Take a moment and do a brief exercise with us. Grab a piece of paper and in 30 seconds write out all of the things you do to help manage safety in your organization. Go ahead, we’ll wait.
Ok, take a look at your list. It likely includes things like:
- Write safety procedures
- Do audits or inspections
- Facilitate training or safety meetings
- Model “safe behaviors”
- Investigate accidents and incidents
Your list might have more or less things, or you might call these things something different. Take a moment to reflect on this question as you look at the list – what are you trying to achieve with each of these? We don’t mean the obvious things like “we train so that people know the safe way to do the job.” We mean what is the overall goal of all of these things we are trying to do? It’s to prevent accidents, reduce risk, control hazards, eliminate “unsafe acts.”
That’s all well and good. After all, no one wants anyone to get hurt at work. But telling people what you don’t want (accidents, incidents, negative things) doesn’t tell them what you do want. And sometimes we can be so focused on what we do not want that we create processes that inhibit us from getting what we do want.
Lets take a deeper look at this – the avoidance of accidents taps into the innate human instinct for survival. Certainly no one wants to get hurt at work, so the things on your list likely help tap into that survival motivation.
But that’s not the only thing that motivates people.
People do not exist merely to survive. Instead, we have psychological motivators that we use to give meaning to our lives. For example, some powerful intrinsic motivators include autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These motivators are acted out every day in what we do in small and big ways at work. Take for example the construction worker who expresses himself by putting stickers on his hardhat (autonomy). Or the sense of pride an engineer has when she works out a difficult design problem (mastery). Or the water utility worker who cuts a procedural corner to get a homeowners water on faster so they can bathe their kids before school (purpose).
Take a look back at your list of safety management tasks. How many of them tap into these intrinsic motivators? How many of them are in conflict? Here’s some examples for consideration:
- When we spell out the one best way to do a job through a procedure and force workers to follow the procedure without question, how would that affect their sense of autonomy?
- When we tell them that safety is the number one priority (or value if that’s the language you prefer), essentially saying that survival is the goal of the organization, what effect would that have on their sense of the organization’s purpose?
- When we create processes (audits, observations, inspections) to constantly check to ensure that employees are doing it the right way, implying that they can’t do it without supervision, how does that develop a sense of mastery over the work processes?
It is important that we constantly evaluate what we are trying to achieve with our safety management processes. Safety management for the sake of safety management is not only confusing, but it is counter productive. Instead, look for ways to align our safety management processes to work with the psychological motivators (autonomy, mastery, purpose) innate in all of us. You will not only improve the effectiveness of your safety processes (because you’re working with people instead of in spite of them), but you will also create unintended consequences such as increased trust, employee engagement, job satisfaction, and productivity.