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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: "Courage and culture"

December 1, 2007
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On January 16, 2007, Dr. Kevin Brothers, executive director of the Somerset Hills Learning Institute in Bedminster, N.J., was wheeled into St. Barnabas’ Renal Surgery Center, Livingston, N.J. He was in top physical and mental health, and had never before experienced surgery. He received a three-hour surgical procedure — not for himself but for someone else.

Dr. Brothers donated his kidney to his mentor and professional colleague — Dr. Patricia Krantz, executive director of the Princeton Child Development Institute, Princeton, N.J. Seven months earlier Dr. Brothers had learned Dr. Krantz was in severe kidney failure and without a transplant, would require dialysis within a few months.

Unbeknownst to Dr. Krantz, Dr. Brothers and several other colleagues agreed to donate one of their kidneys to Dr. Krantz. Among all of Dr. Krantz’s family, friends and colleagues who received extensive blood work and tissue sampling, there was only one viable match — Dr. Kevin Brothers.

Physical courage

My ISHN contribution last month distinguished between physical and moral courage, and gave two safety-related examples of moral courage. When we risk social embarrassment or interpersonal confrontation, we are showing moral courage. In contrast, when we risk physical harm to ourselves when looking out for another person’s health, safety or welfare, we demonstrate physical courage. Dr. Brothers’ elective surgery exemplifies physical courage.

Pictured from left to right: Debbie Brothers, Dr. Kevin Brothers, and Dr. Patricia Krantz

Group commitment

Although surprised he was the best match, Dr. Brothers affirmed strong motivation to honor his commitment, in other words, his strong moral courage. This combination of moral and physical courage, first the promise and then the action, is applicable to the workplace.

Suppose each member of a work team signed a group declaration to give each other corrective feedback whenever they saw an at-risk behavior. You could call this commitment a “Declaration of Interdependence.” This group obligation would likely increase people’s acceptance of behavior-based feedback, as well as increase the probability a worker would deliver a coaching communication.

Group support

Both before and after his surgery, Dr. Brothers received substantial social support for his actively-caring courage. “What an outpouring of support our family received from our school’s parents and staff,” said Dr. Brothers’ wife Debbie. The parents and staff of the Princeton Child Development Institute also sent thank-you cards to Dr. Brothers.

Substantial research documents the benefits of social support on recovery from physical illness and injury. Cultivating social support throughout a work culture is critical to increasing people’s actively caring for occupational safety and health.

Various interpersonal activities can enhance social support, including relationship-building conversations, group celebrations, team goal-setting, interpersonal coaching, and collaborative work projects.

A trusting culture

When Dr. Brothers pledged to give Dr. Krantz one of his kidneys, he trusted the promises of the other potential donors, and the expert medical staff at St. Barnabas Medical Center to give Dr. Krantz and him the very best healthcare.

How do you increase interpersonal trust in a work culture?
Consider asking employees what specific events, policies, or communications impact their trust levels. Then, solicit ideas for decreasing mistrust and enhancing trust. You’ll likely receive a number of practical action plans, and the process of soliciting input on interpersonal trust will have a positive trust-building effect.

Shared purpose

The group that pledged to donate a kidney for Dr. Krantz felt a common and commendable purpose. Likewise, advocates for occupational safety and health have a shared and worthwhile mission.

As my ISHN article last month illustrated, it takes more courage to actively care for a stranger than a colleague. Actually, attending to the safety and/or health of a family member is usually not considered courage but rather obligation. Plus, when members of a work team think of their coworkers as “family,” actively caring for the safety of these individuals becomes more an act of interpersonal commitment than courage. Safety Director Joanne Dean, for example, has written in ISHN on her construction company’s “band of brothers” that contributes so much to site safety.

To conclude

Moral courage is asked of us more often than the need for physical courage that puts us in harm’s way. If you saw a member of your immediate family get behind the wheel of a vehicle and neglect to buckle up, you would not hesitate to intervene. But what would you do if you got in a hotel shuttle van at the airport and noticed the driver and several passengers did not buckle up. Would you offer some behavioral feedback? In other words, would you have the moral courage to intervene on behalf of these at-risk strangers, and risk being seen as meddlesome or a safety nerd?

Here’s a thought: Consider your moral courage sets a memorable leadership example. You could start a constructive safety conversation and plant a safety seed for the occupants’ present and future safety-belt use. Imagine someone is moved by your actively caring today and later reminds another person to buckle up prior to a vehicle crash.

Do these possibilities activate some disconcerting tension — between what you think you would do in this and similar situations versus what you know you should do? The more you hold safety as a personal value, the greater the tension. Your relevant moral courage eliminates this kind of tension and exemplifies actively-caring leadership.

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