Psychology

How to celebrate safety success

May 19, 2000
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A recent survey of safety professionals by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News showed worker morale to be the top concern for 1997. "Lean and mean" downsizing has indeed shaken spirits in many organizations, leading to apathy, helplessness, and less willingness to look out for the safety and health of others. What can we do to respond?

Giving and receiving quality recognition, as discussed in my last two articles, are prime ways to boost morale. This month I want to talk about celebrations. When done correctly, celebrating safety accomplishments can be an antidote for sagging morale, motivate teamwork, build a sense of belonging, and boost our desire to actively care for others.

The key is the phrase "when done correctly." Here are guidelines that you can follow:

Don't celebrate cheating

It's quite common for companies to give employees a dinner after a particular number of weeks or months pass with no recordable injury. This kind of achievement is certainly worth celebrating, but let's be sure the record was reached fairly. If people cheat to win-not reporting injuries, for example-the celebration won't mean much.

I like the idea of celebrating the success of process activities. The behaviors needed from employees to warrant a celebration can be specified. For example, a group might decide to celebrate after completing a designated number of safety audits, investigating a given number of "near-miss" reports, finishing a particular training series, or completing a certain number of one-on-one safety coaching sessions. In these cases, an achievable goal is set and progress monitored. When the goal is reached, a celebration is clearly earned.

Focus on the journey

Most safety celebrations I've seen give far too little attention to the journey-the processes that contributed to reaching the milestone. Typically, the focus is on the end result, like achieving zero injuries for a certain period of time. When you pinpoint processes instrumental to reaching a safety milestone, you give valuable direction and motivation. Participants learn what they need to do to continue a successful journey.

Plus, employees who are responsible for the behaviors identified as contributing to the safety outcome receive a special boost. They feel effective, in control, and optimistic. This reinforces their internal "scripts" for later self-motivation.

But perhaps the most important reason for acknowledging journey activities is that it gives credit where credit is due. The people and actions that made the difference are endorsed.

Recipients should be participants

Speeches from top management often kick off safety celebrations. There might be charts comparing past and present records. Sometimes a motivational speaker or humorist gives everyone a lift and some laughs. Certificates and trinkets might be handed out. But rarely do participants discuss the processes they supported in order to achieve success.

In your typical safety celebration, managers give and employees receive-certainly an impressive show of top-down support. But the ceremony would be more memorable and beneficial as a learning and motivational experience if employees played a bigger role. Management should listen more than speak. And employees should talk more about their experiences than listen to managers' pleasure with the bottom line.

Relive the experience

Management's primary role in a safety celebration should be to facilitate discussions of activities that led to success. The best safety celebration I ever observed was planned by employees and featured a series of brief presentations by teams of hourly workers. Numerous safety ideas were shared. Some workers showed off new personal protective equipment, some displayed graphs of data obtained from environmental or behavioral audits, some discussed their procedures for encouraging near-miss reports and implementing corrective action, and one group presented its ergonomic analysis and redesign of a workstation.

Even the after-dinner entertainment was employee-driven. A skit related to safety issues. A talent show had entrants from all levels of the organization, including top managers. There was no need to hire a band-a number of talented musicians were found in the workforce of 600. (Luckily they didn't find a drummer, allowing me to sit in and relive my rock-n-roll gigging from the '60s.)

Don't ignore failures

The work teams in this celebration discussed both successes and failures, displaying positive results and recalling disappointments, dead ends, and frustrations. Pointing out the highs and lows made their presentations realistic, and underscored the amount of dedication needed to complete their projects and contribute to the celebrated reduction in injuries.

You justify a celebration by showing how difficult it was to reach the goal. Pointing out hardships along the way reflects the fact that luck was not involved. Many people went beyond the call of duty to contribute and collaborate.

Make it memorable

One week after the safety celebration I've described here, each participant received a framed photograph of everyone who attended the event. That picture hangs in my office today, and every time I look at it I'm reminded of the time several years ago when management did more listening than talking in a most memorable and educational safety celebration.

Tangible rewards have this effect. They reinforce the memory of an occasion and promote its value. Ideally, the memento should have a safety theme or slogan and be something that can be displayed or used in the workplace-coffee mugs, caps, or shirts, for example. When delivering these keepsakes it should be noted that they were selected "to remind us how we achieved our real reward-fewer injuries on the job."

Go one-on-one

In every group, some individuals take charge and champion the effort, while others sit back and "go with the flow." In fact, some people exert less effort when working with a group than when working alone. Behavioral scientists call this phenomenon "social loafing."

When you recognize the champions of a group effort one-on-one you let them know that you realize the importance of their leadership. This adds to the motivation received from the earlier group celebration and increases the likelihood of their continued leadership.

Here's a closing thought for you: When I mentioned to my graduate students I was writing an article on how to celebrate, one of them quickly responded, "That's easy, a $100 bottle of cognac, a $6 cigar, and a special friend." I had to tell him, of course, that my focus was on a different kind of celebrating. But it occurred to me that everyone has their own way of enjoying success. And when it comes to group celebration we often inadvertently impose our prejudices on others.

When you ask people how they want to celebrate as a group, challenge them to go beyond tangible rewards. The celebration shouldn't be seen as a payoff. You want a meaningful and memorable event that can serve as a stepping stone for greater achievements.

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