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How to Talk to Every Generation About Psychological Safety

Sep 19, 2019

Safety professional man talking to worker in front of a blue backgroundFor the first time in history, there are five generations working side-by-side.

Jeanette Black, RN, Ed.D., SPHR-SHRM-SCP, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, is an expert on organizational transformation who believes these unique times call for a unique approach to safety culture, one that uses different communication strategies for each age group. Her vision includes “psychological safety,” a term originally introduced in 1999 by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, Ph.D.

What Is Psychological Safety?

Edmondson used this term to describe a phenomenon she had observed in her research: When organizations cultivated trusting environments, where workers felt free to fail, speak their minds and learn from each other, performance improved.

“Embracing psychological safety means taking a more holistic approach to workplace and organizational practices and putting employees at the center of your culture,” Black says. “Doing so can not only enhance the experience of coming to work, but also physical safety, productivity and profitability.”

While she has no doubts about the benefits of psychological safety, Black has a great deal of sympathy for leaders who are working to align many different teams and implement sweeping cultural initiatives.

“You have to be very upfront and honest, and it’s hard work,” she continues. “Some days you’re going to be great at sticking to your core values and some days you won’t be as good.”

But once leaders commit to improving psychological safety and listening to the specific needs of their employees, Black says it can yield significant results.

Do Generational Differences Matter?

Business writers, marketers and human resources professionals are well-practiced at using generational stereotypes as shorthand or clickbait. For instance, you’ve probably read at least one article claiming all Baby Boomers are workaholics who fear technology. You’ve probably heard that all Millennials are lazy job-hoppers who are only interested in Instagram-worthy avocado toast. Of course, many of these claims are nonsense. With that in mind, is it possible for generational distinctions to positively impact workplace safety and health?

“Each generation has characteristics that safety professionals should recognize and respect,” Black says. “Some of the differences that come up in the media aren’t exaggerations, and to create cultural change we need to understand them and learn to speak with different age groups differently.”

The key, she continues, is for safety professionals to listen to individual workers’ needs and balance that with their knowledge of generational trends. Here are five tips for starting informed conversations with each generation about psychological safety.

Traditionalists (1944 and earlier)

Overview: These individuals were either directly or indirectly shaped by the Great Depression and World War II. Therefore, they are often characterized by their willingness to sacrifice for the common good. Members of the Traditionalist Generation are also known for their resilience and tendency to stay with the same employer for many years.

Try This Psychological Safety Approach: Traditionalists are close to the end of their time with their organizations, and are likely to have professional experiences that would benefit others. Organizations could improve their psychological safety by talking to them about formal ways to share their knowledge, either through volunteering with outside groups or mentoring other workers internally.

Baby Boomers (1945-1964)

Overview: Baby Boomers, a generation named for the spike in births directly after World War II, grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. The Vietnam War, Women’s Liberation Movement and space race also influenced these people’s lives. They are known for prioritizing self-discovery and challenging established norms.

Try This Psychological Safety Approach: Since many Baby Boomers take pride in their ability to disrupt industries and systems for the better, consider inviting them to lead safety-related process improvement projects. While it is important to include all workers in these efforts to avoid siloing and discrimination, Boomers may get extra satisfaction from being asked, “How else could we do this?”

Generation X (1965-1979)

Overview: This generation got its name from others who felt its members did not want to be defined or categorized. Gen-Xers, born during or directly after the Vietnam War, are known for mistrusting institutions and valuing individual loyalty. Many in Generation X experienced shifting household dynamics as their mothers entered the workforce, and as a result are considered uniquely self-reliant.

Try This Psychological Safety Approach: As Gen-Xers’ suspicion of institutions is likely to extend to your safety program, it’s important that they trust you and their colleagues personally. When you show workers of this generation that you will show up mentally and physically to support them every day, and that you expect them to do the same for each other, it will go a long way toward improving their psychological safety.

Millennials (1980-1994)

Overview: Millennials, born into a world of rapid digital advancement led by tech giants, are known for their efficiency, high expectations and embrace of institutional solutions. Coming of age amid the September 11 terror attacks and Great Recession, these individuals are characterized by their ability to navigate uncertainty. However, Millennials are also known for seeking out positive reinforcement.

Try This Psychological Safety Approach: Consider cultivating a psychologically safe environment for Millennials by putting their efficiency to work. Do you have a “find it and fix it” program for identifying and eliminating hazards? Ask yourself if a Millennial on your team might be the best person to take the lead. Once they’ve completed a project, think of fun and creative ways to celebrate a job well done.

Generation Z (1995 to present)

Overview: So little is known about Generation Z that it does not yet have a distinct name. What we do know is that these individuals have never lived in a world without the internet. They are adept at using digital communication tools and used to consuming tailored information. As with previous generations of young people, they are known for their optimism, but these young people are also considered unusually risk averse.

Try This Psychological Safety Approach: Members of Generation Z are trying to figure out the next steps of their careers. Try sitting down with them and explaining the different paths to advancement within your organization. Then, make space for them to try tasks outside their job descriptions that could help them along one or several of those paths. By making space for them to fail safely at some things, they are much more likely to succeed long term.


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