The case for psychological safety was made and proved in an unlikely way back in 1933.
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How much could your team accomplish if its members felt safe they couldn't fail?
In San Francisco, on Jan. 5, 1933, construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge. The chief engineer assigned to the project was Joseph Strauss. Bridge building was extremely dangerous back then, and the industry norm was one construction worker would die for every million dollars spent on a project. Given that the price tag to build the Golden Gate Bridge was $35 million, the project was likely to result in dozens of fatalities. However, Strauss was committed to radically reducing the loss of life.
Even with immense pressure to finish the project on time and under budget, Strauss invested the equivalent of $2,779,480 in today's dollars to install a safety net. At that time, it was the most elaborate and expensive safety device conceived for a major construction site. The net was strung underneath the entire length of the bridge and extended 10 feet beyond each side of the workspace. It resembled the safety nets put in place for acrobats today.
"On the Golden Gate Bridge, we had the idea we could cheat death by providing every known safety device for workers," Strauss wrote in 1937 for The Saturday Evening Post.
On April 28, 1937, Strauss and his team completed construction of the tallest and longest suspension bridge in the world. The project was completed ahead of schedule, the safety net was said to have increased productivity by 25 percent, and the bridge cables were constructed four times faster than had been considered possible.
During construction, 19 men accidentally fell into the safety net, collected themselves and then got back to the work. Because of the safety net, workers weren't focused on their safety but rather their success. As a result, productivity and performance soared.
Today's healthiest organizations find ways to have concurrent commitments to human dignity and performance. They don't sacrifice the well-being of employees for high performance. They also don't sacrifice performance to bend to every need of their employees. They strike a balance as Strauss did.
Strauss was a safety pioneer. His efforts set new standards for workers' physical safety. The strides made since the 1930s to keep workers physically safe have been remarkable. The next safety frontier for leaders to consider is the psychological safety of their teams.
Your team members likely don't fear death when they arrive at work, but they do fear failure, rejection, burnout, isolation and other invisible threats.
The brain is always searching and seeking safety. Regardless of whether workers are scaling tall bridges or preparing expense reports, in their guts, down their spinal columns and in the deepest recesses of their minds lingers the most fundamental question of humanity. It's the question the brain is subconsciously asking five times per second of every day: "Am I safe?"
Much like how the Golden Gate Bridge workers experienced more success when they felt safe, when your team members feel safe, they are able to focus on loftier goals. The unconscious safety alarm in their heads is quieted, and they can finally show up fully to work focused not on survival but on success.
What does safety look like for your team?
One invisible ailment that today's workers need a safety net for is loneliness. According to our research of over 2,000 global workers, 55 percent say they experience loneliness at least weekly and 72 percent say they experience it at least monthly.
Loneliness hinders not only workers' health but also their performance. Lonely workers are seven times more likely to be disengaged at work, five times more likely to miss work and two times more likely to think about quitting. Currently, lonely workers have no safety net. They are falling further and further into isolation.
Humans are social creatures. We have a deep desire to be accepted, cared for and involved in meaningful community. These desires were (and continue to be) essential for our survival. Our ancestors who roamed the Plains lived in tribes where becoming separated or banished from the group made survival unlikely. Our brains still function the same way at work: When we feel excluded, we become vulnerable and feel unsafe.
Loneliness is invisible, and there is no tangible safety net you can install to catch team members descending into isolation. The safety net comes in the form of psychological safety and creates a culture where people feel comfortable to connect with each other.
The mental health resource workers want most is a more open and accepting culture. Essentially, they want psychological safety—a feeling they can share bad news, ask questions, raise concerns, present half-baked ideas and even make mistakes.
Teams can be lonely places. People can feel vulnerable and exposed if they believe their teammates don't support their ideas or appreciate their work. These interpersonal struggles intensify for remote workers who lack the support of a nodding ally across the table in a meeting.
Leaders Must Create Safety
It's challenging for leaders to create psychological safety because they have power by virtue of their role and power is a barrier to psychological safety. In order to counterbalance the weight of their powerful role, leaders have to go out of their way to intentionally and strategically build psychological safety. Luckily, this safety won't cost you $2,779,480 like it did Strauss.
When workers feel psychologically secure and protected, their need for belonging is fulfilled and their feelings of loneliness are lessened. Leaders who create psychological safety among team members also reap benefits much like those seen by Strauss:
Just like the 19 bridge workers who bounced back from their falls, lonely workers can rebound out of isolation when the psychological safety net is in place.
Ryan Jenkins, CSP, and Steven Van Cohen, MSOD, are the founders of LessLonely.com and the authors of Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams from Isolated to All In (McGraw Hill, 2022).
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