Putting tension to work

May 4, 2000
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Human beings don't change unless there is tension. For some people, problems become so large that the tension (pain) becomes acute. This tends to provide the motivation to change. Organizations respond similarly to tension. So do our efforts to improve safety performance. Tension is the source of change. Some have trivialized this as 'no pain, no gain.' If tension is necessary for change, where is the source of tension for safety improvement in your organization?

In this article, I want to explore some of the ways tension can benefit your safety program.

Let's begin by defining tension. It is pain, discomfort, irritation. And it can be positive or negative in nature. Here are nine sources of creative tension in an organization that can lead to safety improvements:

Too much pride of ownership

In many organizations, the tension needed to improve safety is primarily caused by the health and safety department. These departments are seen as responsible and accountable for safety.

Does this sound familiar?

It can also be self-defeating. Peter Block, author of the book, "Stewardship," suggests "any time someone takes accountability away from the whole organization, they take away the ability for people in the organization to own that area." If a safety department is the primary advocate and owner of safety efforts in an organization, it can actually become the largest barrier to the goals it is trying to achieve.

This is why behavioral safety has become a powerful component of mature safety systems in many organizations. Done well, behavioral safety is a fully participative process owned by everyone in the organization. It is not a safety department forcing safety on the whole organization. People prefer 'belonging' to a team of peers much more than having to be obligated to the power of an organizational hierarchy. The highest level of accountability one can have in an organization is to a peer.

Here's how the system should work:

  • The safety professional's job should be to own the research and development of safety processes, be informed of regulations, and so on. It is not to own safety for the whole organization.

  • Line management is accountable for the entire organization taking ownership of safety.

  • The ownership of safety for the entire organization is everyone's responsibility. Companies with excellent safety records know this and develop processes accordingly.

Answer these questions

I encourage you (safety professionals) to have a dialogue with the management team you support to discuss tension as it relates to safety. What drives safety improvement and excellence in your organization?

First, using the list of nine sources of tension given above, identify what currently creates safety tension in your organization.

Second, using the same list, identify what should create safety tension in a well-managed organization.

Is there a gap between what's occurring in your organization and what should be happening? If so, what can be done about it?

Let the benefits flow

This dialogue may lead you to one of the most powerful and systemic improvements for safety you can make. Tension for safety should come from all of the sources we've discussed. But when the primary source for safety improvement is the deep beliefs of managers who care and act, employees ³ the core competency of the organization ³ are supported in working safely. An injury-free organization becomes a possibility.

Note the words 'care and act.' It's not enough to care.

Once managers understand and take ownership of the actions needed to achieve safety goals ³ rewards, reinforcement and consequences ³ employees will respond consistently. Behavior will follow.

Finally, when the entire organization is empowered so everyone demonstrates consistent behavior and interest for each other's safety, creative tension for an injury-free workplace is abundant.

Begin a conversation with your line management team about tension. Tension that causes real, sustainable safety improvements. Identify the most effective sources of tension for safety excellence in your organization. After all, consider the cost of not having these conversations.

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