Leadership insight #17 / 2022: Leaders are important for creating safe workplaces
24 November 2022
Making sure our workplaces are safe is a hot topic – again. Safety is also a broad term. While patient safety is often the focus in healthcare, safety in terms of the workplace – OH&S, psychological safety and cultural safety – is increasingly requiring attention. In recent weeks we have seen new regulations concerning psychosocial safety in the workplace, and employers are tasked with understanding what this means and ensuring not only compliance, but also how we prevent and minimise psychosocial risk and harm at work.
We have discussed psychological safety a number of times in these leadership insights. Indeed, this continues to be an important topic for discussion in both our emerging leader and middle leader professional development programs.
To ensure we are providing a safe place in our programs for First Nations doctors, I have been learning about cultural safety and attended cultural safety training through VACCHO. For some further explanation of this, see the VACCHO resources page and the AMA position statement.
Increasingly in my work with members in the leadership coaching programs we discuss safety in many forms, although all within the professional setting of looking after self and others as we engage in difficult and complex collaborative work.
Often, members are seeking professional development and training for the interpersonal and organisational leadership skills to navigate difficult situations and difficult interactions. Like in any sector and any workplace, there are difficult people, conflict and workplace dynamics and politics to navigate. And so, a focus of leadership development – especially in interpersonal communication skills – is about how to manage and navigate interactions to maximise personal psychological safety.
This might be around navigating perceived bias, sexism or racism for example, or bullying and harassment. While these examples are at the more extreme end of the issue, we have all had experiences of assessing interpersonal risk:
- Is it safe for me to speak up about this in this meeting?
- Is it safe for me to say no to this person?
- Is it safe to be who I am and express my identity?
We do this every day, and it requires a highly skilled set of interpersonal and leadership skills and behaviours. These include:
- Self-awareness: Have I thought about my own experiences, values, and assumptions in this area? What do I think? How might my own preferences and bias impact my perception and judgment?
- Other-awareness: Am I able to hold my own perception in check enough to take in another person’s point of view? What might they be thinking or feeling now? Can I regulate my own emotions and thoughts enough to be open to another’s experience?
- Observation and reflection: Am I skilled at observing interpersonal and team dynamics? What might be going on in this situation? And what intervention by me might be helpful?
- Listening: Have I stopped to really listen to the other person? Have I been genuinely curious to understand their point of view? Can I ask good questions to understand more and start a real discussion?
- Using language that is respectful. Am I aware of the language and terminology I’m using? And is this appropriate and respectful? For example, part of establishing cultural safety for First Nations people can involve understanding and following cultural protocols. If we don’t know what these are, then we need to ask, and listen.
Yes we’re busy. Yes we are multi-tasking or trying to! And nothing here is going to change. There is never going to be a two-hour space blocked out in your calendar marked “time to stop and reflect on how things are going at work for you and your team”. We do think about these things though – typically in the car, on the tram, when trying to rest. And it is important leadership work.
The reality is that our workforce is also crying out to be more cared for. Care is at a premium after the last few years of COVID. We all need it in some shape or form.
So, let’s work on our micro acts of leadership to create safer workplaces by observing each other respectfully, listening and asking good questions, and listening to the answers and learning more about what this other person might need to feel safer. Everyone’s work will benefit from this.
Dr Anna Clark (PhD)
Dr Anna Clark is AMAVs leadership consultant, coach and educator, currently offering individual coaching for doctors and directing the AMA’s professional development programs in leadership, the Emerging Leader Program and Middle Leader Program.