NSC 2011: Storytelling, Collaboration and Safety from the Heart

Oct. 31, 2011
According to National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expo keynote speaker Peter Sheahan, the key to making significant behavior changes in safety can be found not necessarily in overcoming our challenges, but in looking beyond our past successes.

Sheahan, the founder and CEO of ChangeLabs, captivated the NSC audience in Philadelphia the morning of Oct. 31 with his high energy and down-under accent. He explained that roadblocks in our journey to continuous improvement result from not our failure to predict the future but rather from making the wrong assumptions about the present and the likely impact that will have on the future.

This is what Sheahan calls "the gravity of success," the fact that we are compelled to return to the tried-and true, or "safe," option. In short, we will most likely simply stick with what has worked in the past – in the safety world, this can mean staying true to the same processes, methods and systems that already have yielded positive results. Unfortunately, if we can't look beyond these past successes, we may never make it to the next level in safety.

"Suspend your preconceived beliefs about how you drive safety deep in an organization and open your mind to the possibility of a new way," Sheahan explained.

Feeling Involved in Safety

Sheahan also told NSC attendees that too many companies rely on incentives and consequences for behavior change when these elements are not what actually motivate people to change. The No. 1 thing that actually shifts people’s behavior, Sheahan said, is the narrative they have in their minds about why they should do what they do. That means EHS leaders must build a story that shows why workers should care about safety – not only at work, but also at home.

The key to successfully "stitching a story," as Sheahan calls it, is leadership. "Leadership is the ultimate symbol of taking safety seriously," he said. "Your job is to architect one of the symbols to bring that narrative to life."

Sheahan also stressed that collaboration is an essential ingredient in making positive change. Unless people feel involved in the process, they will not engage with it.

"This concept of collaboration is not a fad," Sheahan said. "It’s going to be a deep, long-term requirement of any culture change and therefore any safety initiative."

Sheahan left the NSC audience with his three key points: Elevate yourself out of your daily life and suspend belief in how success looks; explore the concept of narrative and story in your safety culture; and remember that collaborative engagement will be the crucial mechanism by which we engage. By sharing stories and working together, real behavior change may emerge.

"Maybe the next frontier of the safety movement is the heart," Sheahan added.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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