You know about dissonance. You may have strong personal and professional convictions about an issue; however, you feel you have to act in another way — and that way doesn’t align with your beliefs or values.  The result is a bad kind of feeling in your head and in your heart.  Ultimately, there’s guilt or regret — but that’s not always a bad thing.

Dissonance with your workers

Skilled managers and supervisors know how to initiate conversations that help their employees realize when they’re not working in ways consistent with their beliefs or values.  These productive safety communications create uneasiness and motivate employees to work safer.  And when worker-actions become consistent with their personal values, the discomfort leaves or dissipates.  You can bring about this kind of dissonance through storytelling and other tactics. But there’s another kind of safety-related dissonance that’s not talked about nearly enough — one that needs to happen somewhere else within the organization.

Dissonance at the top

In working with a wide range of executives in the past 30 years, I’ve come to realize that hardly anyone is immune from dissonance.  And as professionals, practitioners, and consultants, part of our job is to help produce organizational dissonance (rather than limit it) so that good things will be initiated and accomplished.  But let’s face it, leaders typically push to get what they want – more productivity, more quality, or more safety.  However, it’s often up to us to help them realize that they should want and need more safety.

Leveraging dissonance

There will always be complementary and competing beliefs that force executives to prioritize and justify their support and actions. And we can’t pull back just because of a little competition.  We also realize that leaders are typically driven by profits – that’s just the way it’s going to be. However, the business landscape has been changing and the scorecard has expanded in ways that now include the environment, and employee health and safety.  You have to leverage that scorecard and expand your own in order to create a little more dissonance. 

If all of this is creating a little frustration and dissonance within you, that’s a good thing. It just may cause you get off your assets and take some action. Here’s a few ways to create some dissonance near the top and leverage additional EHS support:

1. Utilize climate and culture surveys as opportunities to further discuss challenges and barriers to EHS excellence and how inherent cultural weaknesses impact morale, productivity, and quality. Safety culture surveys help not only to qualify what’s going on but also to quantify key cultural dimensions and place numbers/results on issues and concerns that can serve as your baseline for ongoing improvement.

2. Going hand-in-hand with safety culture surveys is the use of safety sensing sessions.  When employee safety sensing sessions or focus groups are conducted well, you can gather an amazing amount of objective employee opinions that are weighted and prioritized for use.  This kind of objective feedback from the workforce can be an eye opener for your leaders and help move them to action.

3. Get your leaders out and about. Your key stakeholders and organizational leaders need to listen to the people who are doing the work. In this way, they can hear directly from individuals who have the most to lose when it comes to weaknesses found within your safety culture.  It also allows your leaders to see workers as “real people – the face of the organization, humanity amongst humanity.”  Your workers have families and lives that need to be enjoyed and shared, in some ways, just like your leaders.  Your leaders need to have direct contact with your workers and listening to them is a great way to put them in close contact and get more of the safety pulse.  If your leaders don’t know what to ask, you need to prepare a short list of questions for them.

4.  Benchmarking with similar companies that have EHS cultures as good as or better than your own helps to create some tension that can move leaders to action.  Good benchmarking can provide valuable insights and a form of peer pressure that may not have previously existed.

If your leaders have any kind of emotional tie to people, it has to drive them and others to action. We can play a part and help to move their hand.  Let’s make the most of the dissonance we’re able to create near the top.