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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Mum's the word

March 1, 2005
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Maintain a climate of truth-telling. Who doesn’t want this as part of their safety and health culture? Especially after reading Jim Collins’ “Good to Great,” which upwards of two million people have done. Head-on confrontation with harsh realities (and safety can definitely qualify as a harsh reality) is one of five traits separating good companies from the great ones, according to Collins and his research team of 20 business school students.

After analyzing 1,435 public companies, Collins and his team unearthed essentials for greatness that include:

  • Poke, probe and prod. Do it early and often. Great leaders always ask why, why, why. Why are employees refusing to open up in exit interviews? Why are competitors bashing our brains in?

  • Use informal meetings where there’s no script, no agenda. Open the discussion by asking, “So, what’s on your mind?”

  • Turn up the heat. Don’t duck an intense debate over a clash of views. Let your staff duke it out.

  • When assessing failures of any sort, conduct “autopsies without blame.”

  • Thou shall not be penalized for hoisting the red flag. Employees must be free to challenge management assumptions, analyses and decisions.

    On page 14 this month’s [March] issue of ISHN, our columnist Dr. Scott Geller applies lessons from “Good to Great” to safety and health. It certainly makes sense:

    “Why?” is the best question you can ask about a close call, an accident, low scores on a perception survey or management system audit. “Why?” questions are hardest to evade and produce the most details.

    Conducting autopsies without blame makes perfect sense when investigating accidents. Employees must be able to raise safety concerns and complaints without fear of rebuke, ridicule, demotion or a ticket out the door.

    Reality bites

    There’s only one problem. Employees aren’t saying what’s on their minds much these days.

    We may be a nation of whiners, complainers and exhibitionists on Montel Williams, Dr. Phil, Oprah, Judge Judy, Jerry Springer, Divorce Court, People’s Court, American Idol, Larry Elder, radio talk shows night and day and, according to various estimates, anywhere from 2.5 to 8.8 million blogs (Internet personal diaries). But during office hours, we’re a bunch of clams, basically.

    “We still have, in almost every plant I work, a general hesitation to reporting incidents,” says one corporate EHS manager.

    “Why would anyone speak out about anything, given the risks inherent in providing feedback?” asks an EHS consultant. She regularly finds managers and supervisors reluctant to speak out about their own staff’s incompetence for fear that 1) it reflects badly on them, and 2) it means they will have to do something about it.

    Employees steer clear of discussing a long list of topics, according to EHS pros we asked, including: personal health issues (fearing the company will consider health issues if job cuts come); decisions from upper management; changes in work practices or design; substance abuse by coworkers; “stupid rules”; “how work really gets done around here — how we manipulate the system.”

    There are logical, long-standing reasons for claming up on the job. “No one wants to get written up,” says a safety manager.

    Plus, fear of confrontation is a universal survival instinct. Check out a 2004 survey of 1,318 Norwegian doctors — 54 percent found it difficult to criticize peers for professionally unacceptable conduct. “Low acceptance of criticism among colleagues is a trait of the medical culture,” concluded researchers in the journal, “Quality and Safety in Health Care.”

    It’s a trait found everywhere.

    When a manager gives negative feedback, the employee hears the manager saying that he or she is worthless, explains a columnist in a recent Seattle Times article. The manager might be talking about a specific behavior or risk that was taken, but the employee hears something more profound and personal, that their value and worth and self-esteem are under attack.

    Compounding factors

    In 2005 it’s even harder to have the kind of “open, frank and fact-finding conversations about all safety-related incidents” that Dr. Geller encourages. Why?

    1) Companies quick to lop payrolls, shutter plants and ship jobs to the Far East just drive anxious employees more into a survival mode.

    2) Despite a gazillion books on leadership, employees still don’t see signs that managers really want to poke, prod and probe. Only 45 percent of 25,000 workers surveyed last year by Towers Perrin said senior leadership both talks and listens, creating a pathway for two-way communication.

    Think about it. How often have you met an exec who leans back and says, “OK, I want to explore this. Why did we just get fined $250,000 by OSHA? Relax, really, this is an autopsy without blame.”

    If you want to learn how some companies are “open and frank” about safety and health at a time when downsizing and outsourcing always lurk around the corner, go to the Voluntary Protection Program Participants Association Web site (www.vpppa.org). Find the VPP site closest to you. Ring up the EHS manager and offer him or her lunch. VPP reps are some of the most open people in safety. But to build trust, leave your tape recorder back at the office.

    — Dave Johnson, Editor

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