Teaching People To Follow Won’t Work

Enabling Them to Be Leader Will!

Like many safety professionals I know, I wasn’t a big fan of Behavior Based Safety – BBS when it first came on the scene in the ’80s.  It seemed that focusing on at-risk-behaviors with peer observations and coaching flew in the face of the more comprehensive teachings of Dan Peterson. 

As a safety professional, I understood the value of identifying those risky behaviors that may increase the likelihood of injury.  I also agreed that employees should be taught the correct and safe job procedures, and encouraged to look out for each other.  Where I had, and still have a problem with BBS is with those employers that were/are making a loud statement that the employees are the problem.  The old “we provide training and tell them to be safe, but they’re always taking short cuts”.   So why are they taking these short cuts anyway?

Culture Drives Behavioral Choices

Over time we’ve learned that the culture of an organization drives behavior as much, if not more than the individual choices of workers.  Dr. Peterson taught us that “incidents and resulting injuries are due to failures of management and management systems.”   Thus the question, how could the employees and their chosen at risk behaviors be the problem when they are working in systems created and directed by management?  How management directs work and the focus of performance management are more likely drivers of safe or unsafe work habits.

In all fairness some employees can be trouble.  They probably shouldn’t have been hired in the first place and really don’t want to help the organization succeed.  It seems like every company has a bad apple or two.  These aren’t the employees I’m referring to here.  I’m talking the average, everyday employees who cares about their job and the company, and want to perform their work to the best of their ability.  These are the employees for whom the systems were designed, not those who will take short-cuts.

The Focus Has Shifted

Over the years I have learned that BBS has a place in the management system.  It shouldn’t be the centerpiece though.  Recently, I read an article by Mike Williamson, PhD. and a performance consultant with Core Media.  He was making the point that many safety professionals self-limit themselves by focusing on regulatory compliance and safe work practices (behaviors), when they should be aligning safety with overall work performance.

When first implemented, BBS interventions can produce positive results.  Usually there’s low hanging fruit that is easy to pick.  With a clear focus on the more hazardous jobs and specific at-risk-behaviors, creating a peer-to-peer observation, coaching, reporting and tracking system will increase safety awareness and often reduce reported incidents.  The problem that I see is that BBS doesn’t encourage the identification of the cultural factors that may be enabling or driving the unsafe or at-risk-behaviors.  Over time workers get tired of the BBS process and the effectiveness dwindles.  That’s really too bad, given all the time and resources that have been invested with good intentions.

Creating A Learning Organization

I’m a fan of “fixing problems” versus “placing blame”.  In some of my previous posts I’ve discussed the importance of learning through near-miss incident reporting, and how a culture rich in finger pointing cuts off all learning.

For safety performance and overall work performance to excel, employees at all levels need to engage.  Engagement creates ownership and self-responsibility.  We need to allow our people to lead.

Focus On Positive Recognition

First, we must recognize that our employees are adults.  They want to be treated with respect and trust.  When we talk with them about safety, respect their experience, discuss safety openly and honestly, and encourage feedback.  If they feel that the discussion is genuine and there is trust and respect, there will likely be a higher level of interest and cooperation.  

Trust can take safety performance to new levels of excellence, and will encourage discussion of  both obstacles and opportunities for improvement.  Through this discussion issues may be brought to light that may have been missed otherwise.  Then trust builds as the workers see management taking corrective action to correct unsafe situations, practices, or processes.

Though I know it’s not the intention, most of the BBS focus in on identifying and correcting what is wrong and too little time on what’s right.  Achieving safety excellence requires a shift to the positive, and a focus on the culture and systems under which work is performed.  Taking the spotlight off the workers and their at-risk-behaviors and re-focusing on the process in which work is performed will produce better results.  

A good way to start this shift is to conduct perception surveys.  These surveys can be helpful, iidentifying gaps in beliefs between line employees and management.  Defining this misalignment helps in targeting barriers that can impede safe work performance and areas where improvements can be made. 

Another starting point might is to focus on the incident investigation process.  Conduct more detailed investigations, looking for more than who or what was at fault.   Analyze the information and try to identify those contributing organizational factors.  What are the underlying system or root cause.  Once identified, work methods or systems can be altered to improve safety.

There’s no doubt that safety involves individual habits, choices, actions, results and consequences.  Safety is also a subset of overall performance.  To a greater extent it also involves the situations and environments in which choices are made, habits develop and performance good or bad ensues. 

We need to be purposeful in learning about our organizational culture and “how things are done here and why”.  Most of all, we need to stop telling employees to be safe.  Everyone needs to feel a part of the team;  trusted, respected, valued and encouraged to lead!