In the past year, six books by well-known authors have been published on the subject of goal-setting. Setting goals is a popular business topic and a popular focus for self-help books. In safety, goal-setting is a critical piece that many companies unfortunately don’t seem to understand.

Here’s the rub: either companies set unreasonable goals that everyone knows are not serious (e.g. “zero”) or they pay lip service to the goal and emphasize other priorities (such as productivity) so strongly that achieving the goal is impossible. The result: employees don’t bother trying. They may still try to be safe for their own benefit, but the value of the goal setting and pursuit process is wasted.

What caught my eye for this article is the clever way Fortune magazine contrasted these six books. Fortune took three that advised readers to “think big” and three that advised readers to “start small.” Unfortunately, Fortune stopped there and simply added abstracts.

These two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive – it is possible to have a big, long-term goal and to set up a path of incremental goals in between. Because safety is often just one of many priorities, this can be a very useful way of driving down incidence rates methodically. But the visual contrast on the magazine page gave me some insights that ISHN readers should find useful.

The three books recommending aggressive goals are:

  • “Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth, and Impact the World,” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.
  • “The Little Book of Thinking Big: Aim Higher and Go Further Than You Ever Thought Possible,” by Richard Newton.
  • “Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message,” by Tara Mohr.
  • The three books recommending incremental change are:
  • “Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently,” by Caroline Arnold.
  • “The Small Big: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence,” by Steve Martin, Noah Goldstein, and Robert Cialdini.
  • “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” by Greg McKeown.

Big goals

In “Bold,” Diamandis recommends that we ambitiously target a huge problem with a large impact and/or for a wide population. It is hard to set small goals to get from here to the moon. It took a riveting and visionary speech by JFK. In safety, we are not going to the moon, but we still need to paint an important vision of what safety means and why it is important to the employees and the company. This is necessary to motivate employees for day-to-day constant vigilance.

Newton tells us to ignore the little diversions that fill up a normal life and focus on the grand challenges. This can be counterproductive in safety when the little diversions include wearing eye protection or lifting according to ergonomic best practices. But flip this argument on its head. Injuries can be permanent losses to our lives in a way that missing one performance quota cannot.

Mohr’s recommendation is about one’s demeanor, recommending that readers put forth an air of confidence and greatness in all of their dealings. This means never having a visage of uncertain confidence. Safety pros need to do this constantly. We can’t apologize for requiring safe behaviors, act unsure of whether the behaviors will really keep employees safe, or otherwise be seen as wishy-washy advocates for safety.

Small changes

The three books on incremental change also have implications for safety. Arnold’s recommendations share some similarity with the progressive extremism form of habit change. Instead of starting a path toward “eating healthy,” progressive extremism recommends just giving up cookies at first, but committing to it 100 percent. When you have that down, you start on the next one. For this to work, it is best not to think of the end goal too much – it seems overwhelming. Zero tolerance for unsafe acts and goals for zero incidents fit this description all too well. After all, there are a lot of temptations to give up after cookies and a lot of unsafe behaviors to give up after “always wearing eye protection in the machine shop.”

Martin et al’s recommendations are similar, which is not surprising if you are familiar with the wide body of behavioral research published by his coauthor Robert Cialdini. To wit: trigger unconscious behaviors and no one will even know you are pulling the trigger. Safe behaviors need to be integrated into the standard operating procedures of the workplace. They cannot be pasted on as extras that can be ignored while still completing the job as it is defined.

Finally, McKeown recommends we shift our values so we don’t need to feel like the big winner. We can apply this to safety quite simply by removing the big safety competitions that pit one team against another in all or nothing contests – encouraging workers to hide unsafe behaviors and even serious injuries to avoid letting down the team.

Goal-setting for safety

Blending big audacious goals and incremental steps into a consolidated safety program is the best way to achieve safety. It enables us to combine motivation and compliance and, in the long run, leads to the best safety results.