In the world of construction safety, silence can be ​fatal. Silence about negligent job site safety practices can tacitly imply that the practice is safe​ when in reality it could cause bodily harm or property damage. Understanding the psychological underpinnings of the decision to stay silent or speak up can mean the difference between a close call and a tragic ending. 

In my previous post​, I recounted a story of a construction crew trapped in a vicious loop of silence. The tale ​highlighted​ the profound impact of not speaking up within a small group. Today, we delve deeper into the significance of voicing concerns in an organizational setting, uncovering the value it holds for construction safety managers and their teams.

The Unanimous View and Vulnerability

Renowned author Cass Sunstein argues that people are highly susceptible to the unanimous views of others. When​ there aren’t ​diverse perspectives ​being​ shared within a crew, silence becomes a tacit endorsement of a particular practice​ — say, a foreman who decides to skip a step in ladder safety to save time.​ The unanimous view formed by this silence implies that nothing is wrong with the action taken by an individual, further reinforcing their​ (unfounded)​ belief in its safety.​ ​

Safe Perspectives Strengthened

As witnessed in today’s politically polarized climate, individuals tend to strengthen their beliefs when surrounded by like-minded crew members. This phenomenon extends beyond politics and applies to all types of beliefs – even those about job site safety. Crew members who perceive a practice to be safe find solidarity​ in the silence that validates their viewpoint, reinforcing their ​perspective. What’s more, if they have strong bonds or respect for fellow crew members who share these beliefs, it only amplifies their view. Unfortunately, this confirmation bias increases the likelihood of repeated mistakes in the future.

Questioning Unsafe Beliefs

Group psychologists have observed that when enough people ​speak up about behavior being​ unsafe, individuals​ who might disagree​ are more inclined to question their own judgments and beliefs. On the other hand, ​for crew members who perceive a practice to be unsafe, ​any silence from others ​implies they ​might be​ the sole dissenter, and might even cast ​​​doubt on their own judgment. Solomon Asch’s famous experiments exemplify how unanimous silence can lead individuals to question their own beliefs.
Also compounding this is a factor known as reputational influence,​ in​ ​which ​individuals conform ​their​ beliefs ​to that of a group or a leader​ they​ admire solely ​to ​be in the good graces of the group. ​This could lead individuals to overly trust the opinions ​of others and ​believe​ that their ​own perspectives are wrong. 

The Opinionless and Nudging Perspectives

Some crew members may not have a firm opinion on a particular practice, making them susceptible to sway in either direction. The absence of a clear consensus due to silence nudges them toward perceiving the practice as not unsafe. With safe practices rarely discussed, silence influences ​this tendency, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Oblivious Majority

In many situations, a significant portion of the crew remains oblivious to an incident and fails to form an opinion. However, if someone were to speak up, it would draw their attention and prompt them to fall into one of the aforementioned categories. Unfortunately, the silence preserves their ignorance and leaves their opinions unchanged.

It is essential to consider not only the immediate impact of silence but also its long-term consequences on behavior. Silence perpetuates an unsafe environment, as crew members walk away believing that what they witnessed was a safe practice. Failure to speak up not only affects their perception of that specific practice but also discourages them from voicing concerns about other potential risks. By breaking the silence, individuals can foster a culture of risk aversion and empower others to speak up.

The benefits of voicing concerns far outweigh the perceived risks of not sharing them. This example emphasizes the importance of speaking up for construction safety. Even in the presence of dissenting opinions, the act of vocalizing concerns brings immeasurable value. By embracing the power of voice, construction safety managers can create a safer work environment, and cultivate a culture of communication and safety in solidarity.