Photo by Hal Gatewood
Yep, I said it. I guess it isn't really that provocative of a statement that safety is as much psychology as anything. But it's amazing how many safety directors, business owners, project managers, and whomever else you can think of don't make that connection. I always tell my clients safety is a PEOPLE BUSINESS before it's anything else.
So much great work has been accomplished in the last 20 years in the field of safety management. From theories of motivation to intense studies of cause and effect, acts, and conditions, academia has given safety practitioners a lot to think about.
What hasn't been as well communicated to business owners and organizations of all sizes and scopes are the varying motivational theories that might help them be more efficient. And while there are many theories to consider, the core of the concept is to match the understanding of an individual's motivation to achieving the desired outcome of the organization. I believe the safety management paradigm has failed to fully elucidate this in a way that is actionable for business owners and management to put into action to achieve their risk management goals.
Too many times, organizations will start with a plan to 'be safer'. Then come the meetings and then perhaps outside safety consultants (full disclosure: I've been one of them), new policies, procedures, and training...yet not a lot changes. And what does change is akin to the proverbial pulling of teeth.
Well, probably more than this post can cover, but one of the core root causes of failing to easily achieve the desired goal is not understanding employee motivation or, to a larger extent, employee psychology.
Management of all types can get so caught up in the amazing-ness of their organization that they forget the reason many folks come to work, and that's because they have to! Of course, not always is that the case but I think it's fair to say that, more often than not, it is.
These employees have bills to pay, children to support, spouses to hopefully get along with, speeding tickets, financial woes, substance abuse issues, political agendas, and the list goes on. To be sure, they have good things happening, too, but the challenging times are the ones that can distract the most.
When we think about these things and then consider that we are asking these employees to perhaps completely change their way of working, then it's no wonder that safety initiatives often fail. We have to remember the person!
What to do? It can be complicated. And anyone that says it can turnaround quickly is probably wrong on some level, though it's not impossible. Typically, though, culture change takes 1-5 years in an organization in my experience.
To make this timeframe skew to the shorter end of that timeframe, organizations must do AT LEAST the following:
1. Involve employees from the lowest level to the highest. Get their input and actually use it if it's applicable (if you don't, they'll know you didn't mean it). State the goals and then ask them how it can be done and agree on it. These goals are what progress will be measured against.
2. Train to what you expect and don't leave out management.
3. Get executive management buy-in. And they, too, have to mean it. If executive management doesn't walk the walk and talk the talk, then it's a large waste of time and money.
4. Inspect, follow-up, praise, and talk to employees on a human level. If something is wrong unless it's an imminent threat, talk to the person first and then address the hazard. You'd be amazed at how much better this can make a tough conversation.
5. Assign someone to fix any issues identified and ensure that they are indeed corrected. A surefire morale buster? Get employees involved and identifying issues and then they don't get corrected.
6. Solicit employee input again. What's working? What's not working? What ideas do they have?
7. Now that you have done the above, if you haven't already, consider a safety committee (be careful, though, these can absolutely NOT work if deployed incorrectly) or some other type of employee involvement at a higher level. Let them write the policies with management input and ultimate approval.
And keep going! Remember, person first and rules and regs second as much as possible. Employees need to know they are respected. Otherwise, you are going to be managing from a position of compliance rather than self-motivation, and that's a tough road.