Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

What’s Wrong With Drinking The Kool-Aid

poison kool aid

By Phil La Duke

Recently ISHN published an article by me (about the uselessness of slogans) that has drawn a fair amount of both criticisms and questions. In one case, a long-time reader and friend posted something of a response, and though I am arrogant, I am not arrogant enough to believe that his LinkedIn post was completed directed at me I am arrogant enough to believe that his post was at least somewhat prompted by the article. A few days later, I received a request to join the network of someone who too read the post/article and voiced her concern on how best to address the tendency on the part of both safety “professionals” (her quotes, not mine) and corporate leaders to push, slogan-based pseudo-psychological time and money wasting activities so pervasive in the safety field.

I believe that there is a great philosophical divide in safety that one can illustrate as a four quadrant model. On one axis we have behavior (I adopt the Anglo spelling of the word because that’s the way most of the world spells it) on one end and process at the other; all safety practitioners fall somewhere along this continuum. The other axis is bordered by individual responsibility versus organizational responsibility. What this means is that everyone who derives a living from safety believes that either injuries are caused by behaviours or process flaws or either the organization or the individual bears primary responsibility for safety. For the record I am a centrist in this debate although like most I can drift to a quadrant depending on my mood or the topic.

safety quadrant

As I have said on many occasions, I ardently believe that there are tools that simply don’t belong in the safety tool box. For example, there are still people out there that believe that disciplining workers for getting injured is a useful tool. While it is certainly appropriate to discipline people for recklessness, I don’t believe that it is ever appropriate to discipline people for human error, that is, something they didn’t intend to do and yet made an honest mistake. This is just one example of a “tool” that I think most people would agree doesn’t belong in the safety toolbox. I am taking the easy way out, of course, but there are a fair many more controversial tools that I could have mentioned but that would simply raise the hackles of many safety professionals and would interfere with an unemotional debate.

I have posted that “it’s just a tool and every tool in the toolbox has a use” is a tired argument and I believe that it is; it’s what people say when they can’t construct a logical argument against a point I make that questions the value of a “safety” activity. Saying “twisting the heads of ducks is just one tool in the safety professional’s toolbox” is just a passive aggressive way of saying “well that’s YOUR opinion”. Say what you want about me, but there is nothing passive about my aggression. I make these points because I want to get to the heart of the issue, and that issue is the alarming frequency with which safety practitioners use superstition and folk wisdom instead of science. Nobody likes to be told that their cherished tools are useless gibberish but at some point we have to call the emperor naked.

Too often we in safety start with a solution and work backward to make it fit the problem; we begin using the tools and methods that we enjoy, find easy to use, or understand. It’s human nature to gravitate to the familiar and safety practitioners are no different. I’ve called techniques psychobabble and antiquated. Some of these “tools” flat-out don’t work and others may still work, but there are far better, more effective and less expensive ways of accomplishing the same thing. I include Behaviour Based Safety as one of these tools. As many of you know, I am an outspoken critic of BBS. Why? because if you ask 10 BBS proponents to define it you are likely to get 11 different responses. How can a methodology be effective when its top proponents and advocates can’t seem to agree on its very definition? I honestly believe that it does lead to a “blame-the-worker” mentality. Not in all cases of course, but the danger is real and always there. When I make these criticisms people don’t defend BBS they say I don’t understand it or that the organizations that I have seen have implemented it inappropriately. We can blame the organization as improperly applying the methods or tools, and we can blame the BBS practitioner as being misguided, or we can blame a host of other things, but the damage is still done.

For the record I don’t believe that everyone who sells or advocates BBS is selling snake oil or a knuckle dragger, but some are. Many believe that what they are doing is the best bet for improving worker safety, other have spent their career selling something that is increasingly dubious and when it comes to safety this is unconscionable. But as my LinkedIn colleague pointed out, clouding the water by filling the C+ suite’s heads with ill-defined schemes for making the workplace safer puts workers at risk.

Many BBS practitioners advocate behaviour modification as a useful tool for “changing our lives for the better” and I couldn’t agree more. But shy of a cult, behaviour modification is typically not successful in changing the behaviour of a population. The workplace is an interactive population and the sciences of sociology, anthropology and other social sciences are ignored by many BBS theorists. Frankly were it possible to use behaviour modification to change the behaviours of a population we could end war, crime and a host of societal issues by using it. We would live in a Utopian society…and yet we don’t.

When I post it is my ardent hope that safety professionals will rethink their practices and ask themselves if what they are doing is returning value that is commensurate with the cost and effort that it requires. Alas, far too many in the safety community are unwilling to even consider change and will always keep tools in their toolbox solely because they like them and are comfortable using them even if they are destructive and dangerous.

How do we make these safety practitioners that their ideas are misguided, nonscientific, and dangerous? Sadly I don’t have any answers. How do you convince Jenny McCarthy that her contention that vaccinations cause autism? People argue that her position is not supported by science but their arguments fall on deaf ears. How do you use logic to sway people from the persistent emotional belief? You don’t. Now, imagine these people who are so emotionally tied to an erroneous belief derive their incomes by getting others to invest in these emotional beliefs. You don’t have another tool in the toolbox you have another glassy-eyed convert lining up for a glass of Kool-Aid. And what’s wrong with someone “drinking the Kool-Aid”? Let us never forget that the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to the mass murder suicide of the members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple followers. So what’s wrong with “drinking the Kool-Aid”? It’s laced with cyanide.

Filed under: culture change, Organizational change, Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

WWPD (What Would Phil Do)?


By Phil La Duke

One glance at that title and it would seem I am back in my full arrogant splendor, but I hope you will reserve judgment until you’ve read my explanation. After last week’s post, in addition to the outpouring of sympathy and support, I received a personal, private email. As you may know, it is not my practice to publish or make public things sent to me confidence, so I won’t go into detail about the letter except to say that the author asked the question “WWPD (What Would Phil Do)” The author explained that in many cases throughout the course of doing business he we would ask himself WWPD? He further elucidated that as much as he respected me it was often difficult to arrive at any meaningful answer to the “WWPD?” question. First of all, it is humbling to think that anyone would find my work useful enough to ask that question even once, but the thought that that someone might use it as a means of guiding one’s decisions relative to safety just floored me. At a time when I was considering hanging it up (not just writing, but safety as a profession) and openly questioning whether or not I made any difference at all this was something I genuinely needed to hear.

I have mentioned before my method for improving safety. It has worked consistently for companies large and small and across diverse industries, but I think sometimes I get so caught up in pointing out the misguided efforts so prevalent in our industry that the “WWPD?” gets lost in the cluttered landscape of “WWP Not D?” and so I thought I would once again share what I believe as it pertains to safety improvement.

Let me begin by saying “safety” is an outcome, or more specifically, and “output”. Every process is composed of three kinds of things: inputs (things you start with) transformations (things that happen to them in the course of your process) and outputs (the things you are left with). Whether your process is as simple as tying your shoe or as complex as smelting iron, every process has these three elements. When your process produces unwanted outcomes we call these things “waste” and injuries are precisely that, waste.

For hundreds of years our colleagues in safety have talked about having a “safety process” or “managing safety”, but I have come to believe that such activities have little to do with producing the outcome of safety; at least not directly. Because these activities don’t directly influence safety they tend to be costly and produce very little in way of return on investment. We have to manage the actual work processes to reduce the injuries and produce the state of safety.

The goal of managing a process is to return a consistent, predictable, and desired result. Managing processes involve controlling variability (and unpredictability) in five areas: manpower, machines, materials, methods, and environment.


Manpower (sorry ladies this is an old term and I am not going to make it gender-neutral) refers to anything related to people. Ideally we start our process with an uninjured worker that is fit to work. As the process is completed the worker may be transformed (albeit probably not radically) by becoming hot, tired, sweaty, dirty, sore, etc. The change in the worker is not a desired outcome so it is waste.


Machines can be a simple machine (a screw, incline plane, wheel and axel, lever, pulley or wedge) or complex automated systems. When tools and equipment are worn out or damaged during the process they cannot produce a predictable result.


Materials refer both to the types of materials used and how they are delivered to the workstation.


Methods are the “recipe” that the process follows to complete a job. Policies and procedures (including Job Safety Analysis, Standard Work, etc.) are the methods by which we hope to get a predictable and desired result.


The physical working conditions of the workplace constitute the environment that we must manage to ensure a predictable outcome. Environment can include factors like heat, lighting, and humidity, the presence of exposure risks or biohazards, and similar physical conditions that workers work in and around.

There has been much debate as to whether behaviors are the primary cause of injuries; that’s not really something we had ought not debate. Injuries are most certainly caused by behaviors but so what? We can’t really influence (to any meaningful extent) the behavior of an entire population and pretending that we can has cost inestimable misery in the form of worker injuries and fatalities. But the 5Ms (hey, there’s an M in environment, I never said they STARTED with the letter M) are things that can be managed, and MUST be managed by Operations. It was out of that realization that I created my safety infrastructure framework. Safety can only be achieved by managing the 5Ms, with particular emphasis on:

  • Workers must be skilled in their core tasks and the closer they are to having mastery level skills of how to do their tasks the more likely they are to produce and predictable and safe outcome. Recently I was challenged by someone on this. “So what? Don’t you just need people to be competent to perform their tasks? What does mastery level mean?” Competence, like many things in industry is less a binary component and more a continuum. Much of our means of measuring competence, particularly in Union environments is binary, i.e. “Is the worker able to do the job or not?” We tend to measure whether someone has awareness-level, or a working knowledge of how to do their job instead of mastery. It’s about variation of skill. Someone who can do a job, but only marginally, tends to perform the job with far much more variation than someone who has mastered the job; i.e. someone who can complete a task with very little variation. Most training in core skills trains to the lowest common denominator and once a person has been qualified there is very little effort to assess that person’s skills after the fact. Most companies don’t do a very good job of measuring competency, in fact, few even try. For example, an industrial vehicle driver may receive refresher training, but unless he or she has repeated violations or been involved in multiple incidents little thought is given to whether or not he or she is competent. Furthermore, most companies don’t measure the effectiveness of training beyond a level 2 evaluation (pre- and posttesting, and many are loathe to even do this) which is often more a test of reading comprehension than of actual learning;   this is an issue because competency often degrades over time and there is no way of telling whether or not a worker has sank below the competency threshold. Then there is the related issue of physical competency; how are people evaluated on whether or not they are still physically capable of doing the work without injuring themselves or others? Most organizations address this through annual reviews which are almost entirely focused on performance and attitude than on skills degradation or physical competency. The only cases I know where the fitness to work is even considered are in return to work programs.
  • Process Capability & Discipline. There are two elements of “process” that are key to safety: 1) process capability (how able is your process to return a predictable and repeatable result) and 2) process discipline (how strictly do workers adhere to the process). Companies can really only protect workers when workers do their jobs according to a predictable and robust process. Again I was challenged on this. I was told that this was “clearly not real life—and frankly untrue that a predictable and robust process is the ONLY way to protect workers; there will always be nonstandard situations that need to be managed.” On the face of things this sounds like a fair criticism, but you must consider that while there will always be non-standard situations that need to be managed (in fact, while many companies are loathe to admit it, there are far more nonstandard situations than there should be), but they must be managed using a robust process for managing nonstandard work. We can’t protect workers from things we can’t predict and a process that is out of control makes it impossible to predict what might happen.. One of the keys to managing worker safety lies in having processes and procedures and the discipline for workers to work within these processes. The point of this statement is that companies that don’t care about process variation are far less able to protect workers than companies that work to continuously improve, and thus make more predictable and safe, their processes. We design work and the workplace to be as safe as we possibly can; we employ the Hierarchy of Controls to organize the means of protecting workers but we do so under the assumption that the process is robust and that people aren’t working out of process. This should not be interpreted as saying that we don’t have a responsibility to protect workers in all cases, rather it is meant to underscore the importance of a good process that people follow. When people are unable to follow the process they should not be encouraged to improvise, rather they should be rewarded for stopping work until a safe way of proceeding can be determined.
  • Hazard Incident & Management. Hazard reduction directly correlates to injury reduction. It sounds obvious right? Very obvious – yes? Yes very obvious, and yet one of the single most ignored elements of many safety management systems. Identifying, containing, correcting, and communicating hazards is central to safety; it’s obvious. The problem is that too many organizations treat all hazards equally and as carrying the same potential risk of injury. The risk of working on live equipment without the isolation of energy isn’t as risky as a blocked escape route (all other things being equal). Many organizations are blind to hazards. Without a simple means of managing hazards people become “normal blind” and things that would once have scared them silly now become part of the acceptable, normal landscape and are not only ignored but treated in such a cavalier fashion because “it aint killed nobody yet” that the risk is actually amplified. I don’t see a big distinction between risks and hazards. Clearly we direct need to focus more about controlling risks than on chasing injuries. Risk control is hazard management and vice versa and must be foremost in all safety management approaches, companies have to know the difference between being lucky and being good and to understand that difference one has to understand one’s risk.
  • Accountability Systems. In Just Culture there are three basic behaviors for which people are held to various levels of accountability: human error, risk taking, and recklessness. Human error is the unwanted and unplanned outcome from an unintended action-the honest mistake. Since human error is unintentional there is no point in holding someone accountable for something they can’t control. (I have seen research in healthcare and aviation that puts the number of mistakes the average person makes at 5 an hour). That having been said, there are certain things that individuals CAN control that for which we can and should hold them accountable. These things are conditions that have been demonstrated to inhibit performance and increase the likelihood, frequency, and severity of mistakes. Factors like fatigue, reporting to work ill, stress, drug or alcohol abuse, hang overs, prescription drug use—general fitness to work issues. Obviously, supervision plays a role in whether or not people are allowed to work while impaired by these conditions but in any case these conditions must be confronted and addressed. These performance inhibitors also can influence risk taking. Risk taking in itself is not unwanted. Organizations need people to take risks routinely, but these risks should be informed risks and workers should be coached on the limits to which they are empowered to take risks. When workers take risks because they are improvising they are more at risk for being harmed. As for the reckless, they should be weeded out of the workforce for their safety and the safety of others.
  • Employee Engagement. Workers must be intrinsically driven to make the workplace safer. To do this, workers must be capable of making sound business decisions not relative to safety alone. I think you misinterpret what we mean by making sound business decisions. This isn’t about business acumen as much as workers understanding how what they do impacts, not only their own safety, but the overall success of the organization. Studies have shown that the more highly engaged the worker the more safely the worker is likely to work. And it is tough to build engagement without building knowledge of the business. This knowledge enables workers to make informed suggestions for process improvement and to be a more productive and useful contributor. This takes safety away from being a functional exercise and creates a more holistic approach to safety.

So after all that, What Would Phil Do? This:

  • Invest in competency. This means putting some work into creating better job descriptions, recruiting people who have the grey matter and muscle to do those jobs, and training them to mastery level skill. Once someone has been hired, implement a system to ensure that their skills or physical abilities have degraded to the point that they can no longer safely do the job.
  • Collaborate With The Continuous Improvement Groups.  Not only are improved processes more effective and safe, collaborating with those who are working to make process improvements also make it easy for Operations to see the value of safety.
  • Demand that Leaders Enforce Requirements for Working In Process.  Okay, now sometimes we CAN’T work in process, for example when a manufacture is out of a given part and has to work without it.  But in these cases, Safety should help operations to assess the risks of working out of process and help to find ways to mitigate those risks.
  • Train Leaders.  Front-line supervision is the greatest resource in producing safe outcomes but from everything from core process training to training in Hazard Recognition to coaching workers on their performance this group goes largely ignored and are some of the most incompetent people out there.  They are often selected because they shut up and do their jobs but with no regard to whether they have the skills and experience to effectively supervise others.
  • Shift Focus Away From Injuries Toward Risk.  We spend so much time arguing about whether zero injuries is possible, or whether behavior causes injury or whatever.  We should make it real simple and look for ways to reduce risk in our lives every day.  In the workplace, during the commute, at home with our families.  We can do something about risk BEFORE we get killed or injured which, after all, is the point.
  • Implement A Just Culture System. Just Culture allows people to talk about risk and dumb decisions in a repercussion-less environment.  Until we stop trying to punish people for their mistakes and dumb decisions we can’t really focus on reducing risk.
  • Treat People Like Partners In Safety Not As Our Responsibility. People aren’t quite as stupid, lazy, crazy, careless, or indifferent to their safety as we often treat them. When we learn to respect the people with whom we work and stop treating them like our mentally handicapped children we can partner with them to make the workplace safe.

So…that’s what Phil would do.

Filed under: culture change, Just Culture, Organizational change, Phil La Duke, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Never Trust Anyone Who Claims Safety Is Their Number One Priority

Safety Priority

By Phil La Duke

The following is a retooled, repurposed, and recycled post that was origionally made to the now decommissioned Rockford Green International blog. (Since renamed the Worker Safety Net)

There are things that need to change in safety and they need to change fast.  Safety is losing ground, no matter how hard we try, we are losing ground in the court of public opinion—public policies are softening on safety (Michigan recently legalized the personal use of fireworks and the practice of riding motorcycles without a helmet—effectively rolling back almost 50 years of safety regulations.  Michigan may be a long way from where you live, but believe me these kinds of rollbacks aren’t isolated to Michigan.)

One of the primary reasons safety professionals have lost credibility is the insistence that safety is—or at least should be—an organization’s number one priority.  This ludicrous claim sets safety at odds with operations, and makes the both workers and the general public view us as kooks, imbeciles, or hopelessly out of touch.

Let me state for the record that I remain completely devoted to safety, I believe one’s right to make a living without undue jeopardy of loss of life or limb is a basic human right.  But how we approach the achievement of a safe workplace will greatly shape the likelihood of our success.

It’s tough to visit any workplace without seeing a poster that says, “safety is our number one priority”.  It’s a crock; no company ever has gone into business for the purpose of keeping its workers safe. Companies exist to make money. No sane person would manufacture, ship,  process, or manipulate anything if his or her primary motivation was to ensure nobody engaged in these activities got  injured. When safety professionals perpetuate the lie that safety is the number one priority they lose credibility and are alienated.  People hear, “safety is our number one priority” and know it’s either a lie, or the pathetic simpering of a deluded fool, in either case the prudent move is to assume the person spouting this nonsense can’t be taken seriously or trusted.

Imagine a worker who has been told that “safety is our number one priority” following any advice the boob who said offered the advice has to say; why believe that tying off while working at heights is essential to safety when the person who told you so also told you safety is your first priority?  If safety truly is your number one priority, don’t work at heights, period. But safety isn’t our number one priority, getting the job done is almost more important than anything else.

The effectiveness of a safety professional depends on his or her credibility; safety professionals have to stop forcing people to choose between working safely and making a livelihood. One of the most frequent complaints about safety professionals from workers and business leaders is that safety professionals are obstructionist policemen who, however well intentioned, don’t live in the real world.  People gravitate toward the practical and tend to disregard things that don’t make sense, or where they see over whelming evidence to the contrary. Safety professionals have to balance safety against the practical requirements of a job.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that safety isn’t an important criterion for success but there is a difference between saying, “making money is our priority, but we can’t in conscience make money while hurting workers” and saying “safety is our number one priority”.  Hurting workers costs money and is poor business practice, but when safety professionals makes the claim that their function, safety, is the primary reason a company exists, nobody in their right minds can take them seriously.

Safety professionals need to shift their thinking when it comes to worker safety, away from “safety as the right thing to do” to “safety as a crucial improvement initiative”. It may sound like I am nit-picking but the words we use shape how our constituents view us and whether or not they find us credible.  A safety professional without credibility is worse than ineffective; he or she is taking a job that an effective safety professional could otherwise be doing.

Safety isn’t a priority; it’s a value and criterion for success.  Frankly, we don’t want safety to be a priority—priorities change and shift where values endure and guide our decision making.  The safe execution of work must be a core value and a guiding behavior in any ethical organization.  Treating workers like chattle, or fuel to be used up in the furtherance of business is morally repugnant.  Safety must go deeper than being a mere priority, it must be the cornerstone of any business that is serious about sustainable success.

Sadly, many of the companies that proudly boast of safety as a priority are some of the worst offenders for putting workers at risk.  In these cases, safety is neither a priority nor a value.  Safety at these hell holes only becomes a priority after catastrophe strikes and then only when the climate of fear and retribution is in full swing.  When the smoke clears and the blood is mopped up, these companies quickly revert to bad behaviors and more misguided behaviors.

Filed under: culture change, Organizational change, Phil La Duke, , , , ,

Trust Me

Stone wall copyBy Phil La Duke

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.

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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.

Filed under: Organizational change, Phil La Duke, Safety, , , , , , ,

You’re Not the Boss of Me: It’s Not The Message It’s The Way It’s Delivered

By Phil La Duke


We’ve all experienced this at one time or another: you point out an unsafe act or safety violation in good faith, only to have the worker shoot back some sarcastic, rude, or juvenile comment.  It wears on you, but you’ve come to expect, accept (and probably) resent it.  Why can’t people just grow up and let you do your job?  The answer might not lie with the people with whom you interact, but rather HOW you interact with them.

In 1964 Dr. Eric Berne wrote The Games People Play, to identify and address what he describes as functional and dysfunctional social interactions. The book is a fantastic guide for interacting with workers. In the book, which has sold more than 5 million copies, Berne introduces the concept of transactional analysis that he believed was the key to interpreting social interactions.  Transactional analysis is a method for identifying one of three roles that people assume whenever they deal with others.  Berne identified three roles:

  • Parent
  • Adult, and
  • Child

Berne believed, and my experience has confirmed his belief, that a lot of dysfunctional behaviors are caused because of a conflict between these roles. You can avoid this dysfunction by not getting sucked into the dysfunction.  This is a lot tougher than it sounds. Because, as Berne suggests, these roles are subconscious the urge to be drawn into this dysfunction is powerful. Basically, when one addresses another as a parent, you send out parental stimuli that trigger responses in the other party.  Typically, the other party responds with behavior characterized by either a competing parent or a child.

This isn’t a book report, so I won’t go into a lot of detail on the nuances of Berne’s work, buy the book and read it; you won’t be sorry.

In terms of safety these dysfunctional encounters look something like this:

A Safety Professional (In the Parent role) see’s a worker using a band saw without the proper guarding in place, he approaches and says, “Haven’t you been trained to only use that saw when the guard is in place? Are you trying to lose a finger?” This highly directive, authoritative language stimulates some deep-seated psychological responses.  A common response is that the worker also responds in the “Parent” role. “Hey they’re my fingers and if I’m not worried about losing them than why should you.” Berne called these types of disputes “Parent-Parent”.  Parent-Parent tend to escalate quickly unless something happens to defuse the situation.  In our example, the Safety Professional might say something like, “Look, if you can’t follow the rules maybe you shouldn’t be working here. Do you WANT me to write you up?” To which the worker is likely to respond “Do what you have to do, your not my boss and I don’t have to listen to you”.  Sound familiar? It happens daily in workplaces around the world, but its not the only dysfunction that can be caused when the Safety Professional adopts the Parent role.  Sometimes the exchange plays out like this:

Safety Professional (parent):        This is the third time this week that I have caught you not wearing your safety glasses.

Worker (child):                               I know, but they are hot and I can’t see.

Safety Professional:                        The rule is in place for your protection, if I catch you without safety glasses again I will have to have your supervisor write you up, is that what you want?

Worker:                                             No, I will make sure from now on.

The worker then proceeds to passively aggressive comply only when the Safety Professional is in sight.

Sometimes the safety professional plays the role of the child and the result can be equally disastrous. The “child” role is characterized by nonassertive and pensive body language and word choices.

That same exchange might go something like this:

Safety Professional (child):          You know its my job to make sure you wear safety glasses but every time I see you aren’t wearing them.  I ask, and ask, and ask, but you just don’t care.

Worker (parent):                             Relax. I wear my safety glasses most of the time, the fact that you’ve seen me without them a couple of times is no big deal.

Safety Professional:                        It’s not a big deal to you. I’m the one who will get in trouble for not doing their job.

Worker:                                             Stop making such a big deal about it; you need to get a life.

There can also be child-child conflicts, but I think you get the picture. What Berne was saying is that social interaction is just basic stimulus and effect, and if you are able to control the stimuli that you send out you can greatly influence the results. The is to stay in the “adult” role. The Adult role is characterized by neutral body language and word choices. Staying in the Adult role is about controlling your deepest impulses toward dysfunction and this is especially difficult because the other party will actively try to draw you into his or her dysfunction.  Let’s take a look at how that might work using our scenario:

That same exchange might go something like this:

Safety Professional (adult):          Excuse me Al, but aren’t safety glasses required as part of this operation? Can you help me to understand why you aren’t wearing them?

Worker (worker):                           Relax. I wear my safety glasses most of the time, the fact that you’ve seen me without them a couple of times is no big deal.

Safety Professional:                        Please, instead of getting into a conflict about this, I’m hoping we can have a real conversation about safety.  I don’t have a vested interest in safety glasses, and as long as we can meet the legal requirements I am willing to work with you to adjust the safety requirements if we’re able to.

Worker:                                             Yeah right, you are always saying you are open to suggestions but when I make them you go on and on about why things can’t get fixed.

Safety Professional:                        I’d really like to talk about the issue at hand. You see, if there is a legitimate reason to make a change in policy I want workers to talk to me about it. You’re right, in some cases you have made suggestions, but we weren’t able to implement them without violating the law. I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear when we talked about the fact that we wouldn’t be using your suggestion.

Worker:                                             (in an aggressive tone) Okay, let’s talk! I hate wearing safety glasses because they are hot, they look dorky, and I honestly don’t see why the law requires them for this job.

Safety Professional:                        I’m sure you can understand that the company has to abide by the statutes that require safety glasses, but we can certainly look into glasses that are more stylish and comfortable. Can I count on you to help me make a recommendation?

Worker (Child):                               Hey, I’m sorry for coming of as such a jerk. I will wear the stupid safety glasses.

Safety Professional:                        I appreciate that, but I would much prefer having someone like you—someone who has strong opinions on the subject and who understands what we can and can not do about this—work with me to come up with a better solution. What do you say, can I count on you for help? Say testing out some sample glasses and telling me what you think?

Worker:    I guess if that’s all you need me to do I could do that. (Laughing) You sure know I won’t be shy about sharing my opinions.

This is a simple example, and in the real world you will likely have to stay in the adult role much longer than our fictitious example, but it’s worth it.

There is a lot more to the book—almost half of it deals with a series of mind games —and there is a lot of good stuff you can use in dealing with the belligerent jerks we sometimes encounter in the workplace. But the pay off for adopting Berne’s strategies in the context of safety is substantial and valuable.


Filed under: Organizational change, Phil La Duke, Safety, , , , , ,

Sailing The Seven Cs of Change

Sailing The Seven Cs of Change

Photo courtesy of Asmundur

Photo courtesy of Asmundur

By Phil La Duke 

More and more safety professionals are coming to the conclusion that real, lasting change can only come as a result of a change to the culture.  For some, this means relabeling the same old schlock and positioning the same tired method as a new, “culture transformation”.  This trend concerns me.  While there are a handful of good (in fact, really good) change professionals out there, there are far more conmen out there whose only experience with change is nickels, dimes, and quarters.

For the record I am not against entrepreneurs making an honest living. But if we aren’t careful we can really screw up and have an uncontrolled and unplanned change with dangerous and unpredictable outcomes.

In my experience, change comes in distinct phases that sometimes overlap and may even move forward and backward.  These phases can be conveniently described using words that begin with the letter C allowing me to make my title pun.


It’s said that change only happens when the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of changing.  Organizations, like people, tend to actively resist change. Even positive changes that they know need to happen. Change, biologically speaking, is stupid and dangerous. If you are an organism that is flourishing—you have amply food and shelter, good breeding grounds and prospects, and low predators—changing even the seemingly most insignificant element can lead to extinction. Our central nervous systems are designed to resist change because it puts us in unpredictable situations. Of course we also live in a dynamic environment that is constantly changing and remaining static in a rapidly changing environment leads to extinction.
Organizations tend to resist change until the dissatisfaction with the status quo hits a critical level.
Not all change, is as Mao said, borne out of the barrel of a gun, but the more disruptive the circumstances the stronger the drive for change.

Creation of Vision

Unless leaders can construct a compelling vision, change will be stifled and obstructed. Change grows out of dissatisfaction with the current state, but change that is driven by dissatisfaction alone creates environment where the organization can go from bad to worse. An environment where change is made without a clear vision of the desired state leads to chaos and confusion and can quickly devolve into organizational anarchy. That may sound melodramatic, but in companies that I have seen fail, the failure tends to come gradually as systems breakdown and processes stop working. People still come to work, there is no reign of terror with the aristocracy being dragged to the guillotine, but there is a perceptible shift in work ethic. The good and capable leave the organization and the population reduces to incompetents who are too fearful to leave.

A compelling vision of a desired state focuses the population on a singular purpose, a common cause and an understanding of what they as an organization is trying to create.


Legend holds that Hernando Cortez burned his ships when he arrived in the New World to demonstrate to his men that retreat was not an option. Irrespective of your feelings toward Cortez, his actions, however apocryphal, are an excellent example of how commitment to a goal can drive change. Faced the with the choice of either achieving the goal or certain death, it’s fair to say that Cortez’s men were deeply committed to change. Obviously, change can’t always be driven as ruthlessly or aggressively as Cortez, but leaders must aggressively push change by figuratively burning the ships, i.e. they must make it unmistakably clear that anything shy of  100% support for the vision will not be tolerated and those who can’t change attitudes will be forced to change jobs.

Communication of Vision

It’s not enough to have a vision; leadership must make a compelling argument for the vision and inspire passion for the desired state among the population.  Communicating a fierce vision that inspires the population is paramount to a successful organizational change.


As the chances are implemented the organization quickly devolves into chaos. As theories become practices the numerous glitches make the change impossible and frightening. It’s easy for leaders to falter in there commitment to change when all seems lost.  Unless leaders are courageous and stick to the course they will not last long enough for the change to put down roots and grow.

As people struggle to create the new normal out of the howling chaos, they begin to see successes and reasons to hope.  At this point in the change, people start to connect these successes with elements of the vision.  They begin to connect with the desired state as something tangible and real.  These connections begin to forge the foundation of the new processes, tools, mores, and values on which a new and better corporate culture can be built. People tend to fiercely protect these newly forged connections and build norms around them.

Capability & Confidence

Slowly these connections and new practices start to yield real, tangible results and the population’s confidence rises. The organization becomes more capable as it repeats the new practices.  The reliable results that come with organization and personal capability builds confidence and the two form an improvement spiral, which ultimately makes the desired state a reality.

The desire state rarely comes to fruition exactly as envisioned or expected (remember change takes time and the vision often evolves and is refined as time elapses.) This isn’t a bad thing, often the ultimate state far exceeds the organization’s wildest expectations and desires.


Filed under: Organizational change, Safety Culture, , , ,



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