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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: The messy side of business

January 5, 2004
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“I’ll try to make this as painless as possible.”

Sounds like a dentist firing up the drill, right? But no, it’s the annual performance review.

“So let’s see… This year you’re getting a 6.”

“What’s that mean, boss?”

“6? That’s a ‘good.’ Got it? Let’s do lunch.”

“Ah, what did I do to get a 6?”

“Let’s see. They change these darn instructions every year. Well, according to this, you ‘objectively assess situations independently and make win-win decisions quickly’. Now, how about lunch?”

“Boss, are they your words or from the manual?”

“What, you want a 7? That’s ‘very good.’ I can do that. Now let’s eat.”

“What’s the difference between ‘good’ and ‘very good’?”

Silence. “OK, I’ll score you an 8. But somebody else is going to have to get a 2.”

At arm’s length

Been there, done that? For all the talk in safety circles about the importance of conversations and relationships in building trust, caring and safer workplaces, the annual evaluation ritual shows how uncomfortable many managers are with the “people” side of the ledger. And why they would almost instinctively keep safety at arm’s length.

I remember two small business owners who dispensed their appraisals on short walks with employees to the post office. Call it feedback on the fly. Another boss would always close the door and whisper, with a look like he was passing stones, “Let’s get this over with.” Once, late at night eating dinner on the road, I heard a sales rep “reviewed” in the rear of the restaurant over a table of empty beer bottles.

Whatever it takes to ease the pain. And dealing with “people issues” is painful for more than a few managers. What is it that makes someone so smooth at sales presentations squirm and mumble when it comes to sitting down with an employee and talking about how they’re doing? Or sitting down and talking about safety issues, for that matter?

Talking to Jack

For insight into the management mind, what better source than “Jack: Straight from the Gut,” the autobiography of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, called by Fortune “The Manager of the Century,” the man all CEOs want to emulate, according to billionaire Warren Buffet. His style? A relentless focus on results. Love of numbers, facts, energy and passion. Little patience for anything that cannot be fixed, sold or properly executed.

Jack calls one of his favorite methods for dealing with the complexities of people “differentiation.” Sounds harsh and it is. Not exactly the actively caring model favored by our Psychology of Safety columnist Dr. E. Scott Geller, but nonetheless, every year all GE businesses were told to rank their top executives either in the “Top 20,” “the Vital 70,” or the “Bottom 10.” A, B, and C players, according to Jack. A’s would get raises two to three times the size given to B’s. B’s would “search every day for what they’re missing to become A’s,” he explains. C’s would be “redeployed elsewhere.”

Safety and health pros have been urged since long before OSHA to talk management’s language to succeed. Here you have it. Gray is out. People are segmented on a black and white “vitality curve” like products. Don’t let feelings get in the way of facts. This ranking business is war, Jack concedes. “Managers who can’t differentiate soon find themselves in the C category,” he writes.

This is where safety and health pros can run into trouble adopting “management’s language.” There’s not much of a vocabulary in corner offices for emotional issues, including safety. Layoffs? “We didn’t fire people, we fired positions,” says Jack.

To be sure, you can find companies that embrace employees. Fortune devotes a “Best Companies to Work For” issue to them each year. But in many, many workplaces, how people are managed boils down to three basics: praise, blame, and train ’em.

Worlds collide

You can see the collision course. Safety and health pros deal in shades of gray, deal with people issues every day. Risk taking. Decision making. Feelings. Distractions. Awareness. Habits. Attitudes. Fears. Complaints. Everything from denial and apathy to drugs and violence.

Going to a Jack Welch type to discuss, say, psycho-social stress or some other “soft” issue can be like trying to call on a cell phone from the mountains. Hello? Hello? What? I’m losing you…

“Ah, Jack, I wanted to talk to you about our employees’ sense of belonging…”

“Where’s the data?”

“People are stressed out around here, Jack. They have esteem issues. They don’t feel in personal control.”

“We’ve got it under control. Check our stock price at the closing bell yesterday?”

“We need to open up, talk, listen and be more transparent about safety and health.”

“Listen, I’m not running a cruise ship here. We need speedboats in this race.”

“But belonging affects mindfulness, and mindfulness affects quality!”

“You scare me with this mindfulness stuff. But, OK, you might be on to something. Post ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ on the Web site. And crank out more Black Belts in Six Sigma. I want those numbers to go up.”

Closing the gap

This is the gap that safety and health pros often must bridge between their world and the front office. Savvy ones know how to cross the great divide with facts in hand and their passion intact. They close the gap. And you sure don’t find them in the C category.

— Dave Johnson, Editor

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