Having worked in leadership roles in manufacturing for 25 years, I have long been aware of the link between inclusion and safety. When an organization is inclusive and engenders a sense of belonging, people are more likely to keep themselves and others safe.
Unique and included
It’s important to understand what is meant by inclusion. Diversity, equity and inclusion are often lumped together, almost as if they are synonymous. Yet this is not the case, and it is important to know the difference in order to unravel the connection between inclusion and safety.
It is perfectly possible for an organization to be diverse and equitable – providing equal rights and opportunities for all – without being inclusive. Employees may be treated fairly, but will only feel included when they also know they are trusted, have a sense of belonging, and feel their voice is heard.
The link to safety here is clear: a psychologically safe working environment is one of trust, shared values and confidence, in which all team members feel comfortable speaking without fear. When this type of culture thrives, individuals are empowered to do their best and teams are more likely to perform well and adapt effectively.
In essence, the characteristics of inclusive and psychologically safe environments are the same. Given this, what can we do as safety leaders to nurture both inclusion and psychological safety in our workplaces?
Leading by example
When your employees feel truly included, they are likely to have the confidence and enthusiasm to be themselves, voice opinions and thoughts, without fear or embarrassment, share ideas and innovate, ask for help and do their best work.
As safety leaders, we can foster a culture of inclusion – and hence psychological safety – by actively modeling these behaviors ourselves. We need to get out onto the production floor as much as possible to talk, learn and share ideas. We need to ask questions and listen to the views and ideas of production colleagues – they are the experts in their roles! Our goal should be to ensure our facilities are respectful, collaborative environments.
At the heart of this is building trust. Trust is multifaceted, difficult to define, hard to establish, and easily lost. To instill trust successfully, it is essential we communicate authentically, in a way that resonates with our colleagues and meets them where they are. A strong, nuanced, behavior-driven leadership approach is the greatest tool in our box... Lead by example. Lead with consideration to exactly where the individuals on your team are at. Lead with empathy, compassion and without fear of vulnerability.
Behaviors and communication
Leaders modeling inclusive, psychologically safe behavior is highly effective at a micro level. But how can we ensure that everyone across the organization gets the message?
Go back to basics to define key, non-negotiable behaviors that underpin safety in your organization. For example, you might identify that you want colleagues everywhere – regardless of culture or context – to always intervene if they feel a situation or behavior might be unsafe, either by speaking up or by stopping work.
You will then need to communicate this vital message to colleagues clearly and repeatedly – only through constant reinforcement will people have the confidence to put the messaging into practice. Empowering individual leaders to adapt the way messages are cascaded to their teams can have a huge bearing on how well they are understood and internalized, particularly if your organization is global. Although the high-level message transcends culture and context, the specifics can be varied to meet local needs. Leaders who communicate well with their teams are powerful catalysts for inclusion and psychological safety.
From safety, success
The big message? If you want to improve safety in your organization, a good starting point is to look at your company’s approach to inclusion. By improving this, you will lay the foundations for creating a psychologically safe environment. As a result, people will have the confidence to speak up if they’re not sure how to do something. To ask for help rather than taking an unnecessary risk out of ignorance. To suggest better, safer ways of doing things. To care about their team and keep each other safe.
In my experience, don’t underestimate the wider impact of this. Embed psychological safety among your workforce, and you’ll lay the groundwork for an exponential increase in the success of the entire organization. We see time and time again that workplaces where leaders establish an atmosphere of compassion, support and respect are those that demonstrate cohesion during periods of turbulence. Now more than ever, creating a measured, top-down strategy for communicating psychologically safe behaviors is fundamental for the survival and success of organizations in every sector.
An unquestioned environment of inclusion and trust will not only keep people safe – it will bring out the best in the entire organization.
Kimberly Kellermann is senior vice president, Global Operations Group at Greif, a provider of industrial packaging products and services.