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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Worldly coaching lessons

November 1, 2003
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Let’s consider five behavior-based guidelines for optimizing interpersonal coaching to benefit not only safety, but customer service, product quality, or productivity. These guidelines, and the five provided last month (Oct. issue), were developed from a decade of studying more than 100 actual workplace applications.

1) Stick to the facts

At first, peer-to-peer observation and feedback can feel awkward. From the start it’s critical to emphasize that the observer (unlike a typical athletic coach) is not responsible for correcting behavior. The observer merely completes a critical behavior checklist (CBC) and shows the observee the results.

The two workers might discuss environmental or system factors that discourage safe behavior and encourage risk taking. They might consider ways to remove barriers to safe behavior. The coach might give positive words to recognize certain safe behaviors, but no direct disapproval of any at-risk behavior is offered.

This is nondirective coaching. There is no peer pressure. Only self-accountability matters here. Any change in behavior is self-directed, provoked by the results of an anticipated application of a CBC.

2) Place trust above accuracy

"Anticipated" means the recipient of an observation and feedback session knows it’s coming and can prepare for a good showing. Observations are not random and the results are not really representative of a worker’s daily routine. CBC data are biased toward the positive.

If this leads to overly positive results, why announce observations in advance?

Well, imagine workers sneaking around and completing CBCs on the sly. You then have a "gotcha" program that undermines trust, involvement, and ownership. The lower "percent safe" scores might be more accurate, but at the expense of the cooperation needed to achieve an injury-free workplace.

Even when they know they are being observed, workers still take certain risks. The observation process holds people accountable to perform their jobs as safely as they know how. When they learn ways to be safer under these circumstances, workers truly add new behavioral patterns to their knowledge base.

Still, organizations most successful at BBS coaching progress from announced to unannounced observations. This shift should occur only when workers realize the process is truly for their own benefit.

3) Avoid paralysis by analysis

The benefits of BBS coaching extend far beyond analyzing CBCs. In fact, it’s likely most records of behavioral observations are biased and unreliable. They are typically obtained under unnatural conditions. Observations are often announced beforehand, and there is a tendency to overlook at-risk behavior, especially when feedback follows an observation.

Observation and feedback sessions provide useful data to compare across the same work group and between different work teams. But don’t take the absolute values of these numbers too seriously. Above all, the process is more powerful than the outcome.

One-to-one coaching demonstrates peer support, develops interpersonal trust, and helps to cultivate the kind of learning-oriented organization that brings out the best in people. The process teaches workers they can be "unconsciously incompetent" and that they need feedback from others to improve. This leads to interdependency — people contributing diverse talents and relying on each other to make the whole workplace greater than the sum of its parts.

4) Refine your process

With experience, BBS coaches become more adept at noticing the subtle features of safe versus at-risk work practices, beyond the obvious use of personal protective equipment. This enhanced coaching expertise needs to be reflected in your revised CBCs.

Continually assess the behavioral and attitudinal impact of your BBS coaching procedures. Evaluating people’s opinions and attitudes about a BBS coaching process requires conversations with both participants and non-participants. These should occur in both group and individual one-to-one sessions.

5) Focus on human dynamics

This article focuses on behavior-based coaching, but keep in mind BBS principles can be applied to many other domains of occupational safety, including ergonomics, training, recognition and celebration, hazard identification, and corrective action, to name a few. In each of these cases, BBS reflects a particular approach toward handling the human dynamics of the effort. Observation and feedback are components of an interpersonal coaching process that applies certain research-supported tools derived from BBS.

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