Anker & Marsh

Author Bio ▼

Dr Tim Marsh PhD, MSc, CFIOSH, CPsychol, SFIIRSM is MD of Anker and Marsh. Visiting Professor at Plymouth University he is considered a world authority on the subject of behavioural safety, safety leadership and organisational culture.As well as many of the world's most recognisable industrial names Tim has worked with diverse organisations such as the European Space Agency, the BBC, Sky TV, the RNLI and the National Theatre in his 25 year plus consultancy career.He has key noted and chaired dozens of conferences around the world including the closing key note at the Campbell Institutes inaugural International Thoughts Leaders event in 2014. He has written several best-selling books including Affective Safety Management, Talking Safety, Total Safety Culture, the Definitive Guide to Behavioural Safety and Organised Wellbeing. Previously he led Manchester Universities ground-breaking research team into behavioural safety methodologies in the 1990s.
May 24, 2023

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Psychological safety – Why doesn’t it happen naturally?

For this month’s blog, Tim Marsh discusses psychological safety, feeling comfortable to raise issues and what it takes to begin to build a positive culture… 

I’d like to start this article with a practical example of psychological safety and diversity that you might well have actually seen but most probably weren’t aware of.

The actor Ian Puleston-Davies used to play the builder Owen Armstrong in Coronation Street (the world’s longest running TV soap drama). If you were a regular watcher, you will have seen him standing at the bar, supping a pint and arguing in the Rovers Return pub a thousand times. Or standing in the door of the kitchen in his house chatting to his family holding a ‘cuppa’. But always standing as he has a quite severe OCD about sitting. Two observations if you were a Corrie watcher: First, there’s a very good chance you thought Owen was a strong character that added much to the drama but, secondly, in all the years he was in the programme you never noticed he was standing in every single scene!
I chose this example as psychological safety and workplace diversity are hugely inter-linked and we’ll return to the how and why of that soon. Before that though, it’s worth addressing what Psychological Safety is held to be, in summary, and why it’s important to the safety and health world.
In essence, it’s about feeling comfortable (metaphorically speaking, being able to stand if you really don’t like to, or can’t, sit). Specifically, it’s about being comfortable:

  • Admitting mistakes &
  • Challenging the status quo, raising concerns and asking difficult questions ..

These are clearly at the very centre of the learning aspect of a strong ‘brother’s keeper’ safety culture and the third element

  • Comfortable offering new ideas

… of-course helps with pro-actively building a better culture and workplace generally.

At this point its worth considering two diagrams based on Matthew Syed’s book ‘Rebel Ideas’ about diversity. Diagram one shows a homogenous team. There’s a good chance they’ll all get on really well (though ‘boys club’ anyone?). However, diagram two shows at a glance what the limitations of such homogeneity are…

This isn’t just about breadth of experience, background and world view. It’s about individual differences, as, for example, dyslexic people can often be very articulate and socially skilled. (Think Richard Branson). People on the autism spectrum can often generate huge efforts and laser focus on specific areas of expertise. (Think Alan Turing). In short, they can be fabulously productive and successful – in the right role and with the right adjustments and support. Branson comes up with marketing ideas not marketing text. Turing designed the first computer – but he’d not have been much use to Apple marketing except as an inspiration for their logo. (Following state persecution for his sexuality, he killed himself by taking a bite from a poisoned apple).

Health and Wellbeing

Elements 4 and 5 of psychological safety are more squarely focused on this area as, specifically, they involve feeling comfortable:

  • Requesting support and/or connectivity
  • Expressing vulnerability

In short, it’s not good to not talk and there are 1001 articles to cross reference to on this topic. (Including my last one).

Why Doesn’t It Happen Naturally?

workplace safetyBecause a typical person won’t like change and will instinctively like people who are similar to themselves. The comfort of homogeneity is as natural as the sun coming up. But it doesn’t correlate with organisational excellence as well as a psychologically safe culture does. This will require effort as it’s a truism that if you are not systemically cultivating it then you probably don’t have very much of it! (And a cross reference here to 1001 papers on Heinrich’s Principle of tending to get the luck your planning and efforts deserve).
Here we can also productively refer to another classic piece of safety thinking – Andrew Hopkins ‘Mindful’ safety. If people aren’t telling you about the 1001 problems and issues they’re facing on a daily basis it’s hardly ever because there’s nothing to say it’s because they’re keeping quiet. This, primarily, for two simple reasons:

  • They fear what will happen if they speak up
  • They think speaking up will prove pointless anyway …

We’re all read articles or seen films about whistle-blowers achieving great things for their field but at huge personal cost. However, on a day-to-day basis just a bit of frostiness in a canteen – perhaps because colleagues have been made uncomfortable or have been mildly inconvenienced in the short term – can certainly inhibit a potential ‘speaker upper’.
We need, simply, to work to build a culture where saying something has more positive than negative consequences. Where we get the support or reasonable adjustments we request. Where management lavish praise and get back to you and close out the feedback loop so, on balance, discomfort proves relatively less important and a repeat more likely.

First Steps.

The first thing an organisation can do is to take the trouble to explain to staff why it’s important to excellence. Coaching 101, step 1, is to treat people like adults by using data, illustration and reasoning.
Then, secondly, make it easy for staff to contribute with specific and resourced methodologies. A simple example from the world of physical safety would be a behavioural project team training in behavioural basics then asked ‘what goes wrong? why does it go wrong? and what can we do about it?’ From the world of mental health: tool box talks introduced by some data about the sheer incidence of it followed by a little personal testimony (perhaps?) and the question ‘so if any of you are feeling really crap today, for whatever reason .. please say something now, or, if you prefer, pop by my office in a little while …’.
Or perhaps where an ‘open-door’ policy doesn’t come complete with a forcefield or where a meeting closed with ‘any questions or concerns?’ is with a genuine question and not one including ‘I dare you to push back’ body language – followed instantly by a ‘no? good!’.
Other simple examples: a team problem solving sessions where articulating the W and the T in a SWOT analysis is actively encouraged. Or a KISS session where keep, improve, stop and start are all systemically worked through with input addressing diversity and psychological safety actively encouraged. (“Ian, the role is yours … you are Owen!” … ‘that’s great but I have one little request that I assure you will save a lot of time during filming …”)


Finally, it’s important to cross reference with accountability. Psychological safety is about striving to make certain behaviours and actions, that may well not come naturally, but which are of benefit to the organisation, possible. It’s not carte blanche to do and say whatever you want…
So, to return to where we started and cross reference to another great Manchester made TV programme. Always standing in a scene because you have a severe OCD about sitting is acceptable because it’s a workable accommodation. Always insisting on sitting down because you can’t be assed to stand up isn’t!

Book prize.

In which classic film did the screen world’s most sinister dentist repeatedly ask ‘is it safe?’


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Christine Arnott
Christine Arnott
1 year ago

Excellent article. Think the film is Marathon Man?

Phil Mitchell
Phil Mitchell
1 year ago

Beat me to it! Laurence Olivier’s character – can’t remember his name.

Simon Rosser
Simon Rosser
1 year ago

Marathon Man

Skye van Heyzen
Skye van Heyzen
10 months ago

Great article breaking this down and summarizing it’s elements. To easily overlooked and misunderstood.