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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Nag, momma, nag

August 29, 2003
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Peter Sandman, perhaps the world's most renown risk communicator, knows something about how to communicate risks to teenagers. It may be his greatest feat.

He tells this story: "When my eldest daughter had just gotten her driver's license, and she was driving alone for the first time, I said, 'Look, you're a new driver, you're an inexperienced driver, you're not a very safe driver. You have to make safety your top priority. And all other considerations should give way to safety.'

"She said to me, 'Well, then I won't leave the garage. Because it's safer in the driveway. If you want me on the road at all, I can't just optimize for safety. I have to compromise safety with getting somewhere.' She was just flat out right."

Don't you just hate it when they're flat out right?

Prime time

Surveys tell us the typical ISHN reader is in those fortysomething years, which puts you quite possibly in full bore parenting mode. You might know a thing or two yourself about communicating risks to teenagers. Or you might know nothing at all, if we asked a certain teen. At any rate, now's the time you're trying to steer "it won't happen to me" teens around life's potholes, set certain limits to behavior, work on that attitude thing and that slippery sense of responsibility and accountability. Maybe, above all, you're just trying to engage them. You don't want to lose them, that's for sure.

Just like at work. Consider the time you put in trying to engage your "it won't happen to me" employees in safety. You set limits. Work on attitudes, awareness, responsibilities and accountability for safety. Our tools at work and at home are similar, too. Rules, role modeling, warnings and discipline policies, rewards and various incentives. Accentuate the positives, observe behaviors. Throw in some some scare tactics and frequent lectures.

What do we get in return - both on the job and back home? Resistance, of course. Outrage of various levels and manifestations, according to Sandman. Responding to one recent lecture, my daughter pinned a note on her bedroom door: "Do not disturb. I'm busy selling myself short."

But what's life without a little pushback? It's a natural response to our environment. Look at our history, says Sandman. "When we're two, our parents are saying don't play with our feces. When we're five, they're saying don't ride your trike in the street. When we're 12, they're saying, don't go out until you've finished your homework. When we're 18, they're saying don't drive at night. When we're 22, they're saying don't marry that jerk."

Pushing buttons

His central point is this: What pushes our buttons are all those precautions, more so than the actual risks. This holds true at home and in the workplace. There's a reason some folks are known around the shop as "safety momma." As Sandman describes, "The safety person is very likely to come on to us in a way that makes us think, 'Son of a gun, it's mommy all over again.' The safety person is making us feel like a kid again."

Which is not necessarily a warm and fuzzy feeling. We can all recall the nagging, the scolding, the know-it-all tone from elders who are in command and in control. How can you not resist resisting? So what happens at work when employees get a whiff of the second coming of finger-wagging moms and dads? "What happens is literally a regression," explains Sandman. "We wind up saying, 'Get off my back. Leave me alone'." Just like the old days at home.

Safety, in essence, is about relationships and conversations, according to noted author and consultant Dan Petersen. "Safety is about one-to-one interactions, supervisors to managers, supervisors to workers, managers to workers. Safety is about these interactions happening every day. That's how safety is achieved," he explains.

What, then, do we do to avoid the parent trap? To interact without sounding like the second coming?

Give it up

"You come on like a better parent," says Sandman. "Give control wherever you can, using group norms rather than individual norms. Give choices among ways of meeting the performance spec rather than the technical spec.

"Try to make the precautions less onerous. Also, acknowledge the ways in which the precautions are onerous. One of the worst things parents do is say, 'The medicine doesn't taste bad', when the medicine does taste bad.

"We can use our parenting skills to be more gentle and more understanding and more compassionate and more gracious about safety - once we realize outrage about the precaution is very common and very real."

Or as Dan Petersen says: "The real message is: 'We are doing these things because we care about you, the company cares about you'."

Of course my daughter's comeback to that is, "If you cared about me you'd trust me." If I give her choices to meet "performance specs" rather than the "technical spec," she rolls her eyes and says, "Just tell me what you want me to do." But I thought you didn't want to be bossed around. . .

Compassion has a way of getting lost in the confusion of parenting, at least for me. And the same can happen on the job, trying to keep people out of harm's way. Where do you draw the line? Compassion or confrontation? Gentleness or a good old grounding? Where's that "better parent"? I'd like to have a chat. . .

- Dave Johnson, Editor

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