PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Want to engage employees?

February 27, 2002
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Last month I offered ten practical strategies for getting more involvement in safety-related activities. Here I review ten more strategies for fueling participation. These go beyond behaviors and involve internal thinking, beliefs, or feeling states. We begin with three guidelines derived from social learning theory: self-efficacy, response-efficacy, and outcome-expectancy. They are critical for overcoming resistance to change and encouraging active involvement.

Elevate self-efficacy

Self-efficacy reflects a "can do" attitude. It refers to a person's perception that he or she can organize and execute the procedures necessary to reach a certain goal. This is the "attainable" component of SMART goals - the "A" in the acronymn. To assess whether self-efficacy is sufficient, ask the question, "Do you believe you can do this?" If the answer is "no," then ask, "What would it take to convince you that you can attain the goal?"

Enhance response-efficacy

Response-efficacy refers to one's belief that a certain technique or strategy will actually produce the desired outcome. It's not enough to know what to do and have the confidence to do it. You must believe the effort will pay off. This is the "relevant" feature of SMART goals - the "R." You've got to believe that reaching the goal (conducting a certain number of behavioral audits, etc.) will be instrumental in reducing injuries.

Sell outcome-expectancy

Outcome-expectancy means you believe the effect of participating, of completing a safety activity or reaching a certain goal, will produce worthwhile consequences. This is the "motivational" component of SMART goals - the "M."

And this is where you can often run into resistance. You can build that "can do" attitude and sell the soundness of your strategy to reduce injuries, but employees still might not participate. Why? Perhaps the consequence - reducing injuries beyond an already low rate - doesn't seem important enough to justify the extra time and inconvenience.

So what do you do? Often safety professionals use group statistics like total recordable injury rate (TRIR) or workers' compensation costs to motivate more participation. But these numbers are too abstract, too remote. The consequence workers can relate to is an individual one - a personal report of an injured employee they know.

Encourage testimonies

Listeners can relate to an individual's story and put themselves in the same situation. A personal account of an injury that could have been prevented by a certain safety procedure is a powerful motivator. So is an anecdote about someone who avoided an injury by using a particular technique or procedure.

Your challenge is to get individuals to open up and speak frankly about their close calls and actual injuries. They need to own up to things they could have done to prevent an incident.

Build ownership & trust

You're not going to get this with a "command and control" mindset that puts OSHA regulations at the center of a safety process. Employees will open up when they feel part of the process, and trust those in charge of that process. The next two strategies help build ownership and trust to fuel the participation factor.

Put principles before procedures

When people are educated about the principles and rationale behind a process, they can customize specific procedures for their own work areas. Then the relevance of the training process is obvious, and participation is enhanced. Remember, people are more likely to accept and follow procedures they helped to develop. Safe operating procedures become "the best way to do it" rather than "a policy we must obey."

Customize your process

Don't build your safety efforts around off-the-shelf programs. People want to be trained on their implementation procedures.

When you're guiding the customizing of a safety process, don't give mandates or directions. Instead, display a mix of both confidence and uncertainty. Effective leaders are confident a set of procedures will be developed - but don't know the best way to do it. This gives employees room to be mindful, innovative, and self-motivated, which increases ownership and trust, and in turn leads to more involvement.

Cultivate self-persuasion & self-accountability

Choice, ownership, and trust contribute to self-accountability - a necessity for maintaining an injury-free workplace. When people work alone, they need to hold themselves accountable to follow safe operating procedures. This often requires a significant amount of self-persuasion or self-discipline.

Severe threats and large incentives are often not the best motivators. Research has shown that the more external justification a person feels for a certain activity, the less internal justification or self-accountability the individual develops. The principles discussed here for fueling the participation factor are especially powerful because they help to develop self-persuasion and self-accountability.

Use the hypocrisy effect

Instead of threats and large incentives, try this technique: First, obtain a public commitment that participants will perform a designated safe behavior(s). Then ask for a list of personal at-risk actions that are inconsistent with this safe behavior. You're stirring up tension between words (the commitment) and deeds (prior behavior), which in turn increases self-persuasion and self-accountability to live up to the initial commitment.

By getting participants to experience hypocrisy (or feelings of inconsistency), they are more likely to perform the safe behavior when working alone in order to reduce that tension. The need to be consistent in word and deed can have broad impact, as reflected in the final guideline I'll give you here for fueling participation.

Promote systems thinking

When you choose to change a behavior, you adjust your attitudes and beliefs to be consistent with your actions. This change in attitude can influence more behavior change - a spiraling, reciprocal interdependency between outward actions and inward feelings. This is how small changes in behavior and attitude can eventually lead to personal commitment and total involvement.

Systems thinking and the scholarship of continuous improvement gurus such as Stephen Covey and Edwards Deming are consistent with this concept, and can be used to increase the quantity and improve the quality of people's involvement in all aspects of occupational safety. Such thinking helps people realize their importance in solving problems without fear of being blamed as a "root cause." It advances understanding of factors outside and inside people that influence participation, and provides direction for self-persuasion and self-accountability.

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