We live, we love, we learn, and we leave a legacy.” This profound quotation from Stephen R. Covey has fueled my motivation to keep teaching at Virginia Tech well beyond retirement age and a comfortable pension. Why? Because I maintain the conviction that my expertise in applied behavioral science (ABS) is critical to improving human welfare on a large scale. The longer I hang in there, the more students I can reach. Whatever their eventual careers, these students will have numerous opportunities to improve human dynamics with the ABS principles I teach them.

Now and then, I get the ultimate positive reinforcer for my teaching. I learn that a former student has been notably successful at teaching, researching, or writing about applications of behavioral science to benefit humanity. This exemplifies the remarkable legacy of teaching and learning. When students learn from our teaching, they not only apply the principles and practical techniques, they pass them on. They leave their own teaching/learning legacy.

Relevance to OH&S

The relevance of a teaching/learning legacy to occupational health and safety is obvious,

right? Safety pros teach others everyday by their own safety-related behaviors, and whenever

they actively care for the safety of another person. How they intervene on behalf of another person’s safety is critical, not only to the person receiving the intervention but also to others who observe the interaction.

Are you leaving a teaching/learning legacy of “safety cop” with a top-down directive

approach, or are you demonstrating an empathic actively-caring-for-people (AC4P) mindset?

The non-directive stance

 In their eagerness to keep employees safe, a safety pro might give directions and corrections in a top-down, seemingly controlling manner. However, a nondirective approach to giving advice is usually more effective, especially over the long term.

How do you respond when someone tells you exactly what to do, when you didn’t ask for the advice? I bet your reaction is not entirely positive. You might follow the instructions, but how will you feel? Will you be self-motivated to make a lasting change?

While supportive feedback is directive (i.e., the desired behavior observed is pinpointed and sincere appreciation is delivered), corrective feedback should be nondirective. The objective is to get the individual to accept an observation of at-risk behavior, and then indicate an intention to improve. This is more likely to happen if the observer does not begin the corrective-feedback conversation with direction for change.

Instead, corrective feedback should begin with questions to learn the perspective of the person observed. Suppose the observee offers a number of excuses. The observer should listen attentively to these excuses with an expectation to uncover potential environmental or system factors that facilitated the performance of the at-risk behavior and/or inhibited the occurrence of a safe alternative.

The objective is to obtain some ownership of the at-risk behavior, even with excuses, along with an indication of intention (even commitment) to improve. This is most likely to happen if the observer is not perceived as passing judgment, but rather is viewed as an AC4P mentor interested in facilitating improvement.

Before thinking that one delivery of supportive or corrective feedback is insignificant, recall how an initial impression from an interpersonal conversation has influenced your opinion or attitude about the other person. Now consider how one conversation might be reported to others and influence their opinion, attitude, and even behavior. We’re talking about follow-up impact– the legacy of an effective or ineffective safety-related conversation.  

The bigger picture

To be sure, a behavior-based feedback conversation is only one of many ways the performance of a safety professional leaves a teaching/learning legacy. As safety pros age and approach retirement, they should realize the importance of leaving a positive safety legacy for the many new safety pros who have so much to learn about keeping people safe. Fortunately, these newbies do not have to start from scratch; they can learn from experienced safety pros who leave a teaching/learning legacy. Of course, advice and direction need to be accepted, and this is more likely when the coach/mentor takes a nondirective stance, as discussed earlier.

“Begin with the end in mind” is a quotation from Covey’s legacy book – “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” – that suggests a connection to the ABS principle that behavior is selected for consequences. That’s what I thought when I first read his book in 1989, soon after it was published. But after reading on, I realized this was not support for the beneficial impact of soon, certain, and positive consequences. Covey was referring to the end of life by asking, “What do you want people to say at your funeral?”

We’re back to leaving a legacy. Although I was only 47 when I read that question, it affected my self-talk and behavior. I realized that I wanted people to say, “He made a difference in the quality of people’s lives.” Now at age 76, I think almost daily about my teaching/learning legacy.

The top of two need hierarchies

I began this article with an introduction to Covey‘s four-level motivational hierarchy. Let’s consider connections between this hierarchy and the most popular hierarchy of motives ever published. In fact, I bet most readers have heard of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the bottom we have the “to live” physiological needs. Then, we have the “to love” and “to learn” needs for social acceptance, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

At the top of Maslow‘s Hierarchy is self-transcedence– the need to go beyond one’s own needs for someone else’s wellbeing. My students, colleagues, and I call this “actively caring for people”.

 The connection between these need hierarchies, proposed by two of the most provocative thought leaders of the 20th century, is obvious, right? Maslow claimed the best we can be is to go beyond ourselves for others; Covey challenged us to leave a legacy we’d be proud of. Senior safety professionals: Covey and Maslow have defined both your daily mission and your long-term goal-directed vision.

Safety professionals devote their careers to keeping people injury-free by helping them look out for the safety of others with an AC4P mindset. This exemplifies self-transcendence. And when safety pros pass on their wisdom and interpersonal safety skills to others, they are leaving a teaching/learning legacy of which they can be very proud.