How much does pessimism cost your safety efforts each year? Probably a significant piece of change — in both senses of the word.

Pessimism is the mental and emotional equivalent of mechanical friction. This friction drags down individuals and organizations. Pessimism forces companies to spend extra time and resources to launch and sustain performance improvement efforts. It can cause safety, quality, and productivity initiatives to struggle and often die — when they deserve to survive and flourish.

Optimistic conduct or behavior, on the other hand, can make an important difference between success and failure for individuals and organizations. Beginning with your own communication behavior as a safety professional, you can help your organization identify and reduce pessimistic behavior, replacing it with optimistic problem-solving behaviors.

What is it?

The best indicator of pessimism and optimism is the way that people explain events or occurrences, according to psychologist Martin Seligman, a leading researcher in this field. Seligman has discovered that pessimists explain problems as though they are personal, pervasive, and permanent. By contrast, optimists look at problems as non-personal or system-related, specific or local rather than pervasive, and fixable rather than permanent.

When managers or shop floor personnel talk as though individuals are the primary cause of safety problems we are hearing personalization. An example is, “Our people are the problem. They are either lazy or not motivated. They constantly are doing the wrong things or taking shortcuts.”

Instead of citing specific causes for problems, a pessimistic explanation conveys the impression that the problem is “everywhere.” Pervasiveness shows up when people make statements about “everyone” and “always”. A typical pervasive explanation says, “Our people don’t care about safety. Safety is only important when it threatens to make somebody look bad.”

When barriers to safety excellence are presented as chronic problems that cannot be corrected, the person is talking in terms of permanence. We hear this when someone makes a statement such as, “Incident rates may rise and fall but the root causes never go away — injuries are the cost of doing business.” Individuals using this kind of pessimistic language are not likely to take action or get involved. “What’s the point?” they would say.

What to do

Pessimism can paralyze problem-solving. That’s because working on problems is an optimistic activity. The good news is that since pessimism is a behavior, it can be changed.

The first step is for safety professionals, managers, and influential employees to make sure that their own communications avoid personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. By contrast, an optimistic explanation:

  • Speaks of system improvement rather than personal blame;

  • Focuses on specific barriers versus pervasive or general problems; and

  • Expects improvement because it is possible and plausible.

Pursue system improvements. The optimistic message is this: “Good systems already in place can always use new kinds of support to make them even better.” Formulate your own communication in terms of system improvement. Listen for the system element in the explanations of others, and emphasize that aspect when planning actions.

Focus on specifics. Instead of talking about global challenges, work on what I call “line-of-sight” targets and goals. These are goals that people can see from a daily perspective, and are widely regarded as achievable and beneficial.

Expect improvement. At my site we ran up against a rash of incidents associated with a procedure that was difficult to use. In response, we used our behavior-based safety data to discover the system barriers that made the procedure hard to follow. We also used that data to redesign the procedure and the layout of the job.

Some of the team members were pessimistic about our chances of improving that procedure. They knew that some of our managers did not appreciate how difficult the procedure was, and they felt sure that once we proposed our remedies the chain of command was going to tell us to stop griping and “just do it.” But since our suggestions were based on objective data, we carried the motion. After this experience, even the pessimists became optimists who began to expect improvements.

The way to convert pessimism into optimism is to purposely make system improvements by means of very specific gains that people can expect to achieve. That keeps the focus on systems rather than on persons or personalities. It ensures that the problems you take on are ones that people can understand and value. And it builds confidence in the workforce and gradually leads them to simply expect improvement in their safety performance.