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How to turn on the troops

June 1, 2000
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While attending a seminar last November by Dr. Kenneth Blanchard, co-author of the classic best-seller, “The One-Minute Manager,” I discovered that he had written a 1998 book with Sheldon Bowles that I think applies to our discussions on safety. “Gung Ho! Turn On the People in Any Organization” reveals three basic “secrets” for getting more enthusiastic employee involvement.

I want to teach you these three secrets as they relate to increasing participation in safety-related efforts. This information won’t be new to readers of my ISHN column, but the creative way that Dr. Blanchard states the obvious is invaluable. Learning these three secrets can improve your ability to teach basic philosophies you already know but perhaps don’t use enough.

Secret 1 - The spirit of the squirrel

Watch squirrels scurry about collecting and storing food. They work with high energy because they’re motivated, and they’re motivated because their work is critical. If they don’t store enough food for the winter, they will starve. So the Spirit of the Squirrel is “worthwhile work.”

If you convince employees that their work is worthwhile, they’ll be more motivated on the job. How do you do this? Help people see the bigger picture beyond their daily work routine, Blanchard advises. A bricklayer, for example, could describe his job as “laying brick” or as “building a community recreation center to bring people together for healthy recreation and exercise.” Both descriptions are accurate, but you know which one sounds more worthwhile and stimulating. Whatever employees are doing, they’re making a difference. Help them understand their contribution.

Safety professionals naturally have the Spirit of the Squirrel. Safety work is obviously worthwhile. You care for everyone’s primary asset — their safety and health. The challenge is to convince people that routine safety-related activities, from wearing uncomfortable protective equipment to conducting periodic environmental and behavioral audits, are really worthwhile.

Personal testimony is more effective than company statistics to get this point across. When employees can visualize injuries prevented by their involvement, they can see how their safety work makes a difference. Like the squirrel’s work, their safety-related actions help colleagues and friends make it through the winter and beyond.

Secret 2 - The way of the beaver

A squirrel’s behavior is fluent, filled with purposeful energy, but it can be rather chaotic and non-cooperative. Two squirrels might fight over a single acorn, and acorns buried by one squirrel for the winter will be another’s treasure if they are found. Squirrels work hard — but they do so independently.

Beavers work interdependently. They have the Spirit of the Squirrel, but as the more intelligent rodent, they cooperate to get the job done. Blanchard emphasizes that there is no “boss beaver.” Watch beavers work — there’s no way of determining who’s in charge.

The Way of the Beaver is being self-directed to achieve goals that benefit everyone. This secret exemplifies empowerment as I’ve described in prior ISHN articles. Employees who feel empowered believe they can make a difference and are more likely to actively care for the safety and health of others. Remember, research has linked three mental states to perceptions of empowerment: self-efficacy (“I can do it”), personal control (“I’m in control”), and optimism (“I expect the best”).

The Way of the Beaver reflects these three states. Beavers know their job (self-efficacy). They’re in control of achieving individual goals that benefit the group — storing twigs and sticks, gnawing down trees, dragging or floating lumber, and so on. And they’re optimistic about reaching those goals — just look at how eagerly each beaver works.

Secret 3 - The gift of the goose

Geese epitomize interdependency. Just look at them in flight. They form a “V” with a leader up front and each following goose flying in the draft created by the one immediately in front.

The lead goose eventually tires of the head wind and moves back in the “V”, replaced by another goose. This is true interdependence.

There’s something else about geese in flight — that honking sound. Which geese are honking? It’s all of them. Each one frequently honks, as though they are cheering each other on.

That’s the Gift of the Goose. Geese provide each other with constant verbal support, recognizing how each member of the flying team allows the group to make headway. Their “cheering” encourages continued cooperation.

Recognizing and encouraging positive behaviors that make a difference reflects the remarkable power of positive reinforcement. This is a key principle of behavior-based safety. When work cultures display as much teamwork and cheerleading for safety-related behavior as reflected in a flock of geese, exemplary levels of safety performance are attained.

Don’t forget, though, that you need something to cheer about. Start by developing an observation and feedback process in your workplace that involves employees working interdependently to reduce at-risk behaviors and environmental conditions. Then injuries will be prevented. Now that’s something to honk about.

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