PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Actively caring for equity

What is the number-one reason couples seek professional help?

No, it’s not “sexual problems;” such difficulties are actually far down the list. The number-one reason given for why couples seek therapy is inequity, or perceived unfairness in their division of labor. Each thinks the other is not doing his or her fair share of the work.

Do I have your attention?

This article does not delve into the intricacies of building equitable relationships, but it shows you how people’s perceptions of equity can influence their contributions to safety. First, let’s review the essence of equity theory.

Equity theory

Equity theory proposes that employees seek to maintain a fair balance between their contributions to a job and the benefits they receive, in comparison to their coworkers. When individuals perceive themselves as either undercompensated or overcompensated relative to others, they experience distress and adjust their behavior and/or perceptions to restore balance or perceived fairness. They do this five ways:

1) When workers feel underrewarded, they decrease their input, and loaf on the job or leave work early.

2) When individuals feel overrewarded for their efforts, they can increase their inputs.

3) Sometimes employees who feel unfairly treated resort to legal action or illegal activities, such as stealing company assets.

4) Individuals make themselves feel better by distorting reality and rationalizing an inequity that favors them – “Everyone else does it, so why not I?”

5) The person can quit and look for a more equitable work situation.

Everyone calculates an internal scale of justice.

Equity perceptions and industrial safety

Do you see connections between these equity notions and occupational safety?

Actively caring for safety requires people to go beyond the call of duty, which includes removing environmental hazards and reporting close calls, as well as correcting the at-risk behaviors of their coworkers. I think it’s reasonable to expect belowaverage actively caring from employees who feel underrewarded relative to their coworkers.

On the other hand, workers who feel overcompensated relative to coworkers are viable and valuable targets for safety leadership. These individuals feel distress or guilt because they perceive their input/output ratio to be lower than others in workplace situations similar to theirs, and thus they are ready and willing to increase their inputs. Opportunities to actively care for safety are just what these overrewarded individuals need.

Manipulating perceived equity

In this day and age, it’s difficult to find many coworkers who would classify themselves as overrewarded for their efforts. Employees are more likely to consider themselves overworked and underpaid compared to coworkers in similar situations.

My ISHN contribution last October (2008) defined five person states that increase one’s propensity to actively care. Each of these states can be elevated by a person’s work life. In other words, the output of a work situation, from seeing the fruits of one’s labor to experiencing recognition and appreciation from others, can enhance feelings of self-esteem, competence (or self-efficacy), personal control, optimism, and belongingness. When these positive outcomes are realized, an individual potentially feels obligated to contribute more. How? By actively caring for safety, of course.

Bottom line

According to equity theory, people feel distress when they believe they are getting too much or too little from their job than comparable coworkers. Those who believe they get more than they deserve may feel guilt or shame, while those who think they get less than they deserve may feel angry or insulted. The more perceived inequity, the more distress and the greater the pressure to establish a sense of fairness.

Equity can be readily restored through actively caring for safety. Those who feel overrewarded can attain equity by contributing more of their time and effort to prevent workplace injuries. In contrast, people who feel underrewarded need a boost in their five actively-caring person states before they can gain a sense of equity and subsequently feel obligated to actively care.

I predict this use of equity ratios to interpret job satisfaction and willingness to actively care will be received differently among readers. While some will find these notions intriguing and intuitive, others will consider these musings overly speculative and impractical. Such divergent opinions are partially explained by a personality dimension or individual difference I will address in my ISHN column next month.

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