By Phil La Duke
Perhaps the best thing about working in Organizational Development is that I don’t hang around any one industry for protracted periods of time; I basically am called into solve a problem, that, once solved, eliminates the need for my services. (It plays hell with repeat business, but then I don’t hang around like some smarmy parasite that convinces the client of needs that are questionable at one end of the spectrum and out-and-out fraud at the other end.) Not that I don’t enjoy repeat business where there is truly a need, but moving from organization to organization working on unique problems that provide me with deep insights in to the nature of safety and often great ideas that I can apply in other industries and in other ways. In a way, it’s like getting paid to benchmark. Often I learn things of which the companies are so proud they would love to share their ideas with the entire world. In other cases I learn from the mistakes that companies make. I can than, after carefully considering what I would do differently were I to make those decisions. In short, my trans industrial knowledge and experience is part and parcel why companies hire and pay me for my services.
Perhaps the most valuable experience I’ve gained is relative to behavior vis-à-vis injuries. I’ve all but given up trying to sway people away from traditional Behavior-Based-Safety (BBS). In some cases arguing with a BBS fanatic is like doing card tricks for a dog: no matter how slowly and carefully you explain it or how many times you do it they just don’t get it. In other cases, it’s like arguing with the person who is trying get you to eat fricasseed squirrel anus. First you say, “no thank you. I’ve tried fricasseed squirrel anus and I don’t care for it” but they insist, arguing that the fricasseed squirrel anus you had wasn’t properly cooked, or that you really don’t understand what fricasseed squirrel anus is, or you haven’t had it cooked the way THEY cook it: It’s not even made with squirrel, there is no anus in it, and in fact it’s baked!!!” In either case, it just gets tiresome and I don’t think it’s worth the time and aggravation arguing logic with someone who is emotional about an issue.
So while this won’t be one of my notorious anti-BBS rants, I have learned a lot about behaviors and how they are viewed within organizations.
The most successful organizations don’t focus on UNSAFE behaviors, rather they focus on guiding behaviors—those expectations of behavior that govern the way people interact, and these behaviors are a) positive and b) transcend any one industry. In broad strokes, the most successful (and by that I mean those organizations with a demonstrable commitment to worker safety; I’ve found that the companies who legitimately care about worker safety also tend to be the most successful according to other criteria for success (financial, sustainability, etc.).
• We Respect Each Other. A functional and successful organization insists that everyone respects one another; this is difficult to fake although far too many organizations try. Dr. Paul Marciano is one of the foremost experts on worker engagement and he would be the first to tell you that an engaged workforce is one where workers are respected have no doubt of it. I’m puzzled by the difficulty supervisors and managers struggle with genuinely respecting the workers. In general the workforce is no less intelligent, less sophisticated, or in anyway inferior to those with “titled” positions, but to hear some supervisors and managers (the lack of the use of the word “leader” is deliberate) tell it you would quickly surmise that they seem to believe that the people who work for them are little more than sub-simian drones without the proverbial sense God gave geese. Workers want the same thing management wants, to make a living with as little hassle as possible. This desire for an easy go of it—occupationally speaking—isn’t borne out of laziness, rather, it’s origins lie in the simple practicality, that comes from spending the bulk of our waking hours in the workplace. It makes sense that people would want as peaceful and stress-free, and dare I say, safe environment as possible. Treating people with respect—as equals that have the same value to the organization’s success as we do—is the cornerstone of a robust culture that values safety.
• We Believe That there is No Job Is Worth Dying For. When people do things that place them in the greatest jeopardy it’s often in the misguided attempt to be a hero. People sometimes do very dangerous things to try to keep the operations running; they don’t do it for the screaming adulations of the organization’s leaders; they do it to contribute to the company’s success, to be a part of the common good, to help preserve everyone’s livelihood. Okay, maybe it’s not so “God and Country” but in a good many cases people get hurt trying to save time, not just “butt time” but an earnest attempt to help out. And it’s not always the individual’s fault, a lot of times the organization rewards dangerous behavior as “can do attitude” and those who take unreasonable risks as “guys who can get things done”. Organization’s that truly value safety don’t see people who put themselves in the line of fire as heroes. Successful companies realize that there’s nothing heroic in keeping the plant, mill, mine, or depot running. Successful companies value the health and safety of it’s workers above production.
• We Trust People’s Intentions. When someone gets hurt doing something that could have been easily predicted and avoided, it’s tempting to see them as being lazy, stupid, careless, reckless, or otherwise up to no good. While that is certainly a probability, it’s seldom a probability. There is something of a defense mechanism in our belief that faced with a similar choice we would somehow be smarter, wiser, and more rational. Ascribing less than laudable motivations to people who get hurt is common. Too often people investigate incidents filled with preconceived notions about the motivations of the injured. But organizations that demand that people trust in the good intentions of each other seek first to understand and never rush to judgment.
• We Take Pride in The Jobs We Do. High-functioning organizations expect everyone to do their jobs correctly because it’s the right thing to do. These organizations take pains to recruit and retain people who are intrinsically motivated to do their jobs most efficiently and that understand that safety and efficiently are one and the same. These organizations believe that there is always time to do the job right, not just at the individual level but at the organizational level.
• We Communicate Openly and Honestly. Organizations with the best safety performance aren’t afraid to confront unsafe conditions and behaviors; on the contrary they expect everyone in the organization to do so. Confronting unsafe conditions means suspending judgment and assertively calling people out; its not about blame, it’s about accountability and honesty. It’s about more than owning hazards, it’s also about standing up and speaking up; it’s about doing the right thing.
• We support each other in service. A behavior that many organizations try to foment but few succeed in doing so is the “brother’s keeper” mentality. Truly successful companies take this one step further and expect all members of the organization to support each other in service. This means that workers at all levels genuinely seek to help their fellow workers to succeed, not just in the safe execution of their jobs, but in all aspects of success. This behavior is about more than keeping each other safe, it’s about providing a level of support so profound that the success of one’s co-worker is as least as important as one’s own success, and in some cases—depending on the context—it’s far more important.
In effect, identifying behaviors that are undesirable, unsafe and inappropriate can only tell workers when they have disappointed you; it’s reactive and punitive. But a code of behavior, a list of institutional expectations, a communication of the ideals of an organization manifested in an expression of the expected norms of behaviors leads the entire organization to an aspiration of a better workplace. In the final estimation the most successful companies worry less about what they accomplish and more about the means by which they accomplish it. These organizations value how people behave as much if not more than the end result.