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Whistleblowing - creating a culture of psychological safety

Nick Thorpe


United Kingdom

Over recent months we have seen former employee campaign groups, both here in the UK and in the US, air their concerns about company culture on social media. They have made very many broad ranging allegations about toxic work cultures and discrimination, publicly naming and shaming their former employers.

In response, some organisations have encouraged their employees to use their internal whistleblowing processes to air their concerns rather than take to social media.   However, unless an employee feels psychologically safe to raise their concerns through an employer's internal whistleblowing channel, the likelihood is that they will remain silent or, worse still from a brand or reputational perspective, look to air their concerns some other way.
Psychological safety has become a bit of a buzz word.  But it is more than just a buzz word.  Creating a culture of psychological safety is an important tenet of an effective whistleblowing system.  In this Insight we explore how organisations can create a psychologically safe culture with Dr Mike Drayton, a consultant clinical psychologist, organisational consultant and executive coach.
Let's start with a question.
What would you do if you became aware that people representing your organisation were tampering with equipment, dodging tax or abusing children?
Would you speak up? 
Well, that would make you a whistleblower.
In 2011, Panorama (a BBC investigative documentary programme) exposed appalling cruelty, bullying, and mistreatment at Winterbourne View, a care home for people with learning disabilities. The programme led to staff members receiving custodial sentences and the care home being closed down. Well before the documentary, the senior nurse at Winterbourne View, Terry Bryan was so concerned about standards of care that he sent a four page email, raising his concerns to Jim Fazarally, the manager of the home. This was ignored, and Mr Brian eventually resigned, and then complained to the regulator, the Care Quality Commission. He received two automated emails and when he chased this up, he was told that the person dealing with it was on holiday. Frustrated by the failure of the authorities to take his complaint seriously, Mr Bryan turned to Panorama, and the rest is history.
Most whistleblowing cases are the culmination of a long sequence of events. Most whistleblowing cases can be prevented if the organisation takes a more proactive approach when people raise concerns. Rather than see such concerns as criticisms or hostility, the organisation could actually see them as useful data about where a business might be going wrong. To be able to do this, takes a shift in imagination and in culture towards developing an organisational culture characterised by psychological safety.
Amy Edmondson writes that a sense of psychological safety is the essential characteristic of a high-performance organisational culture. Conversely, a lack of psychological safety results in a toxic organisation. She describes a culture of psychological safety as one in which people feel they can speak up, express their concerns and be heard. In a psychologically safe workplace, people are not full of fear and are not trying to cover their tracks to avoid being embarrassed or punished.
This is a workplace where people can offer suggestions and take sensible risks without provoking retaliation. Psychological safety was conspicuously lacking at Winterbourne View, with tragic consequences. 
There are many practical steps leaders can take to foster psychological safety.
We advocate a positive and holistic approach to whistleblowing cases with an emphasis on prevention rather than reaction. Our approach is holistic and proactive in helping you develop a culture of psychological safety using our multi-professional team consisting of lawyers and psychologists. If you are interested in learning more, please do contact us.

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