Employee Engagement and Commitment: The Super Bowl of Safety

At Safety 2014 in Orlando, I asked an audience, “How many of you would like to reach zero injuries at your company?” Every hand went up.

“Actually, folks, your real goal is NOT zero injuries,” I said. The audience stared at me in disbelief, most of them wondering if I was out of my mind. But I’m not crazy.

Then I said, “In fact, I would ask every one of you to return home to your workplace and destroy every sign, poster and T-shirt stating that zero injuries is your goal.”

You see, I believe that zero injuries is not the final destination in the journey to safety. Here’s why.

First off, zero injuries was the goal on the Titanic and the Macondo Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform. While the goal of zero injuries was noble, it didn’t work very well for BP and the owners of the Titanic, did it?

I believe your real target is something far higher: zero at-risk behaviors from your workers and management team in an interdependent culture. I realize that aiming for a target of zero at-risk behaviors is aiming for perfection; in effect, you’re trying to win the Super Bowl of safety.  

Let’s be honest. Do you think your team will ever reach perfection in safety? The answer is no. But only when your team pursues perfection can you achieve excellence (which is zero injuries).

Many people have been taught that zero injuries is the end of their safety journey. But in fact, zero injuries is only the beginning of the journey. It’s a journey that will never end, as you and your leadership team relentlessly pursue perfection, which I define as zero at-risk behaviors.


Building a Team

Now, if you’re like most folks, you’re probably wondering how you build a team that pursues perfection and approaches zero at-risk behaviors. How do you inspire your team to win the Super Bowl of safety? Even harder, how do you get people doing the right thing for safety, in the moment of choice when you’re not there watching?

The answer is that you need employee engagement at its highest form: commitment.

Not long ago, I received an email from Ann, a new HSE manager. She wrote: “It’s really weird when I walk through the manufacturing plant. You can see people scurrying to put their safety glasses and PPE on as they see us approach, only to remove it once we are safely out of range. I feel like a safety cop.”

I bet you live this every day of your life as a safety professional. In fact, it plays out exactly the same way, millions of times a day, as people modify their behavior when the boss, the safety manager or the local police officer come into view.

As Dr. W. Edwards Deming would have said, Ann’s plant had a “perfect design” to produce the results it got: injury hiding and a safety-cop culture. Plant personnel made every mistake possible in their misguided attempts at behavior change.


Three Types of Workers

When it comes to workers, every company has just three kinds: non-compliant, compliant and committed:

  • Non-compliant –  “I will not follow your safety and quality rules, because I am convinced the only way to get high production is to take risks and shortcuts.”
  • Compliant – “I will follow your safety and quality procedures, as long as someone (a manager, a supervisor or a peer observer) is watching me. But when that person leaves, I’ll take more risks and shortcuts.”
  • Committed – “I will follow the safety and quality procedures in the moment of choice, when nobody is watching. This is who I am.”

Where do you want your culture to be?

The answer is obvious. We want every employee to be committed to safety, not merely compliant.

Realistically, with turnover, downsizing and the stressful demands of doing more with less, we always are going to have employees who are not committed to safety. The message they’ve gotten from the leadership team is that production is more important than safety. 

The million-dollar question is this: How do you get your non-compliant and compliant employees to be committed to safety, in that moment of choice when nobody is watching?

Change Comes from the Leaders

The way to transform workers’ attitudes toward safety might be to rethink your management style and system.

The management system of choice for 99 percent of companies today is the same one that Ann’s plant uses, and I’ll bet it’s the one your company uses. I call it “leave alone/zap!” I’ve used it, you’ve used it and so has everyone else in a leadership position. It’s easy to fall into this trap.

Here’s how it happens: Have you ever walked past a group of employees doing everything safely and said nothing to them, and then immediately said something to the first employee doing something wrong? If you answered yes, then you’ve engaged in leave alone/zap.

Does leave alone/zap change behavior? You bet it does. And that’s why it’s the favorite weapon of choice for most folks.

Think about it today as you drive home, when you might be driving about 10 mph over the speed limit, along with me and everyone else in the pack of cars. At this point, we all are non-compliant, until we see the police officer pointing his radar gun at us.  

What do you (and everyone else) do to avoid being “zapped” with a speeding ticket? You hit the brakes. You (and the entire pack of cars) have just graduated to being compliant with the rules that the police want you to follow, at least for a while.

How long does this shift in behavior last? About 30 seconds, and then you breathe a sigh of relief as the police officer disappears from your rearview mirror. Whew! He almost got you!

Now, what’s your next behavior? For most of us, we hit the gas pedal and speed back up, and once again, we become non-compliant.

From this short example, it is clear that punishment, negative reinforcement and “leave alone/zap” management systems fail to produce commitment, and they fail to change worker behavior in the moment of choice, when nobody is watching.

The key is to get employees committed to safety, to do the right thing in that moment of choice. Is the key increasing the number of safety cops and having more frequent zaps?  Many managers think so, but they are misguided. More punishment and negative reinforcement will get you more compliance, but it won’t get you commitment. 

No coach can punish a team into winning the Super Bowl. To truly get commitment requires something that’s rarely delivered by today’s managers and leaders: workforce engagement and positive reinforcement.

Bill Sims Jr. is the president of the Irmo, S.C.-based Bill Sims Co. and author of “Green Beans and Ice Cream: The Definitive Recipe for Employee Engagement, Motivation and Recognition.”

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