Psychology of safety
Let me explain these psychological terms. First, when you promote a “can do” attitude toward safety, you’re promoting self-efficacy. Numerous studies have shown that people with strong “can do” attitudes demonstrate greater ability and motivation to solve problems at work. And they have better health and safety habits.
But it’s not enough to convince your employees that they “can do” safety. Employees must believe that your safety plan will be effective. This is called response-efficacy.
Finally, employees must believe that safety is worth the effort. This is outcome-expectancy.
So how do you instill these three keys to safety participation in your workforce?
Building skillsStart with training. Behavior-based teaching builds competence by detailing specific steps for: 1) observing and analyzing another person’s behaviors; 2) delivering supportive and corrective feedback; 3) developing an improvement plan; and, 4) obtaining commitment for change and follow-up.
But effective safety coaches need more than these skills to possess that “can do” attitude of self-efficacy. People may be competent, but not confident in their coaching abilities. It takes practice and feedback over time to develop the sense of mastery that usually leads to self-efficacy.
Please note that self-efficacy is not the same as self-esteem, though these beliefs tend to influence each other. Self-esteem reflects a general sense of self-worth, as in, “I am valuable.” Self-efficacy refers to feeling successful or competent at a particular task. Self-esteem remains rather constant across situations. Self-efficacy is task-focused and can vary markedly from one circumstance to another.
But even when employees have both self-efficacy and adequate skills to execute your safety plan, they won’t do it unless they believe your plan will work — response-efficacy.
Proving the payoffIt’s not enough to know what to do and have the confidence to do it. Your employees can have the skills and self-efficacy to perform safety coaching, for example, but they will not actually coach on a regular basis unless they believe the coaching process actually improves safety. So how do you convince people that a certain safety technique will pay off?
The most common approach is to use statistics that show significant improvement as a result of a particular safety strategy. But employees won’t necessarily relate to these numbers. It’s better to get more personal when trying to “sell” the value of a safety process to a workforce.
Research on risk perception, for example, has shown that people get more concerned or outraged about an issue when individual case studies are used in lieu of group statistics. That’s why politicians like to point out specific individuals in their audiences when trying to gain support for a particular issue or plan.
Personal testimonies provide a powerful image. Listeners can relate to an individual’s story and put themselves in the same situation. Two kinds of testimonies can increase response-efficacy: 1) a personal account of an injury that could have been prevented by the safety technique; and, 2) an anecdote about someone who avoided injury by using the particular strategy or safety process.
But is it worth it?We might believe we can do something for safety. We also might believe that what we do will have a positive effect. But we won’t get involved unless we also believe the goal is worth working for.
In safety, for example, a group might believe their safety record is good enough, given that they see very few coworkers getting seriously injured. The potential gain from an inconvenient safety process might seem too small to justify the amount of extra effort required.
Remember, too, that each employee sees the probability of getting hurt as miniscule. As a result, the need to participate in a safety effort can seem insignificant.
Consequences keep us going — I’ve mentioned this many times in my ISHN articles. One of B.F. Skinner’s most important legacies is the principle that we motivate ourselves to do or not do something by anticipating what positive consequences we expect to gain from our participation — and/or what negative consequences we expect to avoid.
So to build outcome-expectancy — the belief that the consequences are worth your effort — I suggest again “selling” with a case study rather than statistics. You could show, for example, the details of a single injury that occurred in your plant. Explain how an intervention like the one being taught could have prevented that incident.
Part of your “selling” should be to get employees to see the bigger picture. Move them away from the individualistic “it-won’t-happen-to-me” mindset. You want to develop systems thinkers who take a wider view, and recognize that someone will benefit from large-scale participation in your safety process.
Appeal to workers’ caring for themselves, their families, and their coworkers. When people see the bigger picture and adopt a “collective community” perspective, they realize their participation in a safety process will eventually benefit someone in their workplace. And you’ll find that this belief — that it is meaningful to work for the potential benefit of others — in turn fuels self-efficacy and response-efficacy.
Pop psychologists and motivational speakers are right. Beliefs are important in determining success. But we need to go beyond self-affirmation or self-confidence to meet the challenges of workplace safety. Inspiring the three beliefs I’ve discussed in this article — both in yourself and others — is key to maximizing participation and success in a safety process.