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You’re Not the Boss of Me: It’s Not The Message, It’s The Way It’s Delivered

February 12, 2013
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We’ve all experienced this at one time or another: you point out an unsafe act or safety violation in good faith, only to have the worker shoot back some sarcastic, rude, or juvenile comment.  It wears on you, but you’ve come to expect, accept (and probably) resent it. 

Why can’t people just grow up and let you do your job? 

The answer might not lie with the people with whom you interact, but rather HOW you interact with them.

In 1964 Dr. Eric Berne wrote The Games People Play, to identify and address what he describes as functional and dysfunctional social interactions. The book is a fantastic guide for interacting with workers. In the book, which has sold more than 5 million copies, Berne introduces the concept of transactional analysis that he believed was the key to interpreting social interactions.  Transactional analysis is a method for identifying one of three roles that people assume whenever they deal with others.  Berne identified three roles:

  • Parent
  •  Adult, and
  • Child

Berne believed, and my experience has confirmed his belief, that a lot of dysfunctional behaviors are caused because of a conflict between these roles. You can avoid this dysfunction by not getting sucked into the dysfunction.  This is a lot tougher than it sounds. Because, as Berne suggests, these roles are subconscious the urge to be drawn into this dysfunction is powerful. Basically, when one addresses another as a parent, you send out parental stimuli that trigger responses in the other party.  Typically, the other party responds with behavior characterized by either a competing parent or a child.

This isn’t a book report, so I won’t go into a lot of detail on the nuances of Berne’s work, buy the book and read it; you won’t be sorry.

In terms of safety these dysfunctional encounters look something like this:

A Safety Professional (In the Parent role) see’s a worker using a band saw without the proper guarding in place, he approaches and says, “Haven’t you been trained to only use that saw when the guard is in place? Are you trying to lose a finger?”

This highly directive, authoritative language stimulates some deep-seated psychological responses.  A common response is that the worker also responds in the “Parent” role. “Hey they’re my fingers and if I’m not worried about losing them than why should you.”

Berne called these types of disputes “Parent-Parent”.  Parent-Parent tend to escalate quickly unless something happens to defuse the situation.  In our example, the Safety Professional might say something like, “Look, if you can’t follow the rules maybe you shouldn’t be working here. Do you WANT me to write you up?” To which the worker is likely to respond “Do what you have to do, you’re not my boss and I don’t have to listen to you”. 

Sound familiar?

It happens daily in workplaces around the world, but it’s not the only dysfunction that can be caused when the Safety Professional adopts the Parent role. 

Sometimes the exchange plays out like this:

Safety Professional (parent):        This is the third time this week that I have caught you not wearing your safety glasses.

Worker (child):          I know, but they are hot and I can’t see.

Safety Professional:  The rule is in place for your protection, if I catch you without safety glasses again I will have to have your supervisor write you up, is that what you want?

Worker:     No, I will make sure from now on.

The worker then proceeds to passively aggressive comply only when the Safety Professional is in sight.

Sometimes the safety professional plays the role of the child and the result can be equally disastrous. The “child” role is characterized by nonassertive and pensive body language and word choices.

That same exchange might go something like this:

Safety Professional (child):     You know it’s my job to make sure you wear safety glasses but every time I see you aren’t wearing them.  I ask, and ask, and ask, but you just don’t care.

Worker (parent):    Relax. I wear my safety glasses most of the time, the fact that you’ve seen me without them a couple of times is no big deal.

Safety Professional:        It’s not a big deal to you. I’m the one who will get in trouble for not doing their job.

Worker:       Stop making such a big deal about it; you need to get a life.

There can also be child-child conflicts, but I think you get the picture.

What Berne was saying is that social interaction is just basic stimulus and effect, and if you are able to control the stimuli that you send out you can greatly influence the results.

The key is to stay in the “adult” role. The Adult role is characterized by neutral body language and word choices. Staying in the Adult role is about controlling your deepest impulses toward dysfunction and this is especially difficult because the other party will actively try to draw you into his or her dysfunction.  Let’s take a look at how that might work using our scenario:

That same exchange might go something like this:

Safety Professional (adult):          Excuse me Al, but aren’t safety glasses required as part of this operation? Can you help me to understand why you aren’t wearing them?

Worker (worker):      Relax. I wear my safety glasses most of the time, the fact that you’ve seen me without them a couple of times is no big deal.

Safety Professional:        Please, instead of getting into a conflict about this, I’m hoping we can have a real conversation about safety.  I don’t have a vested interest in safety glasses, and as long as we can meet the legal requirements I am willing to work with you to adjust the safety requirements if we’re able to.

Worker:             Yeah right, you are always saying you are open to suggestions but when I make them you go on and on about why things can’t get fixed.

Safety Professional:       I’d really like to talk about the issue at hand. You see, if there is a legitimate reason to make a change in policy I want workers to talk to me about it. You’re right, in some cases you have made suggestions, but we weren’t able to implement them without violating the law. I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear when we talked about the fact that we wouldn’t be using your suggestion.

Worker:         (in an aggressive tone) Okay, let’s talk! I hate wearing safety glasses because they are hot, they look dorky, and I honestly don’t see why the law requires them for this job.

Safety Professional:         I’m sure you can understand that the company has to abide by the statutes that require safety glasses, but we can certainly look into glasses that are more stylish and comfortable. Can I count on you to help me make a recommendation?

Worker (Child):      Hey, I’m sorry for coming of as such a jerk. I will wear the stupid safety glasses.

Safety Professional:                        I appreciate that, but I would much prefer having someone like you—someone who has strong opinions on the subject and who understands what we can and cannot do about this—work with me to come up with a better solution. What do you say, can I count on you for help? Say testing out some sample glasses and telling me what you think?

Worker: I guess if that’s all you need me to do I could do that. (Laughing) You sure know I won’t be shy about sharing my opinions.

This is a simple example, and in the real world you will likely have to stay in the adult role much longer than our fictitious example, but it’s worth it.

There is a lot more to the book—almost half of it deals with a series of mind games —and there is a lot of good stuff you can use in dealing with the belligerent jerks we sometimes encounter in the workplace. But the pay off for adopting Berne’s strategies in the context of safety is substantial and valuable.

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