As a manager, it is likely that some of the biggest challenges you face are those that you consider to be “people problems.”
[I will not be discussing any of the myriad of technical dilemmas of managers – those that are centered on manufacturing methods, research, product development, engineering, technology, logistics, etc].
In this post, I am referring to the kinds of problems where the character of the individual is perceived to be the main reason for a performance issue. For example:
- An employee fails to follow work instructions, which results in rework.
- A worker is injured when she takes an unnecessary risk to get the job done.
- A number of employees are perpetually late when submitting expense reports.
- An employee’s timeliness in completing some assignments is unacceptable.
- Supervisors do not spend enough time talking to their employees.
If you were faced with any of the challenges listed, what would you do? Many of us would engage the employee in some form of training, coaching, counseling, and/or expectation setting. In other words, we assume that the behavior is largely determined by the individual’s character, personality, or mindset. Unfortunately, we frequently overlook the power of “situations” in determining someone’s behavior.
A number of years ago, Stanford psychologist Lee Ross conducted a literature review on a large number of studies in psychology. He concluded that we have a tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. Ross referred to this tendency as the Fundamental Attribution Error. We make this error when we attribute people’s behavior to the way they are (their character) rather than to the situation they are in (their environment).
Victor has over 20 years experience in the warehouse. You have a few years of experience and were just hired a few weeks ago. Today, you are working as a team, unloading pallets of packaged materials that were delivered from the dock. As both of you approach the first pallet, Victor takes a position directly in front of the strapping that is straining under tension. You see that this puts him in the line of fire. Instinctively, you take a step back when Victor pulls a pair of snips from his pocket to cut the strapping…
Do you speak up? Do you stop him? Are you sure?
Perhaps you would say something. But a surprising number of people in this situation would stay silent. Their thought process would be something like, “Surely he must know how to perform this task safely. He’s done it thousands of times. I’m the rookie here. Who am I to question his experience and job knowledge?”
Peer pressure is a powerful social influence. Most of us are fearful of being considered an outcast if we are the dissenter, especially if we have less informal authority than other people in our natural work group.
You may think of peer pressure as overt statements from co-workers. “Look, this is the way things are done around here.” But this is not always the case. In the scenario above, Victor did not have to remind you about his seniority and experience. It was implied and understood.
It was noisy in the meeting room as the construction workers assembled early one morning. The concrete floor and cinder block walls created an echo chamber for the men’s voices and the squeaking of metal chairs being pushed into place. Spartan furniture and a dusty, bare floor were tell-tale signs that this room was used occasionally for crew meetings, but not much else. Some folding tables on one side of the room strained under the weight of 3-ring binders and manuals stacked half-way to the ceiling. Another table in the back held a large coffee urn and numerous boxes of doughnuts, most of which had already been claimed.
While Russ went to the front of the room to get the projector running, I settled into a metal chair beside the doughnut table, fighting the urge to grab one of the few remaining sugary treats. Russ was the internal trainer. He was scheduled to talk to the group for the first hour.
The class about safety culture and leadership had been requested by the contractor’s leadership team. The company recently had some serious injuries and near misses. They were anxious to see what could be done to prevent another event.
The managers were perplexed why some of their guys were taking risks, even though they had implored them to “be careful.” Even more disturbing, it seemed as though someone was making a mistake on the job almost every week. While all of these were small errors, the senior managers knew that any one of these mistakes could cause significant property damage or result in another injury under different circumstances.
As Russ went through the introductory slides and started the first class exercise, a burly man dressed in blue jeans and a shirt that appeared to be one size too small abruptly emerged from an office which adjoined the conference room. The name plate and title above the door indicated that Ed was a supervisor. Ed yanked his office door closed behind him, causing a loud thud when it met the door jamb. I heard him mutter a couple of expletives as he walked briskly by my chair and walked heavily down the stairs on the far side of the room. Continue reading
It takes at least two people to have a conversation. For a conversation to be effective, each person needs to alternatively talk and listen. Unfortunately, some leaders are prone to lecturing, with very little listening. This ineffective communication style isn’t isolated to senior leaders who ascribe to the command-and-control approach to management. It can be seen at all levels of organizations.
The prevalent communication style of managers and supervisors is a barometer of the safety culture. Occasional, one-way safety conversations are telltale signs of a culture of compliance. Frequent, interactive safety conversations are indicative of a culture of commitment.
As indicated in a previous post, the motive for having a conversation significantly influences the safety culture. To recap:
- If the reason you have any safety conversation is to exert control, the approach will be to criticize and seek compliance through correction.
- If the reason you have any safety conversation is because you care, the approach will be to coach and seek commitment through collaboration.
One communication model1 suggests that an effective organizational conversation has four attributes: intimacy (building trust and listening), interactivity (promoting discussion), inclusion (collaborating on solutions), and intentionality (sharing a common purpose).
In this article, I introduce a guide for an effective safety conversation – one that starts with caring. This guide incorporates the four attributes of an effective conversation. It also stimulates a conversation that enables coaching and collaboration.
Five-Step Guide for a Safety ConversationTM
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
We are influenced by the actions of others more than we may care to admit. Many researchers have confirmed that social influence has a powerful effect on our decisions.
We experience many forms of social influence, although we probably don’t think about it. Perhaps you purchased something after hearing about it from a friend or family member. Or you may have joined an organization or club because someone you know is one of the members. Throughout our lives, we have been powerfully persuaded or casually nudged thousands of times to make a decision or take an action because of social influence.
Indeed, the authors of Influencer contend that there are six sources of influence. They refer to one of these influences as social motivation (although most of us think of this as peer pressure).
Let’s review a recent study by Pedro Gardette of Stanford that supports this concept. He wanted to measure the effect of social influence on the purchasing patterns of airline passengers. Continue reading