Putting Optimism Into Your Safety Program

Behavior-based safety initiatives help workgroups develop "optimistic" skills.

This article details some recent research into the workgroup effects of pessimism and optimism. That research shows that pessimism is correlated with poor performance, that it is widespread and that it is "contagious," affecting the attitudes and behavior of other employees. These findings are important to workgroup managers of all kinds and to safety professionals in particular.

The good news is that pessimism is not a permanent condition. Pessimism is a behavior. Like other behaviors, it can change. It is possible to convert pessimists into optimists. For business and industry, the good news is that it is also possible to convert pessimistic teams and workgroups into dynamic, action-oriented, problem-solving teams. Many companies have used behavior-based safety to facilitate this improvement.

Each year, the authors and their colleagues visit with hundreds of senior-level executives, managers, safety professionals and wage-roll employees looking for new answers to the old question of how to improve safety performance. Many of these individuals are frustrated and discouraged by the lack of sustained improvement or by the poor results of past safety programs. Jaded by a history of failed initiatives, these folks express pessimism about the chances of discovering new answers to stubborn, old performance problems.

Managers express pessimism in statements such as:

Our employees don't care about safety. They're just here for a paycheck.

We need to increase the size of the prizes we give away; it's the only way to get their attention.

We're going to enforce the policies and procedures with a strict discipline system. That ought to bolster our safety infrastructure.

Supervisors express pessimism in statements such as:

Accidents are the cost of doing business -- we aren't going to get rid of them all.

There is only so much you can do. Accidents are unplanned events. How are you going to do something about an unplanned event?

It's a cultural thing. You can't get these people to work safe.

Wage-roll personnel express pessimism in statements such as:

We've never had any management commitment to safety. The only time safety matters is when someone gets hurt or an accident threatens to make somebody look bad.

You can't get anything fixed around here. They run around telling us to wear our PPE, but they won't fix the forklift or shut down production for things that could easily get people killed. We're just lucky we haven't killed somebody.

Our safety guys are always in their offices. Who knows what they do?

Statements such as these often arise from a negative internal dialogue that says:

  • Nothing I do makes much difference -- performance doesn't improve.
  • I cannot control the behavior of others.
  • I cannot change attitudes.
  • I know accidents are going to happen and people are going to get hurt, but nobody listens to me.

In extreme cases, folks are saying: "I'm done trying. I'm done caring." In short, these are pessimistic evaluations of what is possible. In the field of occupational safety, pessimism appears to be widespread, cutting across industrial lines and geographical borders. Just what is pessimism, and what can be done to reduce its impact on the function of organizations?

Pessimism: A Kind of Explanatory Behavior

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. a noted researcher in the field of psychology, has studied pessimism and optimism for more than 25 years. Working with a wide range of business organizations, Seligman has found that pessimism is best understood and addressed as a kind of behavior rather than as an attitude or a mindset. According to Seligman, pessimism is a behavior that has to do with how we explain to ourselves and to others why events happen. Seligman has discovered "pessimistic individuals" are individuals who exhibit a pessimistic explanatory style. The three characteristics of a pessimistic explanatory style are permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.

Permanence: Individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style portray problems as though they were permanent. "Permanent causes," says Seligman, "produce helplessness far into the future." This factor of permanence is present when a "safety pessimist" says: "Accidents happen because business involves taking risks. You can't engineer all the hazards out of the workplace. Incident rates fluctuate, but the problems, the root causes, never go away. Accidents are the cost of doing business."

An individual with a pessimistic explanatory style tends to explain and view barriers to safety excellence as chronic problems that are destined to endure no matter what is done to correct the situation. In the face of these enduring barriers to safety improvement, pessimistic individuals are not likely to take action. Their internal dialogue asks, "What is the point?"

Pervasiveness: Individuals with pessimistic explanatory styles offer what Seligman calls pervasive (universal) reasons for why things happen. Instead of citing specific causes for problems, a pessimistic explanation projects helplessness across a spectrum of activities: "Our employees don't care about safety. Our management doesn't care about safety. The No. 1 priority around here is making money. Safety is only important when it threatens to make somebody look bad."

Personalization: Personalization, or blaming, is the third characteristic of a pessimistic explanatory style. Seligman says, "When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves (internalize) or we can blame other people or circumstances (externalize)." From this point of view, poor performance is regarded as a character flaw.

A pessimistic individual, therefore, is likely to say things such as: "This organization has never been proactive about anything. We've never been able to figure out how to motivate our employees to work safer. Our employees do stupid things that result in injuries. Instead of following procedures, our employees take shortcuts that get them hurt."

Pessimistic explanations can paralyze problem-solving activities of individuals and workgroups. That is because problem solving is an inherently optimistic activity. The optimistic explanatory style proceeds on the understanding that problems are:

  • Correctable, not permanent;
  • Specific, not pervasive; and
  • Systemic, not personal.

Pessimism and Poor Performance

In most settings, pessimism is hardly a virtue. In fact, pessimism is frequently associated with a set of negative outcomes. In hundreds of studies across a spectrum of activities, pessimism is found to correlate with poor performance.

Because of its unique characteristics, pessimism carries enormous negative consequences for individuals and for the organizations where they work. Pessimism is the emotional equivalent of mechanical friction. This friction creates a drag on individual performance and organizational function. Pessimism is a force that opposes action, impedes progress and stifles initiatives. Pessimism consumes precious resources, forcing organizations to spend more time and resources ramping up initiatives and sustaining change efforts. As a result of pessimism, safety, quality and productivity initiatives that deserve to survive and flourish instead struggle and sometimes die.

Seligman's findings are important to safety professionals and managers for several reasons. First, his work suggests that the pessimistic explanatory style is used by a large percentage of the population. In other words, there are likely to be a lot of pessimistic individuals at all levels in the workplace. Safety professionals, supervisors and managers can profit from learning to deal with pessimism in an effective manner.

Second, pessimism correlates with poor performance. As Seligman says, hundreds of studies show that, among other things, "Pessimistic individuals give up more easily and become depressed more often." The challenge of improving safety performance is heightened by employees who get discouraged and give up prematurely.

Third, pessimism is highly contagious. Pessimistic behavior impacts the attitudes and behavior of other employees and influences the culture.

Developing Optimistic Problem Solving

Approaching pessimism as a behavior allows an organization to convert pessimistic teams and workgroups into optimistic, action-oriented, problem-solving teams. When behavior-based safety is implemented correctly, pessimistic beliefs and behaviors are systematically converted to optimistic beliefs and behaviors. As workers become engaged in the implementation process, the negative impact of pessimism is reduced. In addition to opening the door to excellence in safety performance, the implementation process infuses workers with transferable skills and belief systems that generalize to other areas such as quality, productivity and customer service.

As of mid-1999, BST consultants had launched behavior-based safety initiatives at more than 950 sites worldwide. Although most of those initiatives are in manufacturing settings, behavior-based safety is also being put to good use by transportation, construction and retail organizations.

A cornerstone of each of these continuous-improvement processes is optimism: the belief that performance can and will improve if appropriate steps are taken. Behavior-based safety is grounded in the optimistic assurance that accidents and injuries are preventable. At-risk behaviors, the final common pathway to accidents and injuries, are observable, measurable and manageable events. By reducing the frequency of at-risk behavior, the frequency of accidents and injuries decreases. Barriers to safe behavior can be identified and systematically eliminated.

Implementation Process Promotes Optimism

A key to successfully making the transition from pessimism to optimism is found in the structure and rigor of the implementation process. The most reliable path to continuous improvement in safety performance is developing a behavior-based process that engages employees at all levels. For instance, at most sites, the task of identifying the core set of critical behaviors is carried out by a steering committee guided by a consultant. Engaging employees to identify and define critical behaviors is an excellent vehicle for:

  • Developing and communicating optimistic explanations about accident causation; and
  • Phasing out pessimistic explanations of accident causation.

The transformation from pessimism to optimism begins as employees come to understand that at-risk behaviors that expose them to injury are not permanent but improveable, not pervasive but very specific, and not personal but system-driven. The discovery of the predictable, measurable relationship between exposure and injuries refutes the pessimistic explanations of accident causation. At some sites, this shift from pessimistic to optimistic approaches amounts to a "conversion experience." The safety culture of the site undergoes a profound transformation as workers begin to understand and explain accidents and injuries in behavior-based language. Gradually, the pessimistic explanations of exposure and accident causation fade out.

At most sites, companies form a steering committee to facilitate or lead the implementation process. In the majority of cases, these steering committees are composed of representatives from all levels and from the important areas of the site where the new effort will be launched. With an assist from a consultant, the steering committee uncovers a set of task-related behaviors that are critical to continuous improvement at the site. The committee members draft and refine operational definitions for the critical behaviors and organize them in easy-to-use categories for a data sheet. The completed data sheet becomes a central training tool for site personnel who are taught to use it as observers of workgroup performance of the identified behaviors.

The data sheet also serves as a hazard-recognition training tool for new employees. Using the data sheet develops "optimism" because individual compliance with a short list of critical behaviors is a realistic goal. With the data sheet in use by observers, the site personnel implementing behavior-based safety can say to their co-workers, "Let's focus on this list of critical behaviors that we know are getting people hurt at this facility, behaviors such as pinch-points, line-of-fire, eyes-on-path and lockout/tagout. In the next several months, let's see if we can improve our performance of these behaviors to the point that we no longer expose ourselves to risk of injury by using them."

This stepwise approach is practical and believable. It does not sound like somebody's grand idea. It does not focus on zero injuries; it focuses on gradual improvement by beginning with the workgroup's existing practices. Workgroups can understand and support this kind of target because everyone can visualize the improvement target in question. This kind of goal affects individuals where they live and work. The goal is achievable in stages, continuously, and its next stage is always within sight.

Another cornerstone of behavior-based safety is feedback. In behavior-based safety, performance feedback is an interactive, two-way communication process between trained observers and their peers. Performance feedback involves active listening, excellent visual and verbal skills, and the ability to recognize and manage the forces of resistance.

Peer-to-peer, verbal feedback is one of several core competencies of behavior-based safety. When verbal performance feedback is delivered properly, it nurtures the skill of self-observation; it further reinforces the value of safe behaviors; and, over time, it decreases the frequency of at-risk behaviors. In many cases, verbal performance feedback alters an individual's perception of risk, triggering a positive change in behavior and the safety culture. In other cases, feedback reveals barriers to safe behaviors.

Behavior-based safety uses two kinds of feedback: "success feedback" and "guidance feedback." Success feedback lets the observees know which identified behaviors they are performing safely. Guidance feedback lets them know which at-risk behaviors they are using. Both kinds of feedback reinforce and develop optimistic explanation behavior. Success feedback reinforces the observee's understanding and awareness of specific behaviors consistent with workplace safety. This kind of feedback says to the observee, "As you use these behaviors, you dramatically increase the probability of your own continued well-being on the job. Your safety is not a matter of luck."

Guidance feedback (coaching) also reinforces optimistic explanation behavior about accident causation. The two-way discussion ongoing between observers and observees assumes that something can be done to reduce at-risk behavior. When the change is within the control of the observee, the focus is on helping the observee form the specific intention to perform the identified safe behavior. However, when the critical safe behavior is not within the control of the observee, the function of guidance feedback is to discover which system factors are supporting and reinforcing the identified at-risk behavior.

Guidance feedback asks the question, "Why is this identified at-risk behavior happening?" When the two-way feedback uncovers system barriers to safe behavior, the observer asks, "How are we going to remove this barrier to continuous improvement in our safety performance? How can we begin chipping away at this issue?"

Guidance feedback is a tool for root-cause analysis and problem solving. Both of those activities are inherently optimistic. In the hands of a skilled observer, guidance feedback affirms the optimistic behavior of treating barriers as though they have solutions that the workgroup can identify, justify and put in place.

Another aspect of behavior-based safety is using data to identify and remove barriers to continuous improvement. Employees need more then management support, corporate goals, theories and concepts to successfully manage safety performance. Banners, slogans, incentives and hype are no substitute for having an effective system in place to identify and fix the barriers to continuous improvement.

As they become skilled at behavior-based safety, site personnel learn to read and make sense of the available data. After they digest the data, the workgroups select a focus, study the root causes of the problem, generate possible solutions, evaluate the potential fixes on the basis of objective data, and formulate action plans. In many cases, the action plans are not complicated. When organizations establish effective mechanisms to focus on problems and remove performance barriers, they promote the optimistic view that problems are correctable.

The complexity of many industrial settings can be confusing and overwhelming at times. When the subject is safety, the element of human well-being can bring out adversarial tendencies in an organization. Being confused, overwhelmed and taking an adversarial stance -- these things can lead to pessimistic explanations. Complex problems can seem to have no solutions. To reduce pessimism about safety and increase the rate of optimistic behavior, the key is to have a mechanism that:

  • Focuses an entire workgroup on a small set of critical behaviors;
  • Gives them a common language for seeing and saying those behaviors; and
  • Makes it expected and permitted for wage-roll personnel to actively pursue continuous improvement in their own safety performance.


In organizations with poor to marginal safety performance, continuous improvement activities are usually sporadic. Performance-enhancing initiatives are difficult to launch and maintain. At many sites, only a segment of the employee population becomes effectively engaged in continuous improvement activities. When these characteristics apply, it is not long before the forces of resistance choke the life out of the initiative, typically long before measurable gains are realized.

Using the tools of behavior-based safety, many companies have engaged personnel at all levels to convert pessimism to optimism and to put their safety performance on a more solid footing. Workers realize that at-risk conditions need not be permanent, that there are specific behaviors that make a critical difference and that there are ways to improve the status quo by removing identified barriers to safe behavior. The development of an optimistic explanatory style helps workers address a range of quality and productivity problems. In many cases, personnel have gone on to attack problems previously perceived to be insoluble.

Behavior-based safety is a catalyst for the development of a new culture. This transformation begins as the organization renounces the status quo and articulates a commitment to continuous improvement in safety performance. The ensuing training and process development work engages employees at all levels in the effort. The commitment of employees to the process and to continuous improvement in safety performance increases in proportion to their investment of time and talent. As the implementation matures, activities such as peer-to-peer observation, performance feedback, problem solving and action planning become the norm rather then the exception. As a result, the culture begins to change in favor of safety. The forces of resistance are overcome. In essence, a new organization emerges -- one that is characterized by dynamic, action-oriented, optimistic, problem-solving teams.


Seligman, M. E. P., Learned Optimism. New York, NY: A.A. Knopf, 1991.

Before joining Behavioral Science Technology Inc. as a consultant in 1994, Tom Oyan worked for many years for companies associated with the automobile industry. He has served as principal officer in two marketing and consulting firms and has 12 years of experience in industrial safety products distribution. Stan Hodson is managing editor and a trainer for Behavioral Science Technology, with headquarters in Ojai, Calif., and located at www.bstsolutions.com.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.