So much time and energy in HSE is devoted to reducing physical risks in the workplace. But there is a secret danger that no one talks about, that has way more influence on safety behaviours. It’s called social risk, and it has way more influence on how you and your colleagues think, behave, and feel than you are aware of. The antidote to reducing the secret danger of social risk is good safety leadership, in particular creating psychological safety.
To understand what I’m talking about by social risk, try this little exercise:
- Think of a time when you saw a deviation from a safety or quality procedure, and you challenged it.
- Now think of a time when you saw a deviation from safety or quality procedure – perhaps you were part of it – and you didn’t challenge it. What were the factors that led to you acting differently in one situation than the other?
- Now think of the deviations that occur everyday in your workplace, that have become normal, part of ‘the way we do things round here’. Why does no one resolve the issue or challenge it?
The chances are that among the reasons you didn’t challenge was the fear that you’ll be:
- Laughed at, or thought stupid or ‘soft’;
- Seen as ‘one of them’ (management, other team, area, profession) rather than ‘one of us’;
- Thought to be sucking up to someone or wanting to appear better than the others;
- Left vulnerable and isolated;
- Target of bullying or harassment; and/or
- At risk of losing a job or position…
This kind of fear is evidence of social risk. It’s something that influences behaviour far more than physical risk but is rarely given the same attention.
Social risk has its basis in our need to belong which is one of the strongest drivers in human existence. Basically, we want to be part of a group and to fit in, and social risk refers to anything that threatens that belonging or our status in the group. Different groups have different social ‘norms’ – unspoken rules and power structures that govern what a typical member of that group does or doesn’t think/feel/say/act. The risk in social risk comes from transgressing the ‘social norms’ of the group.
Where social risk is highest
Social norms – the unspoken rules – can be particularly strong where:
- Individuals work in an unusual, dangerous or remote environment and/or are not under the same kind of scrutiny as normal – site workers, soldiers, police and night shifts are good examples
- There is little or weak leadership so norms and behaviours are set by the loudest voice, not the most informed
- There is a dominant group of people working with a small minority – for example a largely male environment with a small female minority or vice versa, or a mainly white work force with a minority of BAME workers
In these situations – in a canteen culture or when things get ‘tribal’ – the social risk of being different is higher. We’re more likely to conform to what’s expected than challenge it, even if our physical safety may be compromised.
When we tell people they need to have a questioning attitude, be open about mistakes, challenge, and ‘stop the line’- even to make suggestions or come up with ideas for improvement – we’re asking them to take a risk which can seem much greater in the moment than any physical risks involved.
For example – take a situation where a fire extinguisher has been used to prop open a fire door, enabling a group of people immediate access to an area that it would take them a minute to walk to otherwise. No one has ever challenged this and it has become the norm – there have been no fires so the physical risk seems minimal. The social risk for a colleague in questioning this and ensuring the fire door is shut is enormous, however. It has the potential to make them at the least very unpopular, or worse. Here, the immediate physical risk of upsetting the group can seem far greater than the distant risk of a fire. So it’s the social risk that drives the behaviour – the fire door continues to be propped open.
The additional risk – diversity
Social risk increases if the person questioning is part of a minority, where they may already have to work hard to show they fit in and are worthy of a place in the group. A woman might be afraid of being dismissed as a ‘typical woman’ or a ‘ball breaker’ if she challenges language or behaviour, or someone with a religious requirement might be afraid of being seen as awkward or unsuitable for the job of they ask for their needs to be met. Yet their contributions might be much more valuable BECAUSE of their difference. They could provide a new perspective that could save a life.
If you’re a safety leader it’s not just about keeping people physically safe. You need to reduce the social risks by creating psychological safety, even for people who are different to you or your colleagues so everyone feels comfortable in giving their best.
Social risks can lead to catastrophic events. After the financial crash of 2008, Sir David Walker reported on the causes in 2009 in The Walker Report. In this he outlines how psychological phenomena such as groupthink – a term coined after The Challenger Crash – led to the catastrophic decision making that resulted in the crash. Groupthink can occur where the social risks of disagreement become too great. Groupthink also contributed to the Challenger event. The social risks of being the one to stop the rocket flying were too great.
PPE – psychologically protected environment?
People need to feel psychologically safe if we really want them to challenge, question, share mistakes, and stop the line – if we want to get the best from people full stop. Perhaps, therefore, we need to think of a different kind of PPE. Not personal protective equipment but a psychologically protected environment.