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Don't operate on automatic pilot

June 1, 2000
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Should safe behavior became a habit, something performed automatically without conscious thought?

Most behavioral safety trainers and consultants would probably answer, “Yes”. They want to see the right (or safe) behavior occur spontaneously, without any need for a mental script to prompt or guide it. To get people doing the right thing without thinking is often presented as the ultimate goal.

I don’t agree, and in this article I hope to convince you that the ultimate goal is to have employees talk to themselves before, during, and after their safe behavior. This is not mindless, routine behavior, but rather a state called mindful fluency.

Let’s look at a simple example of what I’m talking about. Many people claim they automatically buckle up in their vehicles, without even thinking about it. Such mindless behavior is commendable, but when you habitually buckle up without any self-talk, you lose an opportunity to reward yourself for going out of your way to be safe. Plus, when you’re on automatic pilot, you might not even notice that a passenger in your vehicle is not using their safety belt. Or if you did notice, you might not be willing to ask the person to buckle up.

But if you’re aware of your own actions, and you’ve told yourself that you are a “responsible safety leader,” you’ll likely ask the other person to buckle up. You’d like them to follow the same mental script that you do.

What is mindful fluency?

When we are mindful of our actions, we talk to ourselves in different ways. We might give ourselves a mental reminder that a particular job calls for a certain safe behavior before we start.

Then we might describe our actions while doing the work. Afterward, we might look back and evaluate our actions.

It’s as though we’re following a mental script. And the script should emphasize the positives. We should pat ourselves on the back when we do something safely, especially if it was inconvenient, uncomfortable, or inefficient. We should also look for improvements, giving ourselves specific suggestions. But be kind to yourself. Self-rewards should outweigh self-punishment.

And don’t limit your focus. Your self-talk should include some general praise. Remind yourself that you’re a safe person because you avoided a shortcut or easy way out. Tell yourself you’re a safety leader because you set a safe example for others.

This kind of self-talk is well worth the effort. Here are five benefits:

Increase empathy

Give yourself mental credit when you actively care for the safety and health of others. Research shows that people who reward themselves are more likely to remain accountable to goals like safety and caring for others. This is most likely to occur when your positive self-talk is combined with actual rewards such as exercise, eating a favorite food, or spending money. And while you’re enjoying your reward, remind yourself that you deserve it. After all, you’re an actively caring safety leader.

Prevent mistakes

How many times each day do you put yourself on automatic pilot? Obviously this kind of mindless habitual behavior can lead to serious, unintended error and injury. Shouldn’t we always be talking to ourselves about what we are doing? By avoiding the automatic mode, we prevent those errors and injuries that occur because we were “just not thinking.”

Sharpen your focus

It’s easy to be on automatic pilot when we’re operating in a familiar environment. But what happens when a forklift truck speeds around a corner? We need to discriminate quickly between what’s normal and sudden changes to our routine. Mindlessly following the same work routine can prevent this kind of prompt discrimination.

Mindless behavior can also make us oblivious to gradual changes in the work environment. Leaks or litter can create serious hazards over time, but as creatures of habit we may not recognize a need to adjust our behavior or fix the environment. All of this is less likely when we become more mindful of our everyday activities.

Broaden your impact

Being mindful of what you’re doing facilitates generalization, a psychological term describing how behaviors can be transferred from one setting to another (stimulus generalization), or how one behavior can influence another (response generalization).

Acting in a mindlessly reflexive way, for example, prevents us from recognizing that a particular behavior is needed in another situation. It deters the transfer of safe behavior from one setting to another.

Research also shows that using one safe behavior to influence others requires the active — not mindless — involvement of participants. Top-down edicts passively accepted by employees can improve a single target behavior, but employees won’t be engaged enough to expand the focal point to include similar behaviors.

When using self-talk to try to generalize behavior, it’s important to watch what you’re saying. To say, “I’m doing this because I have to,” is unlikely to get results. It’s better to allow for personal choice, self-direction, and perceptions of ownership. You’ll find it more beneficial to follow a script that says, “I’m doing this because I choose to in order to benefit everyone.”

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