4. Formally establish an innovation team.

Setting and Practicing Ground Rules: A Foundation for Effective Human Performance Programs

March 24, 2014
Location, location, location! That’s what matters most when it comes to selling and buying real estate. Communication, communication, communication! That’s what matters most when it comes to creating safe work environments where employees produce quality work every day.

It’s been documented that communication breakdowns contribute to 70 percent of mistakes in high-risk industries like commercial aviation and medicine.1 This figure probably describes the reality of safety mishaps in any given industry.

Establishing and practicing a set of ground rules that foster open communication among employees at all levels of an organization is the necessary foundation for building a safe work environment.

What are Company Ground Rules?

Ground rules spell out how everyone in the company is going to speak to each other regardless of rank or role. They are developed with the input of employees to insure company fit.

Good ground rules sufficiently are inclusive to address a range of specific behaviors. At the same time, they are limited in number, and written in straightforward language such that employees at all levels can understand and use them.

For example, a motor repair company – Electric Motor and Contracting – recently developed these communication ground rules:

  • Be respectful when sharing and receiving information.
  • Seek first to understand (and then to be understood).
  • Treat others, as you would like to be treated.

Development and implementation of the ground rules was so impactful, that decades-old communication barriers between some employees and departments began to give way within weeks.

Why Are Ground Rules So Important?

Companies are focused on finding ways to work safer, better and faster. A singular focus on either safety or quality may result in cost overruns.

A singular focus on producing a product or service faster may reduce cost, but it runs the risk of yielding unacceptable compromises in employee health or customer satisfaction. To achieve excellence, companies must focus on three dimensions simultaneously – safety, quality and cost.

Eliminating rework or failed outcomes is critical to the process and it requires that the company encourage a questioning attitude among employees at all levels. Improving communication is inevitably key to doing so.

It’s Not Just What You Say, But How You Say It

To some degree, building a culture of safety is always tied to a three-step process of setting expectations, educating employees and establishing accountability.2

The last step comprises the lion’s share of the culture change work.3 It is dependent upon senior leaders and managers actively and regularly rounding with employees to maintain situational awareness and provide frequent positive reinforcement and infrequent corrective feedback.

How they use language – both verbal and non-verbal – to convey their message determines whether or not a program will be successful and sustainable. 

Workplace Bullying

One of the most powerful obstacles in the way of good communication is the phenomenon of workplace bullying. Bullying occurs to some extent in most organizations and is rampant in many.

Doctors bully nurses. Managers bully subordinates. Employees bully each other. The desire to get a job done well often is the driving force behind bullying, but it can – and usually does – produce the opposite effect. In order to insure safety and quality in the workplace, employees throughout a company must feel comfortable speaking up when they have a concern.

Each time an employee is ridiculed, berated or belittled for having a questioning attitude, that employee becomes less likely to speak up for safety in the future. Studies show that time and again, even when patient lives are at stake, nurses fail to question doctors about unsafe practices or inaccurate procedures.

Consider how much more likely this problem may be when a product – not a person – is at risk! Establishing solid ground rules through employee input and buy-in goes a long way toward eliminating bullying behavior.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Effective implementation of ground rules starts at the top. Senior management must first be engaged and sincerely committed to abiding by the rules. Management must be willing to walk the talk. Otherwise, implementation of ground rules may become just another “flavor of the month” program that comes and goes without positive impact.

Senior managers, followed by middle managers, must practice the ground rules and begin to set the tone for a more effective brand of communication. This is best done prior to rolling out the ground rules to the broader organization.

Ultimately, effective implementation of ground rules must be both a top-down and bottom-up process. In the end, employees at all levels must be exposed to the ground rules and empowered to “call and be called” when violations occur. 

Speaking Up is Fundamental for a Culture of Safety

In order for ground rules to truly take hold, employees must see that the expectation for their use is real and that those in positions of power genuinely are abiding by them. The only way for this to occur is with time and experience; no shortcuts.

Managers must demonstrate time and again that they not only will abide by the ground rules, but that they also refuse to tolerate anyone else failing to abide by them. It is a matter of building employee trust over time by showing (not just saying) that the workplace will be one in which all employees treat each other with respect, one in which a questioning attitude is expected, encouraged and rewarded.

At the end of the day, it is employees’ ability and willingness to speak up that determines a company’s or an organization’s culture of safety.

About the Authors: Gretchen LeFever Watson, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and public health researcher who has worked in academic, healthcare and business settings for over 20 years. Watson’s work has appeared in scientific journals and been discussed national media outlets. She is president of Safety and Learning Solutions. Andrea Arcona, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, published autho, and safety advocate. She is a senior consultant with Safety and Learning Solutions. The authors welcome your comments and questions at [email protected].


1Leonard, S. & Bonacum, D. (2004). The Human Factor: The Critical Importance of Effective Teamwork and Communication in Providing Safe Care. Quality and Safety in Health Care, 13, ppi85-i90.

2Burke, G., LeFever, G.B. & Sayles, S.M. (2009). Zero Events of Harm to Patients: Building and Sustaining a System-Wide Culture of Safety at Sentara Healthcare. Managing Infection Control, February: 44-50.

3LeFever, G.B. (2010). Chasing Zero Events of Harm: An urgent call to expand safety culture work and consumer engagement. Healthvie.com [Formerly called Managing Infection Control], February, pp. 28-42.

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