It’s quite easy to give ourselves a label, isn’t it?

We are taught to describe ourselves: “I’m an ‘Introvert’ which explains my discomfort working in big teams,” or “My co-worker is a ‘Judger’ which explains why she is so critical.” We have the impression that if we just “know” ourselves and others better our work together will be more collaborative and productive. 

But labeling doesn’t impact our ability to manage the behavior of others (or ourselves for that matter). The environment is the context of all we do. It is a multitude of present realities and artifacts of past events that our brain has to navigate and engage with. After labeling, we may feel enlightened, but the environment doesn’t change and we end up acting the same way as in the past as the environment dictated.  Nothing changes.

Don’t we overuse labels when dealing with the safety of our work crews and managers?  For example, if workers can’t follow rules and procedures that are clearly written in the manuals and training, and then they get hurt, they’re “Stupid,” “Noncompliant,” or “Lazy” or “___________” (you can fill in the blank – please keep it rated “P.G. 13”). We label a lot… and it’s a dysfunctional practice.  Let me explain…

What can you do about “stupid”?

If workers can’t follow the rules… policies, manuals, procedures, training… the implication is that they’re stupid. But you know what? You can’t fix stupid. 

What can you do about Stupid? Honestly, what can you do?

Do you coach the person taking risks? That rarely works because they may try to comply with your logic and requests but find themselves back in the same environment once you leave. 

Do you fire the “stupid” person? Then you’re going to hire someone just as… stupid; they will end up frustrating you as well because they will be put in the same environment as the exiting person.

 So you’re left with no solution when you label, except getting more and more upset, pleading with workers: “don’t be stupid.” 

Telling folks “Don’t BE this…” simply does not work. You can’t fix a label; that would be like fixing a person. Instead of asking a person to BE or NOT-TO-BE something, focus on how you can help them DO what is required to be safe. 

A better analysis

Insert some behavioral science, do a smarter analysis, and teach your employees how to change behavior. Let’s actually focus on something we can fix. Say a worker finds himself on the top rung of a step ladder. How did he end up in the position to take this risk? 

Well, the step ladder he used was in a housekeeping closet about 20 steps away. What was the safer alternative? For that height, you should use a six-foot ladder.  So why didn’t he?

The six-foot ladder was located at the shipping dock, about a seven-minute walk (times two for the round trip). Getting the six-foot ladder was costly in terms of effort. We call this a “response cost.” It factors into our decision to do the safe action or take a short cut that may put us at-risk. Some behaviors take extra time that could be used elsewhere, extra effort that makes us more fatigued, or behaviors may even have social consequences such as tarnishing our reputation or trust among fellow workers.  These all “cost” us and, naturally, we try to minimize costs.

We discover very quickly that the circumstances surrounding the ladder encouraged the risk.  Getting the job done quicker and easier was the more powerful consequence. We arrived at the root cause. 

Fix the environment

It was one of those “easy button” moments. Easy solution. Procure ladders and put them in the housekeeping closets around the plant. We don’t have to call each other stupid.  We don’t have to label.  We can’t fix stupid, but we can fix the situation!  This analysis allows us to arrive at a solution: make the safe behavior quicker and easier to do. We don’t fix stupid, because no one was actually stupid. We fixed the environment to change behavior.  Future workers will be more likely to use the correct ladder.

The lesson learned here: instead of labeling, make the proper tools more available at the point where the work is done. Change the environment, and by changing the environment, you change behavior. Workers should no longer have to find themselves in a situation that encourages them to take risks.

Instead of asking a person to BE something, focus on how you can help them DO what is required to be safe. Recognize that EVERYONE wants to be safe and act safe. It is your job to remove the barriers that put them in the position to, knowingly or unknowingly, take that risk. When you get away from the label, you’ll be much more likely to see what those barriers are.

Labeling is a human tendency that results in a dysfunctional practice that not only hurts your safety culture but also does little to reduce the risks that get people hurt. Indeed, it’s easy for folks to argue and agree that safety is a problem -- but actively blame each other instead of working together on a solution. Take a hard look at blaming. Discover why it occurs, and how it grows into another dysfunctional practice. The blame game is unproductive. It has a way of getting into our safety management systems and substantially degrading effectiveness.