Enlist the Power of Setting Expectations

In my experience, too many leaders have well-intended but murky ideas of improvement. As a result, their organizational staffers swim blind.

In times of threat and change, leaders can't just adhere to the status quo. Their effectiveness stems from their ability to use power to change the future. That is, helping everyone, from Executives to Workers, think differently, act safer, prevent the "3 I's" of incidents/injuries/illnesses, to work and live better today than yesterday.

But these general goals aren't enough; too much like wishes and too little like directions. When navigating to a never-visited location, you'll need more than "We have to move to a higher level," "Try harder," "Think before you act," or "Make the best decisions."

Think of expectations as consistent words and actions that propel movement toward the desired direction. Harvard University has done extensive research on the power of expectations, revealing that a leader's view of others' strengths, limitations, and future actions tends to become self-fulfilling, consistently shaping their performance -- for better or worse. Or, as one corporate Safety Director reflected, "Treat people like donkeys, and you'll find they'll just bray."

In my experience, too many leaders have well-intended but murky ideas of improvement and, as a result, their organizational staffers swim blind. In contrast, the clearer your expectations of improvement, the easier it is to communicate these simply and understandably, the better for prompting discussions, surfacing and dealing with objections, and the faster for setting up accurate measurements of success.

Highest-level leadership starts within; in this case, by specifically elucidating what you expect to happen to move toward global-class Safety performance. Here are some expectations that point to improved Safety performance and culture. Of course, the following examples are neither exhaustive nor customized. Employ these as a starting point for clarifying your own situation-specific expectational sets:

1. For Executives/Managers: They're seeing real Safety problems and obstacles in their company, rather than having an idealized or misguided view? Previous Liberty Mutual studies reveal executives are out of sync when it comes to perceiving which injury sources cost the most (e.g., execs rated same-level slips/trips/falls as the seventh-most-costly injury when, in fact, it was number two for that year).

Do they look beyond incident rates/trailing indicators and dig in to help set leading indicators that are meaningful to them?

Do they have realistic timelines for return on investment (not expecting today's carpal tunnel syndrome intervention will show injury dropoffs tomorrow)?

Allocate needed resources for current pilots and projects, including their time for consultation/check-in?

Model safe actions?

Expect their direct reports to actively lead Safety?
Be enthusiastic and communicate personally about Safety benefits?

2. For Workers: Do they willingly embrace what they personally can do to elevate safe decisions and actions?

Select and use the best tools for efficiency and Safety?

Recognize when adjustments are called for due to changes in environment/work/personal life, and then make effective modifications?

Remember and employ what they've learned -- policies, procedures, training?

Report/communicate near-misses, concerns, and suggestions at an early level?

Understand the mix of potential off-work contributors to injury and make simple adjustments to head these off?

Try new designs/training/procedures with an open mind, rather than rejecting something outright just because it's new or different?

Develop and work toward annual individual Safety objectives?

Participate actively in incident investigations, Safety committees, Safety meetings?

Serve as a peer catalyst for Safety improvement?

3. For Everyone: Do they think of Safety and ergonomics in a positive light? Are they receptive to Safety interventions helping to improve their work and personal lives, rather than obstacles to efficiently doing necessary work, nor as a means to show them how "wrongly" they operate?

Think and plan ahead and cumulatively, recognizing that small actions changed can result in larger potential problems prevented?

Work toward continually improving, at work and at home, replacing negative habits with positive autopilot systems?

Have high expectations of Safety benefits and improvement?

Once you've decided on highest-priority expectations (ideally, in concert with those from top to bottom in your company), then how do you set these so they spur actions? Certainly start with yourself (you can't effectively create change for others if you can't do this for yourself). Then:

  • Examine. What might be getting in the way of transplanting positive expectations? What kinds of disconnects/mixed messages do we still transmit? How do I elicit courageous feedback to doublecheck I'm not deluding myself?
  • Cleanse. Unearth and neutralize existing negative mindsets. This is definitely not a one-shot process, especially when people have long-term memories and experiences that fuel their skepticism.
  • Replant new and improved expectations. Remind others that the current situation is different now, both internally and due to outside forces (explaining specific reasons why). Again, don't expect to just communicate this once and assume this plant has "rooted."
  • Show others the importance -- to them -- of their expectations and then specific skills for learning to control these.
  • Reinforce positive expectations that are fulfilled by setting up and applauding milestone accomplishments ("milestones" = leading indicators).

Of course, setting and then communicating expectations are just two steps up the Safety performance trail. Highest-level leaders don't expect "personal responsibility" only from others; they first shore up their own expectations of themselves. So begin within, looking at your own actions for what you can do differently to inspire and induce better performance in yourself and others.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Robert Pater is Managing Director of Strategic Safety Associates and MoveSMART®. To contact him, email rpater@movesmart.com.

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