In management literature, empowerment refers to delegating authority or responsibility. In other words, when a supervisor says, "I empower you," s/he means, "Get 'er done ASAP."
In contrast, an enlightened safety leader assesses whether the individual feels empowered. S/he asks the three questions depicted in Figure 1.
The first question, "Can you do it?" asks whether the individual has the resources, time, knowledge and ability to handle the assignment. The term self-efficacy places the focus on personal belief. A supervisor might think an individual has the competence to complete a task, but the empowered person might feel differently.
From self to behavior
The response-efficacy question asks whether the person believes accomplishing the assignment will contribute to a purpose. Regarding behavior-based safety (BBS), this translates into believing a BBS process will contribute to injury prevention and help cultivate an injury-free workplace.
A "No" answer to the "self-efficacy" question indicates a need for more training; a "No" answer to the response-efficacy question implies a need for education. For example, substantial data show that a BBS observation/feedback process prevents workplace injuries.
It takes motivation
The third empowerment question targets motivation. Is the expected outcome worth the effort? The performance of relevant behavior is motivated by anticipating a positive consequence to achieve -- or a negative consequence to avoid.
Which of the empowerment questions is most difficult to answer with an empathic “Yes:” 1) Can you do it? 2) Will it work? 3) Is it worth it?
Most employees are trained to perform their jobs safely; the injury-prevention function of the safe behavior is usually obvious, verified with injury statistics. So, most workers know how to perform a task safely, and believe the extra safety precautions will reduce the likelihood of an injury. Yet some workers take risks, knowing the chance of a mishap and an injury is increased. Why?
You know the answer. The motivational question--Is it worth it? Is the extra time and inconvenience, and perhaps discomfort involved in taking all the safety precautions really worth the effort? In contrast, taking a risky shortcut is rewarded with soon and certain positive consequences. Like comfort, convenience, and efficiency. The job gets done faster, and a longer break is enjoyed.
But I knew that…
You might be thinking "I knew that." If you heard or read an introductory presentation on BBS, you have heard this logic before. This is the primary rationale for implementing a BBS process that holds people accountable for at-risk behaviors through interpersonal conversation. Let's consider such conversation with regard to the three-question empowerment model.
Self-efficacy is rarely the issue, and neither is response-efficacy. It's possible an employee did not know the safe way to complete a job safely, but not probable.
The critical issue is usually outcome-expectancy. A worker likely knows how to perform the task safely, and believes the safe way is optimal for injury prevention. S/he is just more motivated to take the risk to save time or avoid some inconvenience.
What rationale can you use to overcome this motivation to take a risky shortcut? The common reason, "You might get hurt," is not effective because the person’s experience discredits this assertion. "I've taken this risk many times before, and I’ve never been hurt."
I suggest adding an actively-caring component to the conversation: “Yes, I understand that your skills help you handle the risk of injury and it probably won't happen to you. But what if everyone performed the risky behavior? Would someone get hurt? Do you care?"
An employee will probably answer, "Yes" to the first question. In fact, a "No, I don't care" reply indicates the kind of employee who is detrimental to achieving an injury-free workplace, and you'd be wise to find a way to limit his/her employment in your organization.
So when you get a "Yes, I care" retort, follow-up with reference to observational learning. Indicate that the individual's skills and experience make him/her a model employee whose behavioral example influences the actions of others, especially less-skilled workers. When respected employees work at-risk, they help to establish a social norm to perform the risky behavior.
How can an actively-caring emotion be activated? First, feeling an emotion is motivational. We are motivated to enhance positive emotions and avoid or reduce negative emotions.
In some safety programs,, workers tell heartrending stories of their on-the-job injuries, influenced by their at-risk behavior. Emotions of the audience can be dramatically aroused.
This verifies that they really do care. Now is the opportune time to instruct these emotional spectators how to actively care. They have the motivation to learn an injury-prevention strategy. They are primed for self-efficacy--“What can I do to prevent the occurrence of similar injuries?”
Imagine a workplace where employees willingly talk about their injury-related experiences, along with the environmental, behavioral, attitudinal, and management-system factors that contributed to their close calls or injuries. Wouldn't these presentations be more motivating and instructive than an injury story by an outside speaker from another organization and work culture?
The critical issue: you must cultivate a work culture where employees are comfortable telling their injury or close-call stories, and feel appreciated when they do so.