Do workers trust their supervisor enough to admit mistakes?

by on November 15, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

A classic medical-safety study showed that higher-performing nursing teams committed more errors than lower-performing teams.

They deviated from more safety protocols and had more near misses, yet at the end of the shift, they had healthier patients.

Most safety directors aren’t scratching their heads – they know the high-performing teams were quickly reporting their errors and the low-performing teams weren’t. That way, errors were reported, caught and corrected quickly.

Trust is key
A more recent study shows why: trust. The study of 54 nursing teams found a direct link between worker error reporting and their trust in the supervisors. Digging deeper, they found:

  • Workers felt “psychologically safe” reporting errors to their direct supervisor.
  • Workers felt that supervisors made sure safety was a high team priority.
  • Supervisors practiced what they preached. They followed safety protocols and reported errors when they didn’t.

Conclusion: Supervisory trust gets workers out of feeling that they should hide errors rather than risk getting into trouble.

Are your supervisors building that trust? Here’s some ways to find out and action steps to take:

1. Psychological safety
Fix problems, not blame, goes the old saying. Do your workers feel that reporting errors will end up in assigning blame, or addressing the safety problem?

The old-school supervisory answer is, “If the worker comes to me first, we solve the problem. But if I find the safety breach first, then I write them up.”

That’s not a bad start for giving workers’ psychological safety. You make it clear that you won’t hold it against them if they own up to a problem – it shows they’re a stand-up person and take responsibility.

But you can go further: Even when the supervisor catches someone, the boss doesn’t just issue a “verbal warning.” It’s an opportunity for coaching.

That’s often the best chance to make someone feel psychologically safe to ask questions – particularly people who may feel too shy to speak up in safety meetings.

For example, say an inspection uncovers a worker who connected fall protection to an inadequate anchor point. Maybe the person felt “something was better than nothing.” Ideally, the person should have brought this to supervisory attention beforehand.

The supervisor makes a judgment call if this is a good-faith problem. If so, they can patiently review the anchor point rules and stress that if they don’t know, come to them in the future. If the worker takes it seriously and does just that, mutual trust develops.

2. Safety is a team priority
Both psychological safety and team priorities are crucial to getting real levels of reporting. You can figure out if safety is a team priority through:

  • spot inspections (workers are wearing PPE and following safety protocols when you show up unannounced)
  • review of supervisor’s inspection notes (if the notes include not only problems uncovered, but coaching suggestions, team safety is a high priority)
  • individual workers’ training records (workers take required refresher training, score well, participate in training sessions; supervisor documents regular toolbox talks), and
  • near-miss data (you get some reporting, even if it’s not the level you hope for).

Action step: If you feel safety is not the team priority it should be, you’ll need to review supervisor’s safety responsibilities. You can offer training and coaching to the supervisor in how to communicate safety priorities effectively.

For example, you can have the supervisor do the safety-priority-of-the-day, based on actual safety compliance priorities. “Today, we’re all going to do a hard hat inspection before the shift. Let’s start with mine.”

3. Walk the talk
Are supervisors walking the talk? Ask them what their own most recent near-miss was. Usually, a safety-conscious supervisor will have an answer, e.g., “I put a bucket down in an aisleway where another person could trip on it.”

But mostly, you should see supervisors demonstrating safety whenever they need to – properly securing extension cords, removing debris, moving an obstacle, just pitching in to keep the site safe as they guide the work. That sends a strong message that the supervisor has safety integrity.

Leroy, Hannes, et al., Behavioral Integrity for Safety, Priority of Safety, Psychological Safety, and Patient Safety: A Team-Level Study. Journal of Applied Psychology, Sep 17 , 2012.

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