OHS Canada Magazine

Fostering civility and respect: How leaders can combat fear in the workplace

April 17, 2023
By Sandra Miller/WSPS
Health & Safety Human Resources Fear leadership Psychological Safety WSPS

Photo: terovesalainen/Adobe Stock

Yesleaders can foster civility and respect, and we can root out fear

There are many reasons people choose not to speak up when they have ideas, questions and concerns at work, and most start with the word ‘fear’…

  • Fear of reprisal
  • Fear that nothing will happen if they do raise their concern
  • Fear that they will be seen as difficult
  • Fear that others will think they are weak…and the list goes on

Fear in the workplace is toxic. It seeps into every nook and cranny of an organization, compromising safety, security, and well-being, stifling creativity and collaboration, and eroding organizational performance and success.

Most employees arrive at work with the desire to be impactful and productive, and most leaders want the same. It begins by being mindful of how we behave with one another — in typical day-to-day interactions and difficult moments.

Leaders must proactively seek input, feedback

In her book The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”


To create this environment, she says leaders must proactively seek input and feedback by asking questions like, what’s on your mind? What are you seeing? What concerns or questions do you have? We must make it more difficult to stay silent than it is to speak up. And most importantly, she stresses that we must not “shoot the messenger.” When people raise concerns or bring bad news forward, we must “take a deep breath and respond in a forward-looking manner that is appreciative.”

I agree. Asking questions and seeking feedback helps people feel connected and valued. I also believe we must be open to and build upon unexpected answers. When we do this, we break down barriers and nurture innovation and improvement.

As leaders, we engage with so many people on any given day. It’s easy to run out of steam and to check out in conversations. We need to catch ourselves when this happens. We must listen actively and authentically and avoid becoming defensive or waiting for the other person to finish so we can override or question what was said.

In a previous leadership roundtable, one CEO shared that to avoid this; he takes time to recharge so he is prepared and can bring his full attention and energy to each interaction.

I’ve firmly believed in applying the principles of improv in my work for many years. “Yes, and…” are two simple words that can transform conversations, team dynamics, and business outcomes and, I believe, foster psychological safety and respect.

Plenty of tools, resources

There are also many tools and resources to help assess and enhance workplace cultures, such as the CSA Z10003 Psychological Health and Safety Standard, the soon-to-be-released ISO 45003 — the first-ever global standard for psychological health and safety at work, the Mental Harm Prevention Roadmap, and, in April, WSPS will release Psychological Safety in Action: a practical guide for leaders and managers.

I recommend the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s 13 Factors of Psychological Safety in the Workplace as a tool for guiding critical conversations and addressing the behaviours, policies, and procedures that may be feeding fear in your workplace.

Civility and respect critical

Civility and Respect is one of the 13 Factors. It is so important to get this right. When people feel heard, valued and included and have a shared sense of purpose, they are more willing to engage in problem-solving, continuous improvement, creativity, innovation and collaboration. They are also more apt to look out for one another and protect themselves and others from mental and physical harm.

CCOHS’ Civility and Respect infographic, provides some great tips for getting started, including:

  • defining respect and civility
  • documenting a code of conduct
  • training people on listening
  • giving feedback
  • conflict resolution
  • and recognizing and addressing uncivil behaviour

It also highlights some pretty straightforward actions, such as saying hello, using respectful language, and giving our full attention to people.

I feel the same weight that many leaders have expressed about navigating our changing world of work and supporting employees in ways we never imagined. Sometimes, it feels like we’re not moving forward, but we are. We are moving the needle when it comes to rooting out fear and finding our way forward.

With so much societal unrest and so many things to fear outside of work, it seems incumbent on us to create environments where people feel valued, included and safe to speak up when they have something to say.

Sandra Miller is the vice-president of strategy and governance at Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS). For more information, visit https://www.wsps.ca/


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