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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Who are you kidding?

August 1, 2003
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If only we could all view our organization as a family of people working together to achieve common goals. We see our own family members as people, and we never hesitate to actively care for their safety and health. In fact, we inflate the virtues of those in our family and often communicate these virtues to others. Such "positive gossip" increases appreciation and admiration within the family, making it natural to actively care for each other.

Actively caring behavior in an organization increases directly with the number of employees (including managers) who view their coworkers as "family." We show empathy for family members, we don't betray family members, and any distortions of the qualities of family members are more likely to be positive than negative. People-based safety enables us to successively approximate a family atmosphere in the workplace.

People-based safety

For many years, I've claimed that a comprehensive approach to address the human dynamics of industrial safety requires "people-based safety." This perspective combines the objective, research-supported tools of behavior-based safety (BBS) with person-based safety or the internal, feeling states of individuals.

After submitting my July ISHN article on the soft side of psychology, I came across an intriguing book that was uncannily consistent with my key points last month. The title of this book is "Leadership and Self-Deception" by the Arbinger Institute (San Francisco, CA: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2002). This article reviews the key points in this book as they relate to people-based safety.

Betrayal and deception

We often find ourselves in situations where we consider helping another person but don't follow through, according to the Arbinger Institute. We observe an environmental hazard in a person's work area but don't remove it. We see someone working without the proper safeguards or personal protective equipment (PPE) and walk on by. Or, while buckled-up in a vehicle, we notice that another occupant is not using the available safety belt, but we don't say anything.

This experience of not actively caring when you know you should leads to self-betrayal, and then to self-deception, according to the Arbinger Institute. Since it's uncomfortable to accept and maintain self-betrayal, we engage in a variety of self-deceiving thought processes to justify our lack of caring.

To live with our self-betrayal, we inflate the faults of the person we didn't help while inflating our own virtues. For example, we might presume the worker not using proper PPE is incompetent, lazy, unmotivated, uncaring, or not a team player. At the same time, we pump up our own positive characteristics, including the qualities that make us effective at our important work. We conclude we have better things to do than to help an incompetent, mindless worker decrease risks of personal injury.

Faults over facts

Such kind of distorted self-deception facilitates fault-finding over fact-finding - a common problem in the safety world. The easiest way to justify one's self-betrayal or lack of actively caring is to blame someone else. It's not my fault for not helping, it's their fault for not being responsible or self-accountable. The defensive personal script might be something like, "Safety is a personal issue. If those workers don't care enough to protect themselves, why should I?"

Notice the self-serving cycle of distortion in fault-finding. The more blame we connect to others, the less possible fault we find in ourselves. To reduce the tension that comes from betraying our better selves, we find the other person(s) blameworthy. This leads to more self-deception, feeding an already distorted reality.

Breaking the cycle

So what can we do about this universal problem?

First, we need to recognize that we don't actively care for other's safety as much as we should and could. Next, we need to own up to personal misrepresentations of reality we hold in order to justify this self-betrayal. Third, we need to realize the power of seeing others as people with their own feelings, intentions, and aspirations rather than viewing these individuals as merely objects providing a service. When we embrace the human side of our coworkers, we are more likely to actively care for their well-being and less likely to practice self-deception to justify our self-betrayal.

By apologizing for not actively caring and finding other opportunities to actively care and follow through, we break the cycle of self-serving self-deception. Focus your mental scripts on what you do right rather than what you do wrong. This prevents feelings of self-betrayal and a need for self-deception.

Don't blame others for not actively caring. See these individuals as people with a variety of interpersonal and cultural constraints inhibiting their helping behavior. Then, set the actively-caring example yourself. Show you have overcome personal and environmental factors that hold back actively caring behavior and facilitate self-betrayal and self-deception.

Bottom line: Take a people-based approach to industrial safety and health. Realize the power of empathy when listening, recognizing, helping, and leading people. Anything less will initiate a cycle of self-deception that distorts perceptions of people, confines the benefits from interpersonal interaction, and makes it impossible to bring out the best in people and achieve an injury-free workplace.

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