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The Guilt Trip: Increasing Self-Responsibility for Safety

June 4, 2013
I bet you've used the term "guilt trip" when explaining personal feelings or when attempting to understand the behavior of others. What do we mean? Can we use this metaphor to improve safety?

I think we can put people (including ourselves) on a guilt trip for safety and thereby increase self-responsibility for injury prevention. Let's explore this notion and its practical ramifications.

First of all, what is guilt? The term "guilt trip" reflects more than behavior. It suggests a remorseful awareness of having done something wrong. The key word here is "remorseful," which means a person feels moral anguish over a reflection of his or her prior behavior.  

See Also: Workplace Safety Management Best Practices

Psychologists refer to this mental state as cognitive dissonance, typically caused by experiencing an inconsistency between one's actions and a related belief, value or attitude. This inconsistency between inside conviction and outside behavior causes mental tension and self-motivation to restore congruity between behavior and one's belief, value or attitude. 

Simply put, we want our actions to reflect our values, and vice versa. When we perceive discrepancy between our values and our actions, we more often adjust our behavior to match our values, rather than change our values.

Is Safety a Value?

When I ask my safety-focused audiences whether they hold safety as a value, almost everyone raises a hand to affirm a collective "yes." And, when I pose this question to individuals, I invariably receive an assertive confirmation. Some say, "Safety is more than a value to me and my work team, it's a core value."

Frankly, I believe many people are too cavalier with their affirmation of safety as a core value or personal principle that receives precedence in every situation. But I'll take it, because this is the first step toward putting people on a guilt trip and helping them develop self-accountability for safety. 

"Okay," I say, "Safety is a value linked to every one of your priorities. So regardless of the circumstances, including outside demands on your time, you attempt to be as safe as you can be, right?" Surprisingly, the majority answers "yes" to this idealistic proposal, especially in public settings. 

Actually, I should not be surprised by this response; in our culture these days, "safety" goes along with "motherhood, baseball and apple pie." Consider how you can use this affirmation to activate a guilt trip and build self-accountability for safety.

From Value Affirmation to Safety Responsibility

The intervention process is simple and straightforward. Get people to declare safety as a value linked to the changing priorities of each work day. Then define behaviors compatible versus incompatible with this value statement. A guilt trip can be activated whenever you point out behavior inconsistent with safety as a core value. 

For example, after observing at-risk behavior you remind the performer of the group consensus that safety is a value. If the person realizes the inconsistency, she or he should feel guilty and proceed to resolve the tension or attitude/behavior imbalance by substituting safe for at-risk behavior. 

But if you want self-accountability, your communication needs to enable the perception of choice in this situation. The individual's conviction should not be viewed as controlled by extrinsic factors like a mandate, an incentive, a disincentive or peer pressure, but by a personal decision to demonstrate safety as a core value. 

Your goal is to facilitate the experience of a discrepancy between one's behavior and a commitment, or personal-value statement. This initiates a guilt trip, which ends when self-motivated action restores the imbalance. 

The more public the commitment or value affirmation, the greater its impact. Thus, when people attest to safety as a value in the presence of others, they feel a greater sense of obligation to live up to their conviction. Those who heard the value statement can readily start people on a guilt trip by calling attention to at-risk behavior they observe that does not reflect safety as a value.

Individuals likely will end their guilt trip by choosing the safe alternative in the future. They might even go beyond the call of duty for injury prevention in order to reaffirm safety is indeed a core value for them.

E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., is an alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and a  senior partner at Safety Performance Solutions. Geller and his partners at Safety Performance Solutions help companies worldwide apply research-based principles and practices to achieve an injury-free workplace. For more information, visit or call 540-951-7233.

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