Occupational Safety

How a culture of failure and feedback can improve safety

Empowering employees and involving them in occupational health and safety

13 minutes02/17/2021

Did you know that the volume of mistakes reported is a key success criterion? The more mistakes a team reports, the more successful a team will be.

Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, is convinced of this and has documented the phenomenon. Edmondson has identified why people in some workplaces have less of an issue admitting to mistakes than those in others. In this context, she refers to ‘psychological safety’ and ‘fearless organizations’ as key success factors.

But what exactly is psychological safety? One thing is clear: Admitting to mistakes presents an interpersonal risk that people seek to avoid out of fear of negative consequences. Admitting to a mistake is often seen as making you vulnerable and susceptible to attack. This is why many people tend to hide their mistakes and near misses, sweeping them under the rug. It is therefore incumbent on companies to provide the safety people need, guaranteeing that employees can report mistakes without having to fear negative consequences such as being exposed, humiliated, excluded or patronized. Ideally, admitting to a mistake should be applauded as a courageous act and trigger a collective improvement process.

  • "Every time you ask a sincere question - a question where you're really hoping for an answer - and then stop and listen long enough, you've influenced the feeling of safety a little bit for the positive." - Amy Edmondson

Psychological safety in occupational health and safety

What are the implications for occupational health and safety when employees are unwilling to take the interpersonal risks and instead seek to cover up their mistakes? A lack of psychological safety can have a range of consequences:

  • The human element may be insufficiently considered when investigating the cause of accidents. If this occurs, measures cannot be put in place to enable employees to act more appropriately in similar situations in the future.

  • Near misses partly caused by human error are not reported. Due to the lack of investigation, the situation that led to a near-miss reoccurs in similar form and results in a genuine accident. Further proof of this can be found in DuPont’s Accident Pyramid, which suggests that for every 30,000 near misses, one deadly accident occurs.

  • A fear of mistakes often creates an internal pressure to avoid mistakes at any cost. This can manifest as a psychological burden that can, in turn, lead to illnesses or accidents.

So, what can you do to turn your company into a fearless organization? How can your company provide psychological safety in respect of occupational health and safety? How can you help to ensure employees report near misses and other incidents? By introducing a positive culture of engaging with errors and feedback.

Culture of failure means speaking up

In your position as an EHS-specialist, it is important that you implement a transparent failure management system that systematically documents workplace accidents and near misses. You should work to create a trusting environment to facilitate this; employees should proactively report mistakes and potential hazards, and you should address issues constructively. The challenge is not announcing new processes and regulations, but convincing employees and getting them on board. Achieving this is not easy, as mistakes are often regarded as personal failures. The most effective method is to implement anonymous reporting systems that allow all employees to report unsafe situations, actions and near misses without giving their name. Ultimately, what matters is not who made the mistake, or who witnessed it, but the fact that the issue has been reported, recorded and analyzed and that it can be avoided in future.

Owning up to your own mistakes and asking your colleagues to tell you if there is something you could do better can also help the process. Set a good example and remember the power your position gives you to act as a role model. You can only expect your employees to own up to their mistakes if you do so yourself.

With this in mind, your first objective should be to establish a conceptual foundation for your company’s culture of failure. Make your colleagues aware that speaking openly about mistakes is an important factor to the company’s success. Employees need to learn to communicate their errors and mistakes, thereby making themselves and others aware of them. While changing people’s attitude towards mistakes is the first step, it needs to be underpinned with specific, concrete measures. The following points can help you to establish a constructive culture of failure:

  • EHS software empowers employees or external stakeholders to enter their observations using simple forms right at the point of use (through apps, terminals or at the desktop). | © iStock: Halfpoint

1. Empower and involve your employees

You can facilitate neutral communication of mistakes by empowering your employees to report workplace accidents, unsafe actions or near misses – potentially anonymously. The important thing here is that you lower the threshold for reporting incidents. This means making it possible for employees to document issues quickly, easily and near their workplace, such as through a mobile app for smartphones and tablets or a dedicated reporting terminal in the production hall. If possible, employees should be able to log reports in occupational health and safety software directly so that you can implement safeguards systematically.

2. Reward engagement

Unfortunately, many employees see occupational health and safety as annoying and burdensome. Reverse this attitudeand consider a rewards system that motivates employees. Offer incentives for employees who eagerly engage with the topic, such as experiences, gift certificates or extra holiday bonuses. Another option would be to start a competition that rewards the team that files the most reports with an additional bonus they can enjoy together, such as at their next Christmas party. If mistakes lead to new ideas and improved processes, you can present positive examples to demonstrate that getting involved is worth it. What matters is that employees see for themselves the benefits of engaging constructively with mistakes. This can improve health and safety in the workplace for you and your colleagues.

3. Create space for feedback and finding solutions

Provide safe spaces and accessible formats to enable your teams to analyze mistakes collectively and constructively. Employees should learn to talk about mistakes. You could organize ‘Failure Fridays’ or ‘Mistake Meetings’ to give your staff time and space to openly discuss their mistakes as a team and work together to find a solution. This helps people to learn from their mistakes.

A study by accountancy firm Ernst & Young has shown that employees speak most honestly about mistakes when talking with people on the same hierarchical level within their team. They discuss matters less openly as soon as they are forced to disclose matters to their superiors or to people below them in the organizational hierarchy. You should consider this small but decisive detail when planning your measures.

4. Coach your staff and raise awareness

Establishing a functional culture of flagging mistakes and engaging with feedback is a change process that cannot progress on its own. Constant, thorough explanations and ongoing efforts to raise awareness are important for these measures to succeed. You should therefore strive to get your employees involved, organize workshops and, if possible, hold one-to-one meetings. Adopt a constructive approach to mistakes, especially those made by your colleagues or subordinates. Show that assigning blame and recriminations are unproductive while driving home the message that mistakes are not an individual failing but, in many cases, the combined result of many different factors. Set a good example – instead of asking “Who did this?”, search for solutions by asking “What can we do better in future? How can we structure this (or a similar) situation to ensure we can work safely and productively in future?” Managers have a central role to play here. They are role models and should behave accordingly.

Managers – a key element in improving safety

How managers and executives behave is an essential element in creating an open and trusting atmosphere of admitting to and communicating mistakes. With this in mind, you should speak with managers in your company first. Explain your concerns to them and outline the benefits to their teams and to them personally. Illustrate how a practiced culture of failure can result in fewer sick days, higher productivity, increased innovation and improved satisfaction.

The most enduring changes are those that occur when a core idea is understood and taken to heart by everyone in an organization – and establishing a culture of engaging with mistakes and feedback is no exception. We therefore recommend raising the topic regularly, focusing on positive aspects. You can use the following arguments to persuade others (without coming off as a know-it-all):

  • Set a good example by admitting to your own mistakes

  • Encourage managers to admit their mistakes, reflect self-critically, and confront employees openly and on an equal footing.

  • Make it clear to them that they are role models for their employees.

  • Emphasize the importance of teamwork: Explain that managers bear responsibility for creating an effective culture of failure within the team.

  • Offer support

  • Make managers aware that employees work best when they are not worried about making mistakes or having to cover them up. Fear is a barrier to innovation and the learning process.

We all know that nobody is perfect. People grow from their experiences – and from mistakes in particular. Nevertheless, many people still find it hard to engage with their mistakes in a constructive and understanding manner. All the more important, then, to instigate a structured and sustainable change process tailored to the people in your company and its existing corporate culture.