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Safety Emotions

Is It Even Possible to Exclude Emotions from Safety Leadership?

April 22, 2021
Emotions, when combined with logic and data, can lead us to wiser decisions that create enhanced safety performance levels.

More than 80% of aviation accidents are related to human factors. Preventable medical error is the third largest cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease and cancer. Today, as safety professionals, we understand and acknowledge that humans make mistakes, and we are looking for ways to address them at a systemic level. We are beginning to see safety in a new light and are continuously looking at ways to improve them based on emerging knowledge. In this article, I want to share a different perspective on how we think about the human in the system.

As part of my 20-year coaching career, I have been a practitioner of an ontological approach to leadership transformation. For those of you who are not familiar with the term ontology, let me share how I understand it. Ontology is a branch of philosophy called metaphysics that looks at concepts like existence, being, becoming, and reality. The word ontology is rooted in the Greek language (Onto + ology), meaning “the study of being.” Ontology deals with questions about what things exist or can be said to exist and how such entities can be grouped according to similarities and differences.

A relatively new ontology of human beings is that we are constituted of a body, emotions and reason (our ability to think and lead conversations using our intellect). These three centers of intelligence support each other and act in a dynamic coherence. We can’t exclude any of them because they are constituent to our human make-up. However, many of our safety improvement initiatives are focused primarily on the intellectual and physical domains and do not pay enough attention to the emotions that are part of every human action.

Emotions Underlie Safety Behaviors, Even in Animals

On a sunny afternoon, a deer lazily walks down to a stream and begins drinking. Suddenly, it senses something unusual and spots a tiger behind the bushes. Within a few seconds, the deer shifts from laziness into sprint mode and manages to save itself from the tiger. During this process, the deer sensing the tiger’s presence and perceiving the situation as dangerous is the intellectual part. The deer’s perception of danger triggers the emotion of fear which puts its body into action to escape from the threat. If there were no fear, the deer would continue drinking water and make the job easy for the tiger. Similarly, all living beings, including humans, experience fear, which helps us protect ourselves from dangers.

Recently I saw a YouTube video on YouTube watched by 20 million people. In the video, an elephant herd comes together and protects a mother and a newborn from a pride of hunting lions. Think about this from a safety perspective. Being safety creators, are we doing anything different? The emotion of care for ourselves and others is at the core of creating safety. The purpose of everything we do in safety, including safety management systems and procedures, are rooted in the emotion of care.

Human Emotions are Complex

As part of our evolution, our emotions have expanded into a magnificently complex network. I talked about fear and care, but more than 250 emotions are known to us, and many are quite nuanced. Does our emotional range mean that we act more safely? It is a possibility we all have, but it sometimes turns out to be the opposite.

Some emotions act as barriers to safety, which can be overlooked. For instance, embarrassment may be the barrier that keeps someone from reporting an incident. Out of envy, a person might withhold information from a colleague and put them in danger. More than that, we have emotions about emotions that can work against safety objectives. As with the example of the deer and tiger, fear is one of the most fundamental emotions that leads to safety. However, being embarrassed to exhibit fear and pretend to be courageous could lead to at-risk behaviors.

Our Judgment about Emotions

One principal source of our emotions about emotions is the way emotions are understood culturally. We ask people to keep their emotions outside the company premises, thinking that they have no business value. Often, acknowledging or displaying emotions is seen as a sign of weakness. We label some emotions positive and others negative when in reality every emotion supports us at times and is a barrier in other situations. For instance, we consider loyalty and optimism “good emotions” within an organization because they generally contribute to success. On the other hand, anger and anxiety are considered bad emotions because they get in way of success. Therefore, most people want to get rid of those so-called bad ones and pursue only ‘good’ emotions.

The problem with this approach is that we are missing the information from the emotions we disregard. Every emotion tells us something, and all of them—including those perceived bad ones—have their value. Anger tells us we are experiencing injustice, and frustration tells us things are taking longer than we believe they should.

Engineers and Emotions

As part of my work with safety in high-reliability organizations, I have worked with many engineers who believed that they are purely rational beings. Many of them also believed that technology alone could create superior safety performance. However, when they were exposed to the realm of emotions, it opened up many possibilities. One client shared his realization that “emotions are my fuel for action.”

After a safety meeting, action or inaction depends on the emotions with which the message was conveyed during the meeting. Neuroscience studies led by Dr. Antonio Damasio have revealed that none of our decisions are purely rational, and emotions play an equally important role. If that is the case, how could safety decisions be different? A decision to get away from the lockout/tagout process could be rooted in a lack of respect or complacency. Unfortunately, most workers cannot identify their emotions and biases because they never received any formal training in this area.

Learning to Listen to Our Emotions

Emotions are our automatic reactions to events. When we ignore them or are not aware of them, they take charge of everything we do. Paying attention to them opens the possibility for us to take charge of them and thereby of our actions. This is a skill we can learn.

Just like mathematical analysis, every emotion has a logical structure, and they are quite predictable. Once we know the emotions that move us in a certain way, we can ask whether this emotion is helping or hindering safety. Try practicing this for a few days, and you will discover that even the so-called “good emotions” such as loyalty and joy sometimes act as barriers to safety. On the other hand, if you feel resentment about management not caring for safety, it can improve safety because it has raised your concern level.

Reacting vs Responding to Situations

One of the common challenges faced by many logistics and transportation companies is their truck drivers’ usage of cell phones while driving. If we think rationally, using cell phones while driving a 40-foot container truck doesn’t make sense. It is not that those drivers are not aware of the consequences because most companies regularly train them on standard operating procedures. Still, why do drivers do it?

Let’s say you are driving back home and are anticipating a message from a family member. Then you hear a message notification and want to know who it is from, out of curiosity. Our natural impulse in curiosity is to pick up the phone and read the message. Curiosity is a great emotion that helps us learn things and explore the world, but in the context of reading messages while driving, curiosity is not serving safety. What we have been taught is that we don’t have any choice other than reacting to our emotions. This is not true and every one of us has the power to respond in a way that serves safety rather than simply reacting to situations.

How to Normalize Emotions in Your Organization

As safety professionals, we need to acknowledge that we all are human beings and every one of us has emotions. Normalizing emotions in your organization opens the possibility to express and talk about employees’ emotions freely. From there, we can identify the emotions that are working against our safety objectives and help workers shift into those serving safety.

Contrary to what most of us have learned, emotions are not about hugging or crying. They are powerful sources of information when making safety decisions. When combined correctly with logic and data, they can lead us to wiser decisions that create enhanced safety performance levels. Emotions are also a great coaching tool for supervisors when working with frontline workers. Instead of asking, “Why you did that?” we can begin to listen to the emotions behind the actions. In most cases, that will give a revealing answer to the question, “How could such an intelligent person act in such an unsafe manner?”

Dan Newby is an author of five books on emotions, a professional certified coach by the International Coach Federation, and a master safety coach trainer at SafetyRelations.

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