What About Willpower (Part 2)

March 19, 2004
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Dear Subscriber,

WHAT ABOUT WILLPOWER (Part 2)

Last week in ISHN's e-newsletter we listed the reasons why workplace safety management is moving out of the safety office and into the trenches. This week we discuss how to nourish and supplement the willpower to make employees "their own best safety manager."

THE FINE PRINT

New methods for managing workplace safety are often adopted without a great deal of perspective. When OSHA came along in 1970, compliance quickly became the only game in town. Many a behavior-based implementation was botched in the 1990s because they were rushed and ill-conceived. The sense of balance among the various components of an overall safety program — management leadership, employee involvement, hazard abatement, performance measures, accountability, etc. — is often lost when the next new thing comes along.

Today's move to empower employees runs the same risk. Even once you sell employees on their new safety roles, to expect them to self-trigger safety awareness day after day is as unrealistic as thinking the old safety man had an inexhaustible supply of willpower to run the program on his own.

It’s like browsing the dust jackets of self-help books — how to set boundaries, relax and get rich without worries while saying no to toxic people in your life — and not reading the fine print, if it was there. The wording would read something like this: Recommendations assume ambitiously high doses of self-initiative, self-control, self-awareness, self-discipline, self-reliance, self-mastery, and self-regulation.

Of course selling any sort of tonic — self-help road maps, quick fix safety programs, flat abs in seven minutes — means skimping on the pain of perseverance. The language of self-help is comforting and user-friendly. You can reprogram yourself! Give yourself mental pep talks. Maximize your income. Improve relationships. Find peace of mind. Discipline creates brilliance! You can achieve success in anything!

Be your own best safety manager. Dramatically cut workplace injuries in weeks!

REAL-TIME PRESSURES

Let's catch our breath — and remember that in the rush to delegate and integrate, to sell empowerment and ownership, it’s natural to gloss over the time-consuming, mentally taxing, frustrating grunt work involved in sustaining the will to do something a new and different way.

A basketball player steps to the foul line. He remembers his coach telling him, "Bend your knees. Keep your legs close together. Take a breath. Visualize a swish. Just like in practice." He knows it's all good advice, but sinking two buckets with all eyes in the gym on you is a different story.

Just like the golfer teeing it up on the first hole with friends, strangers and caddies watching and waiting. Why does he have trouble recalling all the good backyard instruction?

Or the student who comes back from a mindfulness retreat committed to staying in the present and blocking out distractions. Why is it hard to concentrate, forget about tomorrow's presentation to the CEO, and get the breathing rhythm down?

Finite resources and real-time pressures are two reasons. The stress of an intentional effort to alter one's habit or attitude can deplete the energy it takes for self-control at the exact moment self-control is what is needed, write Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister in a research paper, "Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources." Self-regulation — "be your own best safety manager."

Anyone who has tried to stick to a plan to lose weight or start exercising or stop worrying can tell you something about moments of "depletion." We're forcing our brains to go along the neural path less traveled when we learn new habits, says Daniel Goleman in his book, "Primal Leadership." It takes energy, lots of mental muscle power, to hack out a new trail.

BEYOND TRAINING

Sure enough moments will arrive when we can't muster the energy or draw on the willpower. Mental muscles are stretched and fatigued. Maybe it's due to overtime or falling behind quota or meeting a tight deadline. Could be a lack of sleep, an ill parent, a child's failing grades, a flooded basement at home.

What happens? The weary brain defaults to the path of least resistance — the well-worn trail of doing the job the old way, the unsafe way.

Intellectual appreciation of what is right — and safe — only goes so far, psychologists tell us. "But we train them all the time," you hear the manager complain. "And still they get hurt. What more can we do?!"

Read the fine print that should accompany instructions for moving a safety program from centralized command and control to greater employee self-control. "The procedural knowledge required to intentionally guide your actions when face to face with potent stressors and temptations cannot be acquired by reading alone," states a posting on the Web site for Psychological Assessment, Research and Treatment Service.

Training alone won't sustain willpower. Don't set up employees for failure by expecting them to become de facto safety managers without ongoing support. If all you plan to do is show a video, hand out guide books, and send employees on their way to self-regulation, reserve your classroom for repeating the same training next year.

"Don't be beguiled by the magic of transformation," write Gillian Butler Ph.D, and Tony Hope, MD., in their book, "Managing Your Mind." You need structure. A plan. Sustained persistence.

Or as former college basketball coach John Wooden, winner of ten NCAA titles, says, "There is no substitute for work. I mean very simply that you have to work and work hard."

Practice, practice, practice, rehearse, rehearse and rehearse more — that's the only way the brain will learn new (and safer) ways, says Daniel Goleman.

Two other building blocks in Wooden's pyramid of success are friendship and cooperation. Both support greater employee involvement and accountability. And both feed the personal will to think and act safely. Otherwise, willpower runs dry and those default behaviors take over.

"Friendship is mutual; doing good things for each other," writes Wooden in his book, "Wooden, A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court." And cooperation, to paraphrase the coach, prevents employees from going off in different directions trying to solve safety issues.

Long-term collaboration nourishes the will to be your own best safety manager:

  • Management blesses the structure of practice and rehearsal, training and feedback, and insists on accountability at all levels all along the way.
  • Employees get the right cues that safety is important — housekeeping and maintenance and environmental controls are emphasized.
  • Teams brainstorm to identify and fix hazards, find ways to have fun with safety plans, and celebrate accomplishments.
  • Supervisors and coworkers are sold on "what's in it for me" to the point where they encourage, praise, correct, listen and coach each other.

That's where the energy, the muscle, comes from to sustain the discipline and will needed to blaze the new trail of ensuring safety through greater employee self-management.

Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at djsafe@bellatlantic.net, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

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