Psychology is going positive — something to consider in your efforts to motivate workers to think and act safely.

You see, for much of its history, psychology has focused much attention on the negative. Hmmm… might we say the same about safety programs? But I digress.

Remember Dr. Freud? According to the good Doktor, we are driven by unconscious impulses, most of which are pretty unpleasant (at least to others). We are fundamentally selfish, thanks to the pleasure drives of the Id. Other influential theories that psychologists have subscribed to, like behaviorism, are perhaps not as problem-driven and “dark” as the psychoanalytic approach, but they still aim more at what is wrong than what is right. There are problems (naturally), and we have to rely on trained experts to fix them. Just like in safety.

A few years back, some psychologists came to the conclusion that we know a whole lot more about psychopathology — the negative — than we do about psychological health — the positive. Prominent in this group are Martin Seligman (who developed the so-called “learned helplessness” theory of depression — see what I mean about the negative approach?) and a colleague with the unpronounceable name of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. These two established a new approach that now goes by the name of “positive psychology.”

Expanding the positive

One form of positive psychology used to improve organization (and safety) effectiveness is so-called Appreciative Inquiry. Established by researchers and practitioners at Case Western Reserve University, especially David Cooperrider, it focuses on what is working now and has worked in the past, not mainly or only on problems.

That is, an appreciative inquiry analyzes how to do more of what is working — how to expand the positive, rather than how to plug the holes. In analyzing workplace safety, for instance, the question would shift from “What problems are we having?” to “What is working around here?”

Maybe it’s partly because we tend to find what we look for, but this appreciative line of inquiry results in a more energized organization than do traditional change-management approaches. People and organizations looking for and finding problems sometimes become overwhelmed and paralyzed. So much is wrong, the problems so large, the organization feels helpless and depressed. Or we might get lip service to the changes needed, a few lightweight problems tackled, victory declared, and a return to business as usual. (Sound like any safety experiences you know of?)

Try this on for size: Inventory your organizational successes, your “peak experiences.” Focus on how to create and spread those kinds of successes throughout the organization. And watch people get excited about making a good thing even better.

Improving beyond compliance

Safety has traditionally been comfortable with using the negative approach. Violate a safety rule and get caught, you get disciplined. Do it often enough, or break a big enough rule, and you are out.

To be sure, behavior-based safety and extensions of BBS, such as my fellow columnist Scott Geller’s excellent “People-Based Safety” system, focus on activating and reinforcing safe behavior instead of punishing unsafe behavior. In my experience, though, most real-world safety systems continue to punish violations, and more generally take a negative orientation. Certainly safety regulators do. Consequently, employees associate safety programs with threats of punishment lurking very near the surface.

So how might Appreciative Inquiry energize and make your safety program more effective?

First, and importantly, this “inquiry” is explicitly not problem solving. If your organization is in flames, what’s there to appreciate? Launching an appreciative inquiry initiative is more sound when your organization is in fact OK, but could be better.

If you want to make that sort of improvement (such as organizational safety cultures stretching for world-class or best-in-class status, and/or going for Voluntary Protection Program “Star” status), you can structure a process of discovery (or rediscovery) of what “works,” what is best in your organization. Get your folks to become mindful of, and reflect upon, what they do when they are at their very best. The Appreciative Inquiry process poses these types of questions:

  • “Think of a specific safety achievement for which you and your team were recognized. You seized an opportunity and represented your organization at its very best — what was that like?”
  • “Think of a time when you were personally most proud to be a part of this organization’s safety efforts. Specifically, what happened, and what did it feel like to you and your team?”
Often, these questions are raised in small-group breakout work, very commonly in pairs. Each partner answers a series of such questions, all aimed at rediscovering and exploring the strengths and successes of the organization. Then each pair will share their peak examples with the large group. People are usually surprised at how easy such an exercise is, and at the large number of examples folks can produce of “us at our very best.” It’s important to provide details about what you did, how you did it, and how you can do it some more. This is every bit as true for safety as it is for other aspects or organizational performance.

Accentuate accomplishments

Try it out at your next safety meeting. Put OSHA aside and ask folks to think of a recent safety accomplishment. Perhaps your injury/illness incidence rate improved last year. Why? What are you doing “right”? Have employees talk it over with a partner, and share examples with the full group. Then ask, “What, specifically, can we all do to spread those winning strategies and practices throughout our whole operation?”

Appreciative Inquiry could help your organization step away from the shopworn and at times inappropriate practice of safety policing, toward a more rewarding root cause analysis of safety success stories. It could change your image from safety cop to safety strategist, and become one of your most useful tools in building your Positive Safety Culture.