Bye-bye to rah-rah?

September 1, 2005
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Ever hear of Larry Winget? A self-described pit bull in cowboy boots, he delivered one of the prime time speeches at the 2003 conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers in Denver, berating safety pros to shut up, stop whining and get a life. Little wonder Winget calls himself “an irrational speaker.”

“I’ll leave the motivation up to the other guys,” Winget said in a UPI interview earlier this year.

Join the crowd, Larry. ISHN surveyed more than a dozen professional safety speakers, and only three described themselves as a motivational speaker.

“I’m a professional. I provide the stories and principles that allow the light bulb to go off,” explains David Sarkus.

“I don’t pretend that my presentations are motivation,” concedes Terry Mathis.

“I dislike being referred to as a ‘motivational speaker’,” says Dr. E. Scott Geller.

Don’t manipulate me

Old school safety was known for folksy humorists and smiling story-tellers like Art Fettig, a folksy Andy Griffith look-alike who’d bring employees out of their seats to sign his “Declaration of Interdependence” proclamation. Most safety speakers in 2005 dismiss that kind of drama. What’s wrong with a little rah-rah?

Political correctness, for one thing. Management consultants talk up knowledge workers and empowerment. Employees are to be nurtured for their creative talent, said the Gallup Organization’s Curt Coffman at this year’s ASSE meeting. They are educated, discerning, and not the types to be manipulated with magic tricks.

Motivation is an inside job, according to best-selling management authors. “Employees are motivated already,” said David Sirota, co-author of The Enthusiastic Employee, in a newspaper interview. “Most people come to work wanting to work.”

In his best-seller, Good to Great, Jim Collins puts it this way: “Expending energy trying to motivate people is largely a waste of time.” Better to find “seats on your bus” for the right people, who come aboard self-motivated and ready to go, he argues.

The move away from pushing and prodding people into better behaviors and attitudes also parallels a trend in safety: Let’s stop blaming workers and talk about how they are managed. Safety consultant Joel Tietjens typifies this line of thought: “Some managers continue to completely blame the workforce for poor safety and health performance, instead of analyzing the system and culture that they created.”

“We should quit ‘motivating’ ourselves and just concentrate on basics like accountability,” says veteran safety author and consultant Dr. Dan Petersen. “Safety is nothing but pure management.”

There’s another factor to consider: safety and health professionals are more conscious these days about their image. Those old-time motivational methods — heavy on humor and entertainment — scare some pros who’ve worked hard to earn credibility. “How many entertainers, tricksters or humorists does accounting call in when it has performance problems?” asks safety director Marv Broman. “Are entertainers hired to counsel plant managers? Only in safety, and perhaps sales, do we default to such sophomoric techniques to address serious systems safety problems.”

True believers

Don’t tell popular, well-paid speakers like Charlie Morecraft, Billy Robbins, and John Drebinger they trade in “sophomoric techniques.” Or Art Fettig, still going strong after 3,000 speeches with a “spellbinding message” that will “make audiences laugh and cry,” according to his Web postings.

“It’s never been about humor, fun or entertainment for entertainment’s sake,” says Drebinger, a master magician who gives about 75 safety presentations annually. “Stories, humor and other devices carry your content, teach your content, and keep your audience interested.”

Robbins, who lost both hands in a workplace accident, completely disagrees with the likes of Collins. “In a perfect world, Mr. Collins’ ideas of self-motivated self-starters would be great,” says Robbins, who gives 150 to 160 talks a year, at fees up to $9,500. But in the real world, he argues aging workers know every shortcut in the book, and old habits die hard inside embalmed seniority systems.

“Charlie is a motivational speaker,” asserts one of Morecraft’s assistants at his company, Phoenix Safety Management. “This is not a ‘bad’ word.”

It’s certainly been a good career for Morecraft, who was burned nearly to death in a workplace incident in 1980. He gives about 250 presentations a year at fees in the $10,000 range, according to the American Speakers Association. “We received an email yesterday from a participant at a session Charlie did,” says his assistant. “The gentleman said: ‘I wore my seatbelt home today. I’ve never had it on before!’ Charlie motivated this man.”

Staying power?

But will that gentleman buckle tomorrow, or a month after hearing Morecraft’s wrenching story? The knock on personal testimonies that bring on the tears is that their emotional punch has no staying power.

Safety pro James Roughton likens such stories to car wrecks. If you come upon a serious car wreck and find someone lying on the road injured, you’re probably going to feel very bad, he reasons. But for how long? “I submit that as soon as traffic starts to move at the normal speed, you’ll be back up to your normal speed, probably driving faster than the speed limit,” he says.

“Very few (motivational speakers) have the ability to really lay something new or lasting on the table,” says Jim Spigener, vice president for Behavioral Science Technology. But Spigener makes an exception for Morecraft. “Charlie Morecraft has the ability to imprint an experience on folks in a way that touches them,” he allows.

But to make that imprint anywhere near permanent, you need follow-up strategies for behavior and culture change, argues Geller. As stand-alone safety tools, motivational talks are a temporary “quick fix” and a “waste of time,” he says.

“Entertain me”

Geller, like many of today’s safety lecturers, prides himself on taking audiences deeper into psychological and organizational principles and research. A psychology professor at Virginia Tech, Geller averages about 36 speeches per year, at fees up to $10,000 a day. Still, he says he’s disappointed that “so many companies will pay significant money to have a motivational speaker rather than a teacher.”

Larry Winget could have told him that. “I found out people will pay you a whole lot more to make people laugh than to make people smart,” he told a reporter. “And I went with that.”

So have hundreds of other speakers. One speakers’ bureau alone, the National Speakers Association, lists 851 motivational speakers for all types of audiences.

Their appeal? Geller explains: “Who has time to learn improvement strategies that require follow-up exercises? People would rather be entertained during a welcomed break in a busy and overwhelming day.”

So is it really bye-bye to rah-rah in safety? Not with the likes of Drebinger, Morecraft and others giving hundreds of talks a year. And with the Gallup Organization reporting up to 70 percent of the workforce is “disengaged” from their jobs — the market for motivators won’t dry up anytime soon, despite the doubts and concerns of more than a few safety and health professionals.

SIDEBAR 1: Selecting your speaker 15 tips from safety pros

OK, you’re ready to roll out a new initiative. Or you’re ready to get going on new goals and objectives. You want to pump up PPE compliance. Improve safety meeting attendance. Inspire the troops to take ownership for safety. Maybe you want to get motors revving about mindfulness. Or urge volunteers to be safety ambassadors. Prod more positive actions for safety — audits, suggestions, hazard identifications, near-hit reports.

You need participation. And you’re ready to go outside to find someone who can speak to the subject and generate momentum for you. Do you want rah-rah, research, or a raconteur?

It depends on a number of factors. Your personality, for one, and who you’re comfortable bringing in. Your objectives and who can speak to them with authority. Your budget, of course. The demographics of your workforce — are they scientists, engineers or dock workers?

To help you get the most from an outside speaker without damaging your image (or job security), insulting your workforce, or wasting precious time, here are 15 suggestions from safety pros we surveyed:

1 — Probably the most common use of an outside speaker is to tap their emotion or expertise to gain traction for a new initiative. But map out your initiative first, then plan for the speaker’s role. Your outside expert is part of the package, not the whole show.

2 — Check the level of the safety culture in your facility — is it head-in-the-sand or world class? — before deciding what type of speaker, what type of motivation, is appropriate. How “mature” is your workforce when it comes to safety issues?

3 — Debrief your speaker before raising the curtain. Make sure his or her talk lines up with current management strategies and values.

4 — Or, conversely, your objective might call for recruiting someone to create dissonance or stir deeper questions and thinking about safety issues. Outsiders make for good lightning rods. Larry Winget gets paid to be irritating, why should you take the heat?

5 — Check out the speaker’s level of lip service. There’s no value in simply exhorting people to be more careful, argue some pros. Explains longtime safety pro Gary Higbee: “My wife would always tell my youngest daughter as she headed back to college (a ten-hour drive) to be careful and drive safe. Do we really believe she was planning on driving unsafe? Would telling her to drive safe make a change? This type of motivation is worthless.”

6 — Another objective might be to use speakers to plant seeds – techniques, ideas or suggestions – that live on after the speaker has moved on. But your speaker needs to know what seeding work you want done.

7 — If you want a speaker to be visionary and open eyes to ambitions like world class safety or Geller’s “Total Safety Culture,” make sure your organization is ready to go for it. Don’t bring in speakers to raise expectations that can’t be met.

8 — Be careful about outsiders who set goals for your employees or your organization. You’re the one setting goals, or your management team. Remember too, as Larry Winget says, “It’s what you do on a daily basis to make your life come about (or be safe).”

9 — Don’t hide from humor. Sure, safety’s image has suffered from cartoons making employees out to be buffoon cousins of the Three Stooges. But jokes and funny stories have loosened up audiences since the first Cajun story teller took to the stage. Check out a speaker’s jokes and delivery in advance to make sure it’s right for your audience.

10 — After your speaker is finished, you might want them to coach your in-house safety presenters on improving their platform skills.

11 — Prep your speaker in advance if you want her to confirm the message you’ve been trying to get across. Does she have facts, research, statistics and experience that can back you up?

12 — Preview your speaker’s message — on their Web site, in articles they have written, interviews they’ve given. Talk to past clients. In the Internet Age there’s no excuse for not finding the speaker you need.

13 — Ask yourself: What kind of connection do you want a speaker to make to your audience — intellectual, emotional, creative, or psychological? What do your objectives call for? What does your culture need? Your answers will narrow your choices.

14 — If you want it all from a speaker — content, humor, entertainment, take-away value, engagement, practical, realistic solutions — where do you compromise? What are your priorities?

15 — You have self-starters in your workforce. You also have weak links. What’s more important: To reinforce your self-starters or give your resistors reasons to step it up? Can the same speaker connect to both audiences in the same speech?

Whatever type of speaker you hire, don’t give your audience a free pass. Prep them before the presentation. Tell them they’re in for a learning experience, not a standup act. Afterward, review the speaker’s message and main points. Discuss how can they be adapted to your situation or challenges.

And don’t let your management team off easy, either. They need to know that the money you’ve budgeted for outside speakers is only part of a bigger investment needed to deliver better safety performance. W. Edwards Deming said it years ago: Engage individuals in their work in a way that promotes self-esteem and pride in their jobs. Remember that your organization’s systems (how you select, recognize, correct, train and supervise employees) will determine performance — not the individual’s degree of motivation.

SIDEBAR 2: Who’s out there?

Hop on the Internet to research speakers mentioned in this article, as well as other speakers with safety themes. But beware, retired or moonlighting EHS vets and others get into the speaking game all the time, and this is by no means a complete list.

  • Noble Boyd — www.noshee.net
  • John Drebinger — www.drebinger.com
  • Don Eckenfelder — www.culturethesos.com
  • Art Fettig — www.artfettig.com
  • Scott Geller — www.safetyperformance.com
  • Rodney Grieve — www.greatkeynotespeakers.com
  • Larry Hansen — www.l2hsos.com
  • Richard Hawk — www.richardhawkandcompany.com
  • Ron Hayes — The F.I.G.H.T Project (251) 990-8644
  • Tom Herod (“Toxic Tom”) — www.tomtoxic.com
  • Paul Kells — www.safecommunities.ca
  • Terry Mathis — www.proactsafety.com
  • Michael Melnick — www.preventionplusinc.com
  • Charlie Morecraft, Billy Robbins, Kevin Bailey — www.charliemorecraft.com
  • Robert Pater — www.movesmart.com
  • Dr. Isabel Perry (“The Safety Doctor”) — www.thesafetydoctor.com
  • Dan Petersen — (480) 705-9746
  • David Sarkus — www.davidsarkus.com
  • Joel Tietjens — www.tjens.com
  • Bruce Wilkinson — www.wilkinsonspeaker.com
  • Michael Topf — www.topforg.com
  • Larry Winget — www.larrywinget.com
  • American Speakers Association — www.americanspeakers.com
  • American Speakers Bureau — www.speakersbureau.com
  • National Speakers Association — www.nsaspeaker.org


SIDEBAR 3: You make the call

Are people naturally motivated, or in need of prodding and persuasion? Your answer will help decide what kind of outside speaker you want, if you want to go that route at all.

“Most employees in my area aren’t looking for a friend at work, they’re looking for a reason not to do the work right the first time, and definitely not to do it safely.” — Louisiana safety manager

“You cannot motivate people, you can only create an environment where motivated people can succeed.” — Rodney Grieve

“Most people do just enough so they won’t get fired, and most companies pay people just enough so they won’t quit.” — Larry Winget

“The only one who can motivate you is you. You either want to or you don’t.” — Joel Tietjens

“In a perfect world the idea of self-motivated self-starters would be great. There are just not a lot of them hanging around in the trades and plants.” — Billy Robbins

“It’s wrong to believe people cannot be encouraged or motivated. But this cannot be done with a motivational speech.” — Dr. E. Scott Geller

“It’s great to have self-starters, self-motivated people on one’s team. But people don’t necessarily come that way. A motivational leader will inspire that greatness in others.” — spokesperson for Charlie Morecraft

“You have to give people a reason why they should act in their own interest and work safely.” — John Drebinger

“People are motivated when they have a reason to use their motivation.” — Safety Director Marv Broman

“Employees are motivated already. The real question is how you keep management from screwing that up.” — David Sirota

“Expending energy trying to motivate people is largely a waste of time. The right people for your bus are self-motivated self-starters.” — Jim Collins

“One is born with a natural inclination to learn and to be innovative... Management that denies to their employees dignity and self-esteem will smother intrinsic motivation. Under extrinsic motivation… joy in work, and innovation, become secondary to a good rating. Under extrinsic motivation, one is ruled by external forces. He tries to protect what he has. He tries to avoid punishment.” — W. Edwards Deming

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