“The toolbox topic for today is chemical safety,” the supervisor said as he looked down at the information sheet he was holding. “The first group of chemicals we will review are known as acids. Strong acids have a pH that is significantly less than 7. Some examples include…”
With this introduction, the warehouse crew in the room immediately tuned out. Some looked at the ceiling. Some stared at their shoes. Some even took a quick peek at their cell phones.
Too often, we view safety conversations as simply something that has to be done. We know these conversations are a responsibility of any leader. However, when we talk with employees about safety, our conversations are often reactive and seldom well-planned.
If a safety meeting is conducted where the primary goal of the leader is to “check the box” for a required training, the response is predictable. When employees realize the objective, there is no engagement. Most attendees stare blankly or watch the clock. Group meetings such as these should not even be considered as “conversations.” They have almost no impact in terms of engagement, learning, or mindset.
In this article, we will discuss three essential attributes for proactive safety conversations to have a positive impact. Think of these as the 3 P’s of an effective proactive conversation:
Are you aware of the extent that your emotions may affect others? Your verbal and face-to-face cues are surprisingly influential in determining the feelings of those who are listening and observing. This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion. It is recognized by behavioral psychologists as a kind of interpersonal influence.
Studies reveal that emotions (either positive or negative) spread among group members like viruses. Emotional contagion often occurs at a subconscious level. In other words, people are unaware that their emotions may have been affected by another person’s mood with whom they are in close contact.
But it goes even deeper than a transfer of emotions. Research by Sigal Barsade has demonstrated that when emotional contagion takes place, the judgment and quality of group decisions are also impacted. Let’s review a study that shows how the emotions of a single person can significantly impact an entire group’s performance.
Business school students were divided into small groups for a simulated management exercise. Each had to role-play a department head advocating for an employee to get a merit-based increase. At the same time, all the students were part of a “salary committee” negotiating how best to allocate a limited amount of bonus money. In essence, they had to balance getting the most for their own candidate, while maximizing the overall benefit to the company. Each group was also seeded with a confederate (an actor) who was trained to convey one of four different mood conditions:
• cheerful enthusiasm
• serene warmth
• hostile irritability
• depressed sluggishness
The researchers were able to identify several effects of emotional contagion. Groups in which the confederate had “spread” positive emotion experienced an increase in positive mood. But the emotional contagion was not limited to a spread of feelings. These groups also displayed more cooperation, less interpersonal conflict, and believed that they had performed better on their task than groups in which negative emotions were spread by the confederate. In addition, groups in which people felt positive emotions made decisions that allocated the available bonus money more equitably.
When the participants were asked why they allocated the funds the way they did, and why they thought their group performed the way it did, they pointed to factors such as their ability to negotiate, or the attributes of the “candidates” they had been assigned. They were completely blind to the fact that their behavior and decisions (and that of their group) had been influenced by the displayed emotion of the confederate.
Most people understand that providing positive reinforcement is a proven way to encourage a desired behavior. But perhaps we don’t fully appreciate how powerful the simple act of acknowledging someone’s effort impacts their willingness to work – and therefore their productivity. A fascinating study sheds light on the connection between acknowledgment and intrinsic motivation.
Researchers conducted an experiment to determine if simply acknowledging a person’s effort could increase their motivation to perform more work1. The results may cause you to reconsider how you interact with others for whom you provide leadership or direction.
The experiment was set up as follows:
A stack of papers was created where letters of the alphabet were placed in random order on each sheet of paper. Participants were given a single sheet and instructed to find all the pairs of identical letters that were next to each other.
When the first paper was completed, they were paid 55 cents. The participant was then asked if they wanted to complete the same assignment (finding adjacent pairs of letters) on another sheet of paper for 5 cents less. This process continued until the participant declined to do any more work. There were three conditions set up in this experiment. Each is described below. Continue reading
Harry couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was shift change. Rob was leaving the locker room and headed toward the operating floor. His colorful athletic shoes were in stark contrast to the soiled and well-worn boots of the other guys around him.
Rob gave a slight nod of his head as he approached Harry, one of the shift supervisors.
“Hey, Harry. Did the machine run well on first shift? I sure hope I’m not walking into a mess in there. After last week, I was hoping for a routine day at work.”
Harry wasn’t in the mood for small talk. He just pointed down at Rob’s shoes and asked abruptly, “Speaking of walking, what are you thinking? You know everyone is required to wear steel-toed shoes. No exceptions!”
“Oh, those,” Rob countered, a little taken aback by Harry’s tone. “Let me explain…”
Harry interrupted him. “No explanation needed. It’s black and white. Either you are wearing the right shoes or not. And those are definitely NOT work shoes!”
“I know that,” Rob responded, the volume of his voice rising to match Harry’s. “I was just going to…”
Harry raised his hand and stopped Rob again. “Look, you’re not going anywhere near the operating floor with those on your feet. So either borrow a pair of shoes – or go home and get some proper foot protection – ‘cause you are not working today unless you have them.”
Rob crossed his arms and glared at Harry. “Can you take one minute and listen?”
Most organizations that seek to achieve safety excellence realize that this performance level can only be attained with strong leadership. When it comes to safety, there are two prevalent leadership philosophies. There is a stark contrast between the resulting safety cultures. We can better understand the differences by realizing that each is grounded in very different motives. One approach emphasizes control, while the other starts with caring.
Control = Compliance
Some managers define “strong leadership” as carrying a big stick. These managers believe that any time there is an injury or near miss, their principal responsibility is to hold people accountable. In practice, this means that the primary reason they have any safety conversation is to exert more control.
These managers believe that if people would simply comply with the policies, rules, and procedures, then no one would get hurt. Armed with this reasoning, they strive for greater control by criticizing actions that are inconsistent with established policies. Safety conversations center on correcting errant behaviors through counseling or discipline.
This safety philosophy leads to a Culture of Compliance.
The graphic shown here demonstrates the actions which lead to this kind of safety culture, which is summarized in the following statement:
If the reason (Why) you have any safety conversation is to exert control, the approach will be to criticize (How) and seek compliance through correction (What).
A Culture of Compliance results in a false sense of improved safety performance, because many incidents are driven underground. The official safety numbers may look good. However, the number of unreported near misses and unrecorded minor injuries are indicative of an insidious safety culture. Because the causes are never acknowledged and addressed, they accumulate until a significant event occurs. Continue reading
Imagine you are part of a team that has been assigned a particularly difficult maintenance job. It will take three craftsmen at least eight hours to complete this task. Your supervisor (Jeff) is coordinating a long list of planned jobs as part of a large shutdown. Before you go to the work site, Jeff provides a pre-job brief:
“OK, guys – listen up. We have to replace the large pump in the northwest corner of the basement. As you know, it’s in a very tight space with no head room and there isn’t much ventilation or lighting down there – so make sure you hook up a fan and some temporary lighting. This is a critical path job, so I need you guys to get started on it ASAP. The guys on the production line will be waiting on this job before they can start back up. We’re behind on shipping customer orders, so there’s some heat from upper management to get in, get out, and get running. Don’t take any more time than is necessary to get the pump changed out. Keep any breaks to a minimum. I know you guys always work at a good pace. That’s why I teamed you up on this job – to get it done quickly. I’ll be checking on the job every hour to see if we are on schedule. If you need anything, get me on the radio and I will rush whatever you need to the work site. If you run into any problems and aren’t sure what to do – use your judgment and do whatever takes the least amount of time. I know I can count on you guys to get this job done right and on time. I gotta go … but don’t hesitate to yell if you need anything!
Oh…. and be safe.” Continue reading