast out we can go to a new tribe and do fine. However, in the moment that we are caught in that fight, freeze or flight mode we are not making good 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 gotten an extension.

Our anxiety about social interaction had a survival purpose. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to worry how they were perceived because it had life or death consequences. This is rarely valid in modern life yet we still experience that anxiety probably more than our ancestors who dealt with a small group where everyone knew each other. In modern life we often feel like strangers.

There is hope for us. Our brain evolved into an amazing instrument with the capacity to reason, problem solve, envision, sense other’s emotions, empathize and much more. Scientists don’t really have an explanation for this development. However, nature doesn’t evolve useless abilities. Its focus is always on passing on the genes of those best suited to survive. So, we have the ability to recognize fears that aren’t real by accessing our brain’s capability for self-awareness.

The successful leaders I have met were raised to be self-aware or became self-aware through a deep desire to fully utilize their abilities and mentor or support others in their efforts. We cannot force or demand that managers and supervisors develop a leadership mindset. To be fair it is not the best path for someone who does not want to engage with people, develop relationships or coach them through the sometimes messy business of working with others. To be a leader you have to volunteer. It isn’t a job; it’s a calling.

Rosa Carrillo is available for consultation and presentations.

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