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Are You Priming your Employees to Work Safely or Take Risks?

July 18, 2016
Listen closely: Are the words and actions of supervisors and managers at odds with your company’s safety message?

Imagine you are part of a team that has been assigned a particularly difficult maintenance job. It will take three craftsmen at least eight hours to complete this task. Your supervisor (Jeff) is coordinating a long list of planned jobs as part of a large shutdown. Before you go to the work site, Jeff provides a pre-job brief:

“We have to replace the large pump in the northwest corner of the basement. As you know, it's in a very tight space with no headroom and there isn't much ventilation or lighting down there, so make sure you hook up a fan and some temporary lighting.”

He tells you it is a “critical path job,” so you need to start it ASAP because the production line will be waiting on the job to be completed before they can restart the line. He also tells you that the company is behind on shipping orders, so upper management is applying pressure.

He asks you to keep breaks to a minimum and says, “If you run into any problems and aren't sure what to do - use your judgment and do whatever takes. I know I can count on you guys to get this job done right and on time. And be safe.”

With this conversation, Jeff significantly increased the likelihood that someone on this crew will incur an injury. Why? Let's look at the words or phrases that he used: critical path, ASAP, waiting, behind, minimum breaks, etc.

Do you see the pattern? Jeff planted numerous seeds for the team to work quickly. In so doing, he introduced a factor which is proven to increase risk – rushing. The team may complete the job quickly, but they will take additional risks to do it.

Priming Experiments

Behavioral psychologists have proven that exposing people to a series of words with the same theme can have a significant influence on their subsequent actions. This initially was demonstrated through a series of classic priming experiments.

In one, some students were asked to come see their professor in his office. They had to walk down a long hallway to enter the office, where they were given a sheet of paper with a list of five-word sets. They were challenged to make a grammatical sentence from four of these words. Here is the test:

  • him was worried she always
  • from are Florida oranges temperature
  • ball the throw toss silently
  • shoes give replace old the
  • he observes occasionally people watches
  • be will sweat lonely they
  • sky the seamless gray is
  • should now withdraw forgetful we
  • us bingo sing play let
  • sunlight makes temperature wrinkle raisins

The real experiment was not determining if the students could arrange these words into sentences. The students had no difficulty with the test. Instead, the researchers (discretely) measured how long it took the students to walk down the hallway going to the office and from the office after taking the test. Then they compared these times.

The results showed that it took significantly longer for people to walk down the same hallway after taking the test as compared to when they first arrived at the office. Why?

The students were being primed. Words scattered throughout this test are connected with old age (worried, Florida, wrinkled, lonely, old, gray, bingo, wrinkle, forgetful). The researchers concluded that these words triggered the “adaptive unconscious” in the brains of the students to think about the state of being old. And without even realizing it, the subjects acted old by walking more slowly!

Other priming experiments have replicated these results using other sets of behavioral word triggers.

For example, in priming one group, researchers used words of aggression (bold, rude, bother, disturb, intrude, etc.). Another group was primed with words of respect (considerate, appreciate, patient, yield, courteous, etc.). These individuals were observed to see how long it would take them to interrupt a staged conversation between two people. Not surprisingly, people who were subjected to aggression priming interrupted the staged conversation more than twice as quickly as those who were primed with synonyms of respect.

In the case of our supervisor, Jeff, we can see even more clearly that he was priming his employees to work at a fast pace, thus triggering their adaptive unconscious to think about working quickly. This means they will be more likely to take shortcuts, not wait for someone to help them, skip a step in a procedure, etc. Jeff’s crew was highly influenced by him to take unnecessary risks. Perhaps he did not intend this to be the outcome, but his choice of words set the stage for risk-taking.

Positive Priming

The good news is that we can use this knowledge of priming to influence others in a positive way. Let's rewind the clock and imagine Jeff giving the pre-job briefing. This time, he has a very different message.

Instead of telling you it’s a critical path job, he reminds you to check out the entire area before you start the job and make sure you have everything you need to do the job safely. He tells you not to cut corners because it’s an important job and to take whatever time you need to do the job right. He tells you: “It's gonna be hot down there, so you guys need to take a break at least every hour. Take a cooler of drinks with you to stay hydrated. Work at a pace that makes sense.”

In this version, Jeff changed the message entirely. He was priming the crew to work deliberately and with increased situational awareness. And it was delivered in a caring tone. His choice of key words/phrases in this scenario include: safely, no cutting corners, take time, take breaks, stay hydrated, etc.

There are many influences on risk. Perhaps this crew would complete the job without incident, regardless of what they heard from their supervisor in a pre-job brief. However, employees who are constantly primed with words that encourage risk-taking likely will have a higher incident rate than those who are primed for risk awareness.

Choose your words thoughtfully when you are in a position of influence. They carry more weight than you may realize!

David A. Galloway is founder and president of Continuous MILE Consulting LLC. After graduating from Penn State, Galloway started his career in the paper industry. Over the next 35 years, he gained experience and held leadership roles in process engineering, operations, research, product development, quality, logistics and strategy. As a certified master black belt, certified master facilitator and lean six sigma deployment director, Galloway provides expertise that enables businesses to achieve better processes, safer operations, and stronger innovation. He can be reached at [email protected] and he blogs at  

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