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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Not an overnight sensation. . .

October 1, 2003
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I recently heard one of my partners at SPS (Safety Performance Solutions), Dr. Sherry Perdue, deliver a thoughtful and practical presentation on behavior-based safety (BBS) coaching. Her well-attended session, entitled "Getting the most from a behavioral observation and feedback process," featured ten guidelines for implementing BBS coaching throughout an organization.

These guidelines were gleaned from a decade of SPS experience helping organizations apply the principles and technology of BBS to develop and sustain an effective observation and feedback process. The guidelines were developed and refined from studying the trials and tribulations of over 100 SPS clients. I'm convinced they reflect the state-of-the-art in BBS coaching, and I'd like to review these guidelines for you - five here and five more next month.

1) Teach principles

In an earlier ISHN column (November 1996), I distinguished between education and training. Education explains "why" and training shows "how." Motivation to learn what to do - the procedures - can come from understanding the underlying rationale - the principles. Before people are trained on how to conduct behavioral observation and feedback, they should be educated on the philosophical foundations of BBS. Then participants can appreciate the procedures that make the principles practical.

When participants learn and accept the principles behind a safety initiative, they can help to define and refine tools and techniques applicable for their work groups. Such involvement in designing process steps facilitates empowerment and ownership - the next guideline.

2) Empower employees

Genuine empowerment is not given. It is enabled and then released from people when they feel ownership. But ownership does not come easy, and it doesn't happen overnight. It's not the same as compliance.

We often comply with rules, regulations, and operating procedures without ownership. In this case, we perform because someone is holding us accountable. Such behavior is other-directed. Ownership, on the other hand, facilitates internal control, self-accountability, and self-directed behavior.

People who get involved in designing, implementing, evaluating, and refining a process acquire a special degree of ownership. Their contributing behaviors are self-directed. These behaviors occur consistently because participants hold themselves responsible, not because someone else is holding them accountable.

3) Give 'em a choice

Choice, involvement, and ownership go hand-in-hand. Each supports the other two. More of one influences more of the others.

Choice is motivating. Research has shown that even insignificant choice benefits commitment and human performance. For example, people have shown improved performance when they select aspects of a task that are actually irrelevant to effective completion of the task.

So how much choice is optimal? Our systematic evaluation of numerous successful BBS programs indicates that too much choice can actually be detrimental. We found that BBS programs labeled "completely voluntary" were generally not as successful as BBS programs introduced with the explicit expectation that everyone will get involved to some degree.

Also, programs that incorporated an accountability system to track involvement obtained the most participation and success. I hasten to add that all of the most successful BBS coaching programs included some element of choice throughout process development, implementation, and continuous improvement.

Maintain an effective balance. Provide structure and direction, but accompany your advice with opportunities to select among alternative action plans.

4) Facilitate supportive managers

Whether considering BBS coaching or another type of safety program, a "hands off" policy does not work. Let's face reality. People give priority to those aspects of their jobs that get attention from supervisors and managers. People do what they believe they need to do in order to please those who control their monetary compensation for successful job performance.

Yes, self-directed, responsible behavior is best, but often behavior must start as other-directed. Before people can appreciate the natural supportive consequences of BBS coaching, they usually need to be held accountable for carrying out the observation and feedback procedures. Plus, supervisors can do a number of other things to encourage and support BBS coaching:

  • Allocate time to discuss process activities and results at group meetings.
  • Contribute to group discussions of BBS coaching procedures and results.
  • Help schedule and coordinate opportunities for BBS coaching activities, such as observation and feedback sessions.
  • Request systematic observation and feedback for certain tasks.
  • Use the observation data to identify environmental hazards and barriers to safe behavior.
  • Help remove hazards and barriers identified in the BBS observation and feedback process.
  • Request periodic briefings on data from the BBS coaching process, such as amount of participation, percent safe behavior, number of coaching sessions performed, percentage of safety suggestions accomplished, and results of special BBS intervention efforts.
  • Recognize individuals and teams for notable BBS participation.
  • Organize and support group celebrations of special safety achievements.


5) Go easy on punishment

The last two bullets in the list above refer to the use of recognition and group celebrations to support BBS coaching activities and accomplishments. This guideline specifies the avoidance of negative or punitive consequences. I've discussed the disadvantages of traditional enforcement procedures in prior ISHN contributions (see, for example, my ISHN article for November 1997). Here I want to emphasize that connecting negative consequences to any aspect of an employee-driven (and management-supported) BBS activity can kill the entire process. Punishment stifles feelings of trust, empowerment, ownership, and commitment.

The data from a BBS observation and feedback process reveal at-risk behaviors and environmental hazards that need attention. It can also demonstrate less-than-optimal participation in a critical safety-related procedure. Such negative results, or specification of improvement needs, can provoke an enforcement mindset and suggest a need for punitive consequences. Please retreat from this traditional approach.

I am not recommending elimination of all punishment or "discipline" applications, even though most of these are not corrective and can do more harm than good. If you want to use negative consequences to motivate compliance, do so at your own risk. But be sure to administer your enforcement policy independently of all BBS coaching activities.

Your workforce must believe the data from their BBS process cannot be held against them. Finding low participation or at-risk behavior is not cause for punishment - it pinpoints opportunities for improvement. Open and frank conversation about areas of concern is much more likely than punishment to increase mindful commitment to change and to activate peer support for specific improvement targets.

Beyond BBS

For many readers these five principles may seem to reflect common sense. Consider, however, that numerous BBS programs and other safety-related efforts have not adhered to these guidelines, resulting in less-than-optimal participation.

Through experience and feedback, common sense is informed and evolves into continuous improvement. For those who don't view these guidelines as common sense, I am hopeful this presentation will inform your common sense and influence your behavior. I also hope you see these principles of program implementation relevant for more than BBS coaching. Indeed, these guidelines can be applied to develop, administer, and refine any organizational process that involves your entire workforce.

Next month I'll review five additional guidelines for increasing employee participation.

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