There isn’t any magic bullet when it comes to making the workplace safer but the thing that comes closest is trust. No change, no improvement, no carefully crafted organizational change initiative will ever come to fruition until and unless workers trust the leadership of the organization. If workers mistrust their supervisors, the leadership, or the safety professional even the best safety efforts will fail. It sounds simple, but in my career I have seen more organizational change effort—whether aimed at improving safety or changing benefits—fail because of mistrust.
It’s a shame, because every day, we ask—no expect—worker’s to trust us, and let’s face it, in many cases there is scant reason why workers’ should believe us when we tell them that everything will be better if they just do this or that or when we tell them that this time things will be different.
Workers’ Aren’t Stupid (Well Most of Them Anyway)
Workers’ do stupid things, we all do, and like most (if not all) workers are skeptical when they hear that the “flavour of the month” will be the salvation of the workingman. Most don’t want to invest time, effort, and emotions into something that they know in the deepest recesses of their souls won’t last as long as the life of the alpha fruit fly. And with the safety community trotting this dog and pony show after that can we really blame them? Workers want to do their job, collect an honest wage and return home safe unharmed. It sounds simple, maybe even trite, but it’s true. The problem with getting people to change the way they conduct themselves in a business setting—whether or not they follow the rules, whether or not they take unreasonable risks, and the very basis of their decision-making—depends on the level of trust within the organization.
The Nature Of Trust
When most of us think of trust we think about our willingness to believe that people wouldn’t deliberately harm us, whether the nature of the harm be physical, psychological, or financial, or some other means I’m too lazy or intellectually limited to ponder. In basest possible terms we count on the fact that they, as The Simpsons barman Moe Szyslak put it, “wish (us) no specific harm”. When we trust someone we count on them to consider our best interests when they act, and not “screw us over” in some way. Most safety professionals are trust worthy in this respect. But there is more to trust than just believing that given have a chance your safety rep won’t mug you in the men’s room. In fact, there are several different kinds of trust.
- Trust in motives. When we mistrust someone’s motives it’s generally because we suspect that they have an alternative agenda, about which they aren’t being completely honest and above board. We suspect that the person we mistrust is putting their own needs (or the needs of the Elvis impersonator who lives next door, for all we know or care) before our needs, and if momma ever taught us anything it’s that if we don’t look out for ourselves no one else is likely to. When workers mistrust the organization it’s not that they necessarily think the safety professional or the leadership are looking out for themselves at the expense
- Trust in competence. Sometimes we don’t trust people, not because we believe they have a larcenous heart, rather because we believe they have cheese and sawdust in their heads. And when it comes to safety we want to know that the people making decisions about how work is completed actually know what they are doing, that their decisions won’t get us killed or leave us horribly maimed. We may believe that people making the decisions hear t is in the right place
- Trust in Judgment. I know some safety people who have never met a dumb idea that they didn’t immediately love. The rest of the organization just rolls its collective eye when it hears the details of the hair-brained scheme-d’ jour
- Trust the facts. It’s one thing to trust people have your best interests at heart and another thing to believe that they have the facts straight and still another to believe that they are properly interpreting the facts. We live in an age where people are bombarded with facts. Facts without context, facts that are often confused and sometimes just made up. More and more people seek out the most ludicrous information to support whatever they want to believe, and its tough convince them otherwise. So it stands to reason that workers will openly question the facts presented to them. Just look at the practice of smokers. There has been evidence linking cigarettes and cancer (not to mention heart disease) and yet as I write this, countless thousands will spark up another one. Why? Because sometimes even when the facts are known a person simply choses to ignore them.
It takes a lifetime to build trust and only a simple lapse in judgment or bad decision to wipe it out. Mostly trust is built on two things, past experience and consistency. And while we can’t change past experience we can develop a climate of consistency. People tend to trust what they can predict.
And let us not forget that trust is a two-way street; leadership can’t expect workers to trust them unless they first trust workers.