HR: The elephant in the room for psychological safety

In his latest column in Quality Digest, Mark Graban wrote the following about psychological safety:

“How do leaders cultivate the conditions in which employees feel safe enough to speak up and participate in continuous improvement? Clark argues that leaders need to: 1) model vulnerable acts; and 2) reward vulnerable acts.

For example, leaders must model the key behaviors they want to see, such as admitting that things aren’t perfect. Leaders can also model helpful behaviors by sharing an idea along with the words, “I might not be completely right, so let’s test our idea on a small scale and see.” When leaders model these vulnerable acts, some employees might choose to follow their lead.

When a person chooses to speak up, it isn’t a matter of courage or character; it’s a function of culture. The level of safety that’s felt by an employee is the end result of all of the interactions they’ve had with leaders and colleagues, past and present.”

Source: Graban, M. (2023) Stop Spending Money on Problem-Solving Training, Focus on Psychological Safety Instead Quality Digest

Michel Baudin‘s comments:

The Elephant in the Room

The personal behavior of leaders is not what makes employees feel that they will not be punished for speaking out, raising questions, expressing concerns, contributing ideas, or making mistakes. What does, durably, is Human Resource (HR) policies and practices that make it true.

No employment is risk-free. If the company fails, no one’s job is secure. For employees to act as if the company’s survival depends on their individual behavior, they must feel that “We’re all in this together,” and it must not be an illusion. Make it real, and the perception will follow.

If you practice yo-yo staffing, forget it. If you hire massively in good times and lay off in downturns, no one feels safe because no one is safe. In most American companies, HR has a purely administrative role and is invisible to employees except when one accuses another of misconduct, at which point it becomes a disciplinarian.

Basic Components of HR for Engagement

If you want engaged employees, you need to change this, and it is a gigantic challenge:

  1. You must hire employees for careers, not to fill a spot in an emergency. As it’s a commitment to retain the person, you don’t do it casually.
  2. You must provide career planning for employees at all levels. This involves providing training and development plans for entry-level employees that show them paths to follow in order to achieve their ambitions within the company.
  3. You can’t pay people on a piece rate. You must pay them for their time and not just for individual performance, but also for team performance and for the abilities they develop.

Policies and Practices

Binders of policies that aren’t followed do no good. Policies are needed but they must be implemented and, sometimes, practices go beyond what can be formalized in policies. Nurturing psychological safety involves concrete steps in HR, and they take time to bear fruit. As an employee, you have to see others speak out, take risks, and not be chastised for it. On the other hand, you can shattering psychological safety instantly, by a layoff.

An aerospace technician who had been actively supporting an improvement project suddenly stopped when his last review placed him in a low “retention class,” meaning he was at risk of being laid off. His boss was supportive, and they had known each other for years, but it made no difference.

The Honda employees I worked with in Ohio were different. They weren’t always enthusiastic about their direct supervisors, but they unhesitatingly participated in improvement because the company’s HR policies and practices made them feel secure.


It is easy to blame the lack of employee engagement on the personal behavior of leaders. To get to the root cause, however, you need to ask “why” a few more times, and it leads you straight to HR. And just because HR is not easy to fix doesn’t mean you can avoid doing it.

#markgraban, #psychologicalsafety, #humanresources