Between alarms: Building Psychological Safety
By Arjuna George
By Arjuna George
Psychological safety has become a buzz word of sorts, but what is it really? And why is it so important to obtaining excellence and building strong, high performing teams? This column will provide some valuable insight on how we can improve our fire service’s psychological safety and improve our organizations greatly.
High performing teams need to have a strong bond, where they know each other’s personalities, strengths, weaknesses and backgrounds. They need to have a sense of purpose and belonging, and most of all, they need to have a solid foundation of trust. One major factor that dissolves team performance is fear. Not the same fear as entering a structure fire for the first time, not the same fear as your first chest compression — it is fear of our own team — fear of looking stupid or weak; the fear to be comfortable enough, trusting enough to speak up.
Creating a culture within our fire service that allows our members from the newest to the most senior to have the security to speak up without reprise or embarrassment will build powerhouse fire halls that can tackle the toughest issues and develop the best solutions.
Having a psychologically safe environment also impacts our physical safety as firefighters. The more open we are to raising questions and speaking up, the greater our fireground decision making and patient outcome will be. Embracing a democratic communication environment works, but there is a time and place. Building a psychologically safe organization allows those the space to speak up when critically needed.
Supporting a culture where all members feel safe to speak up means we don’t permit disrespectful dialogue or rudely challenging our peers. It doesn’t mean that we lower our standard, in fact it is the opposite. When building a psychologically safe organization, we excel and hold people more accountable to being respectful and honest. It allows opinions to be shared without judgment or emotional defense. It opens up the doors to new perspectives and ideas — ideas that may save a life or prevent a firefighter from being injured.
The fire service is deep in tradition and some of the longest standing values we embrace include integrity, honour and courage. These core values mirror the same qualities needed for a psychologically safe fire hall. We need to have the courage to be honest, to speak up, to trust each other. Courage is defined as overcoming fear and danger. If we as a fire service can reduce fear within our firehouses, we will see exponential growth in our teams and in our own health.
One key step to becoming a psychologically safe department is to get to know your crew. The greater you know your fellow firefighters and differences of opinion, the greater your trust and support will be to each other. Having a high social sensitivity allows you to pick up on what your teammates are thinking and how they are feeling by watching their non-verbal cues. If you can hone this skill you are able to read your crew and encourage them to engage. When your entire team is engaged, the higher performing you will be.
One of the leaders in psychological safety is Harvard professor and author Amy Edmondson, who provides three key steps in building a psychologically safe work environment.
Step 1 – Create meaning: The fire service already has a huge advantage over other services or businesses because our day-to-day is packed with meaningful work as firefighters. Fire fighting is the ultimate purpose filled occupation.
Step 2 – Model fallibility: Step 2 suggests that inviting input from others is critical. Requesting help, solicitating opinions and actively inviting input helps build resilient and psychologically safe teams.
Step 3 – Embrace messengers: When our members speak up, listen to them and thank them. The more brains at work, the tougher decisions we can make and the greater innovation we can create. Make speaking up a positive experience for all.
The key indicators that you are operating within a psychologically safe organization can recognized as a positive and engaged department, where members trust and communicate, where there is an equality of voices, and morale runs high.
Once we build a safe work environment we can come to work in our full self, present, and engaged ready to make an impact on those we serve. Building a psychologically safe fire hall can start with you. Start today, between alarms, getting to know your team that much more. Support and nurture leaders at all levels and remove those barriers that create fear. In the fire service we see too much fear in those we serve. Our job is to reduce our internal fear so we can serve more effectively.
Arjuna George is chief of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in B.C. He has served on the department since 1997. Contact Arjuna at firstname.lastname@example.org