BILL HOWATT: Psychological safety and productivity

If asked to define what a psychologically safe relationship between an employee and manager would look like, you’re likely to come up with a definition that has a behavioural base. -123RF

Science is a powerful lens for discovering innovations as well as the truth to what works and what doesn’t.

Psychological safety is a topic I’ve been writing about because my research continues to show the benefits to employee health and productivity. One factor that can help predict psychological safety in a workforce is the manager-employee relationship.

Though psychological safety can be subjective, it can also be measured. If asked to define what a psychologically safe relationship between an employee and manager would look like, you’re likely to come up with a definition that has a behavioural base. It may relate to feeling comfortable interacting with a manager, not fearing attack, yelled at, judged unfairly, embarrassed, shamed, ignored or talked down to.

Unfortunately, too many employees go to work worrying about the above behaviour. Even worse, many don’t think there’s anything they can do to stop it. This is perhaps why there continues to be changes to occupational health and safety and labour codes around setting expectations for the kind of experience employees are entitled to have.

The topic of psychological safety is just beginning its full affect, and this conversation will continue to evolve. However, employers can be proactive and get their own evidence.

My experience is that the more leaders uncover the role psychological safety can play on their workforce health and productivity, the more motivated they are to make it a priority — often allocating resources and money to promote and enforce it.

The purpose here is to frame a discussion as to how employers can obtain their own facts through conducting their own research on psychological safety. One factor is the role managers play in influencing an employee’s psychological safety.

Research doesn’t need to be difficult; it just requires a bit of planning and intention.

Some sample questions to begin with:

How does a manager’s behaviour influence employee experience with respect to psychological safety?

Do managers who are perceived to be more psychologically safe influence employees’ health and productivity?

Many organizations are conducting some form of an employee survey. This mechanism can be the foundation to explore what role a manager’s behaviour has for influencing psychological safety and productivity.

Step 1

— Start with a simple, six-item scale that can be added to an existing employee survey or look for a tool that can facilitate your research questions. Pick items that can measure the degree of psychological safety an employee has when they interact with their direct manager.

The following six items can be measured on a scale of one (very untrue) to five (very true) based on how the average employee feels when they interact with their direct manager:

1. I feel safe talking to my direct manager one-on-one.

2. I feel comfortable asking my direct manager questions.

3. I feel safe asking my direct manager for help.

4. I feel supported by my direct manager.

5. I feel safe receiving feedback from my direct manager.

6. I feel valued by my direct manager.

The higher the score, the higher the probability the employee feels psychologically safe.

Step 2

— The above scale has a range from six to 30 with respect to possible total scores. This range provides an opportunity to put the respondent into a category of red (perceived low level of psychological safety), yellow (perceived moderate level of psychological safety) or green (perceived high level of psychological safety).

Consider two divisions: The average employee’s average score on this scale was 12 (red) in one division, compared to 23 (green) in the other division. What group would you intuitively be more concerned about? No need to guess when doing science, you can get the facts.

The following analysis can indicate whether employees’ perception of their perceived psychological safety with their direct manager impacts their health and performance results.

Most employee surveys are designed to protect identity. However, they are typically designed with the ability to cut data to provide aggregated results by division and groups.

Determine what each division or group (red/yellow/green) falls in.

Then for each division or group obtain the average health and productivity metrics. These may include average number of sick days, near-misses, workers’ compensation claims and other key performance metrics used by the organization to measure productivity.

Conduct analyses across the entire organization to evaluate what, if any, relationship there is between employees’ perceived psychological safety with their manager and their health and productivity results.

Employers can get their own facts to determine what factors in their culture are influencing employee psychological safety.

Employers who discover gaps in how their managers interact with their employees can positively affect manager behaviour through how they hire, train and monitor them.

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