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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: "Know-it-alls" need not apply

April 25, 2007
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Some business managers are stuck in the past. They believe we are still in the Industrial Age of top-down control. They do not appreciate nor embrace a paradigm shift in the 21st Century, identified by Peter Drucker as the “Age of the Knowledge Worker.”

Consider the “Blue-Collar Band of Brothers,” described by Joanne Dean in her ISHN article in October 2006. This “band” of construction workers contributes more than manual labor. They bring unique skills and experiences to their jobs, and willingly offer thoughtful and relevant advice when asked. They are open to learning and applying new ways to making work routines more effective and/or more safe.

But will their knowledge be used to improve job safety?

Will they receive opportunities to learn and apply the human dynamics of injury prevention?

Leaders from both management and union sides of an organization determine whether people-based skills are learned and used to increase safe production. What kind of leader is open to receiving advice from hourly workers regarding ways to achieve more safe production? What does it take for employees to provide input for decisions relevant to the safety of their jobs? How can leaders encourage knowledge workers to hold their peers accountable for safe work practices and promote the development of self-accountability?

It doesn't have to be lonely at the top.

Leading the knowledge worker

In his latest book, “The 8th Habit: From effectiveness to greatness,” Stephen R. Covey provides a concise answer to these questions. Dr. Covey advises leaders to communicate the right vision and set high-priority goals, while constantly looking for the potential in people by “modeling the courage to determine a course and the humility and mutual respect to involve others in deciding what matters most” (p. 272).

For safety, the Covey paradigm implies doing more than holding people accountable for top-down safety rules. While OSHA rules define a general course of action for injury prevention, leaders need to empower workers to provide their own action plans and accountability systems. This is more than rule-following behavior. It’s an ongoing, interactive process of team members identifying hazards and potentialities for personal injury and then defining specific ways to avoid them. This is the safety responsibility of the knowledge worker. What kind of leader can make this happen?

The humble leader

The aforementioned Covey quote includes the leadership quality I believe is most critical for obtaining safety-relevant information from knowledge workers. Managers and safety professionals alike need to publicly acknowledge they don’t know enough to keep their employees safe. Indeed, workers on the job are in the best position to observe potential for injury and recommend practical prevention strategies.

The humble leader continually asks advice of followers with relevant experience. Realizing behavior-based feedback is essential for improvement, the humble leader also asks for feedback. When a worker answers “OK” to the question, “How am I doing?”, the humble leader then asks, “What can I do differently to be better?”

With a quick-fix answer of “nothing,” the humble leader probes for more candor. “Come on, no one is perfect, tell me one thing I could do more or less often to promote safety.”

Some might be reluctant to reveal an observed weakness in a leader. Why? Because they fear negative consequences. They have insufficient trust.

The trustworthy leader

Dr. Covey reminds us that “trust” is both a noun and a verb. In other words, you can have confidence in the integrity, truth, ability, intentions, and character of a person. But you also trust when you rely or depend on people to meet your expectations. Sometimes entrusting a person to go beyond the call of duty for safety motivates relevant action. Dr. Covey puts it this way: “Trust becomes a verb when you communicate to others their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves” (p. 181).

I have discussed trust in previous ISHN articles. In March 1998 I explained the distinction between trusting a person’s intentions versus abilities, and shared a 12-item survey to measure these differences in a work culture. In my following ISHN column (April 1998), I entertained strategies for increasing trust in a work culture. These trust-building interventions were organized around the seven C-words listed and defined in the sidebar below: consistency, communication, caring, candor, commitment, consensus and character.

These C-words and their dictionary definitions activate a variety of practical ways to augment the extent people trust the intentions and/or abilities of others. I recommend using these “7 core components of trust” to stimulate trust-building discussions in group meetings. Ask participants to define specific behaviors that reflect each of the trust words. You might also ask the group to describe occasions when a particular trust word was lacking, and then to suggest improvement strategies.

To conclude

These leadership recommendations are certainly appropriate for improvement domains beyond safety and for settings beyond the workplace. Bottom line: Continuous improvement depends on continuous input from people with relevant information, and leaders who are humble and trusting receive such information.

SIDEBAR: 7 core components of trust

1 — Communicate — exchange of information or opinion by speech, writing or signals

2 — Caring — showing concern or interest about what happens

3 — Candor — straightforwardness and frankness of expression, freedom from prejudice

4 — Consistency — agreement among successive acts, ideas or events

5 — Commitment — being bound emotionally or intellectually to a course of action

6 — Consensus — agreement in opinion, testimony or belief

7 — Character — the combined moral or ethical structure of a person or group; integrity; fortitude

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