Help the 'Bulletproof' Employee Make the Connection
Inspire conformance through influence, awareness, and definitively through the identification of the harmful and helpful biases we all have, some of them buried deep within us.
Why is it that some workers are vigilant about protecting themselves while others, the bulletproof ones, are willing to take a substantial risk without a care in the world? Somehow, bulletproof employees cannot see beyond their actions to the point of anticipating the reality of what can happen. Let’s focus on these employees and secure an understanding of who they are and how they rise to power; why they choose risky behavior; how they and we view the world; how we can influence their "unsafe" decision-making process; how to best approach them without making things worse; how our biases and inner values can impact our interpretation of event; how incremental rationalization plays a role in the creation of bulletproof employees; how to effectively arm yourself and your organization with the tools needed to encourage "engagement by choice" through accountability and consequential leadership; how to approach this issue from a different perspective; and how to ultimately drive safety excellence in this regard by design. We will explore strategies that encourage these employees to make the right connection to the right behaviors at the right time, so they accept ownership and accountability for their actions and their safety program.
The ultimate goal is to offer you the opportunity to think differently about how to be the spark plug that ignites an active movement within your organization where employees embrace change as a cultural norm through the power of leadership influence. We will reveal how you can ensure safer workplaces and empower a new era of change agents for occupational safety through the process of realization and strategy implementation.
Cause for Action: Jaw-Dropping Statistics
The National Safety Council (http://www.nsc.org/JSEWorkplaceDocuments/JSE-Infographic-Printable.pdf) just published jaw-dropping statistics on the state of our nation regarding injuries and fatalities, the financial impact to the economy, and the benefits of enhanced employee engagement. These are "jaw-dropping" because NSC's publication is not about the numbers, it is about the organizations and people involved and about the families impacted.
Considering at the statistics a different way, a worker dies nearly every two hours every day in the U.S. including on weekends and holidays and every shift. There are nine injuries every minute, one fatal workplace illness every ten minutes and four non-fatal workplace illnesses every five minutes. This means that every 90 minutes or so, a worker will likely not return home to his family, 810 workers will be injured, nine will sustain a fatal workplace illness, and 72 will now have an illness they did not have when they left home this morning. These statistics are jaw-dropping and represent the human side of things.
The NSC estimates that the impact of these cases on the U.S. economy is over $383 million a day or $266,362 for every minute that passes. Fatalities are costing more than $126 million a day. Why is understanding this important? Because there is a financial windfall for those organizations that choose to proactively protect their employees. The NSC estimates that $36,000 goes back into the bottom line every time there is an avoided medically consulted injury. At a 7% ROI, that means protecting over $557,000 in sales for every prevented medically consulted injury. When it comes to preventing a fatality, the bottom line gets to keep $1.42 million while protecting over $20 million in sales. The NSC estimates that there is a 4 to 1 savings for indirect costs over direct costs for prevented injuries. There is an excellent business case for taking action and for implementing world-class safety management systems in your organization.
The NSC offers a journey to excellence which in part provides guidance on how to improve safety culture and reduce injury and illness rates. When you combine leadership and employee engagement, the result is an enhanced safety culture and lower injury and illness rates. There are many independently performed studies by international organizations that reach the same conclusion. Leaders and organizations that foster a culture of high employee engagement outperform those with less engaged employees. The performance metrics results are celebrated in terms of higher operating income, net income, and earnings per share. The metrics performance is the result of a leadership process that led to improved employee morale, increased productivity and process efficiencies.
What Are Bulletproof Employees and How Do They Rise to Power?
Who are bulletproof employees anyway? Bulletproof employees surface in many forms: the quiet ones; the loud ones; the reserved ones; the uninitiated ones.
The quiet bulletproof employees often blend in well with others. They keep to themselves, buck the system in ways that can be difficult to detect, and are passive aggressive. They don their safety glasses only when they notice the safety professional walking their way. Like all bulletproof employees, the quiet ones take unmitigated risks and are a detriment to any high-performing and sustainable safety culture.
The loud ones are easy to spot. They are vocal about their view of the dumb safety rules in meetings and during employee conversations. They exhibit a sense of entitlement almost as if they have a choice as to whether they work safely or not. These employees do not bother to don a pair of safety glasses regardless of who is in their presence. The loud ones are a clear indicator of leadership’s ineffectiveness in establishing a safe culture. They typically are viewed as the voice of reason, a vocal champion, to other employees.
The reserved bulletproof employee is often seen as informal leaders by their peers. The reserved one can temper the loud one and engage the quiet one. They will have their safety glasses on most of the time but complain about having to do so. At the first opportunity, regardless of hazard, they will take them off.
The uninitiated bulletproof employee is the one who takes the risk because he or she is not aware of the danger. This one does not wear the provided safety glasses because most others do not while performing the same work task.
All four types of bulletproof employees have their reasons for taking dangerous risks during their work day. Each acts out their defiance differently. They all represent a hazard to themselves, others around them, and to their employer’s risk portfolio which connects the financial bottom line.
How do bulletproof employees rise within an organization? What are the fertilizers and the energies that keep their appetite for risky behavior alive? In a little bit, we will tackle the process thinking mindset in more detail which helps explain how bulletproof employees rise within organizations. For now, let’s just say that bulletproof employees are a direct output, a result of a process leadership has in place. They rise within organizations because that is the way leadership designed the process.
So, what is the problem? What is the issue? Why should we care about even one bulletproof employee in our organization? Contrary to most conventional thinking, the output, in this case, the bulletproof employee, is not the point of origin for the issue. The design of the process that created the bulletproof employee is the culprit. In statistics, everything is inevitable given a chance. Risk-taking is a chance for something unwanted or unanticipated to occur. This means that even one bulletproof employee within your organization can cause a significant inflection point in your organization's ability to exceed customer requirements concerning substandard safety culture, loss productivity, bottom line detractors, injuries, illness, and fatalities. The issue is that bulletproof employees represent a flaw in the design of a leadership process that needs correction to achieve what most companies aspire to be: the best value, most reliable, lowest risk provider of its product or services.
Why Do Bulletproof Employees Behave the Way They Do?
Besides a flawed process, why do bulletproof employees do what they do? Why do they take the unnecessary risks? The reason is quite simple. They do so because taking risks makes perfect sense to them at that moment in time. If things make sense, human behavior dictates pursuit of them. In this case, if it makes sense not to wear safety glasses, then they will not be worn. The risk of not wearing safety glasses does not outweigh the trouble of wearing them in the mind of the bulletproof employee.
The two primary factors influencing workplace safety are human behavior and workplace processes. Realistically, both are an accurate reflection of leadership. Focusing on these two elements is the key to implementing a sustainable and effective safety management system. Focusing more on workplace process improvement inherently and positively affects employee behavior and reduces the likelihood of cultivating bulletproof employees.
The Common Relationship Between Human Behavior, Personal Risk Assessment, and Influence
Human behavior is the result of a personal risk assessment. We all behave the way we do because we have evaluated the pros and cons of the alternatives and decided on an action forward based on the likelihood of an outcome, the risk. Consequences of actions drive each of our behaviors. If we perceive the risk as being low, then we are likely to take that action. Conversely, if we view the risk to be high, we will probably not take that action. For example, if I perceive that I will lose my life today by not locking out that hazardous energy, then the probability is high (if my life is valued) I will make the right decision; that I will hold myself accountable for taking the right actions to ensure my safety. If, on the other hand, I perceive that my well-being is assured by not locking out that hazardous energy (after all… nothing has ever happened in the past) the probability is high that I will make the wrong choice because I want to get home a little earlier for my children’s soccer game. Bad choice in the sense that the outcome of my actions may not be what I predicted. In both instances, a risk assessment, my risk assessment, determined my behavior based on my personal view of the potential consequences of the planned outcome. Very often, helping the individual or organization early during this personal risk assessment is the difference between who gets to go home after work and who never returns to their loved ones.
A risk assessment conclusion is based on a point of view. Your point of view has a significant impact on how and why you draw conclusions. A point of view is susceptible to the incredible power of influence. How you view a situation can be swayed by others. Think of the people that have had an influence in your life; those that have changed your course or those that have broadened your horizons. These people are influencers often not knowing nor understanding the significant impact they have had in your life, both personal and professional. The same is true within organizations. There are formal and informal influencers that affect how other employees view themselves, their job, and their worth to the organization, both positively and negatively.
Influence is an outcome, a result of an event or series of events. Most of us need to be convinced through a series of witnessed actions before we allow others the privilege of influencing us. A supportive boss arrives to work before everyone else and leaves after everyone else leaves. That predictable action has a particular impact on employees that shapes their point of view; an unwavering commitment to them and the company come to mind. A self-centered boss often treats employees with varying levels of disrespect. That undesirable action has a particular influence on employees that shapes their point of view; questionable commitment and ulterior motives come to mind.
In either case, leadership has impacted the workforce through its actions. Leadership in action is about encouraging the desired performance by recognizing that leaders are part of the process that creates every workplace outcome. Like most of us, bulletproof employees make behavioral decisions that are based on how they see the world and on their conscious and unconscious biases.
There are no doubts supervisors create and promote the working environment. This creation and promotion influences employees to behave in ways that are conducive to their surroundings. These leaders are the synergistic relationship between human behavior, personal risk assessment, and influence.
The Biggest Error: Success is Dependent Primarily on Human Behavior
The work environment is a process designed, owned, and operated by leadership. All work-related outcomes are the result of their processes, whether they are planned or unplanned. Everything produced is the product of a series of events and actions that created it regardless of intention. Looking at the big picture first offers insights into why things happen. Thinking in regards to process facilitates the identification of sustainable solutions. We often arrive at a fundamental cause that blames employees for injuries, when in fact, we are missing an opportunity to identify a process step or two that needed to be modified, deleted or included. If we believe that every process precisely works as designed, then the design is faulty if it produces an injury or another undesirable event.
While employee behavior is a critical process element, it is not the only one. The error is in believing that this is the case. By helping your leadership understand and acknowledge their role in every workplace process, you are reducing the risk of growing a bulletproof employee and helping those that are on their way to becoming one to make the safety connection.
Any process that relies on a single factor for success, including human behavior, is inherently flawed and flawed processes result in defects and missed expectations including workplace injuries, quality and production mishaps and ultimately financial harm to any organization.
The diversity of approach and thought are keys to success in assuring sustainable solutions. The biggest error I see within organizations is that leadership designs processes that rely on the correct human behavior for the success of the intended outcome. For example, if the employee remembers to follow policy, then the result will be as planned. Another example is when, given a multitude of choices, leadership expectations are that the employees will select the one they want them to choose, always, every time, simply because that is what is implied or expected. While reliance on employee behavior is a major factor in successful process outcomes, it cannot stand on its own merits to support efficient execution of the work. Human behavior is often best influenced through and by the process that encouraged it. By eliminating the undesired choices through process improvements, you reduce their selection through design. Bulletproof employees exist because are many unwanted choices offered by their employer. Bulletproof employees typically make the choices they view as the path of least resistance.
Decision-Making and Biases: Looking Outside Your Window
Is it possible that an employee's decision-making process can be distorted due to an eventuality that is assigned a higher priority? The answer is yes. I call these, distortions of the decision process. They occur when everything is okay up until something happens that causes the employee’s priorities to suddenly move in a different direction, thereby making their current focus trivial in comparison. These include life-changing events like the loss of a loved one, financial distress, relationship issues, or as simple as an angry boss, a poor performance review, or an argument with a fellow worker. Leadership cannot control life-changing events but what we can do is have processes in place that promote a culture where everyone looks out for each other. By doing so, another employee can make the right choice for the colleague that is temporarily making the wrong one. We all have disruptions of the decision-making process. We are human. The key is to balance this out with a supportive culture.
Studies (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16771803) show that three factors cause us to overvalue the importance of completing one task over another.
1. Authority and blindly following one directive over another
2. Time pressure and having to find the shortest path to the longest route
3. The basic need to complete a task without interruption; having to get something done first at all costs and without consideration or re-evaluation of the safety risk.
The combination of these three factors cause us to make decisions that generate undesired results; sometimes we gain weight, sometimes lives are lost. We fail to consider the real and major risks of moving forward with our decision. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as "unit bias." The unilateral tendency to want to finish a given unit of a task or an item. Before we discuss "unit bias," let's consider biases in general. Understanding them assists the bulletproof employee in moving towards a sustainable behavioral transition.
Biases are within us all. Sometimes we refer to them as preferences. Others refer to them as filters. Regardless of what these "things" are, they force us to manage information in ways that force predetermined assessments and resulting actions. Sometimes the results are positive, sometimes not so much.
Divergent biases can hinder organizational effectiveness and overall cultural performance when introduced into the workplace. Biases are often created or manifested when we have experienced something or have learned a harsh lesson. Think of the last time you had a memorable bad experience at a hotel. The service left a lot to be desired, the parking was overly expensive, and the room was musty. What is the likelihood that you will return to that particular hotel or to that hotel chain? Drawing conclusions about future outcomes from experiences in the past and formulating a decision based on them is a form of biased decision-making.
Have you ever said: "I'm not doing that again!" or "Catch me once!"? These are classic examples of biased decision-making. Biased decision-making is not always wrong. In fact, sometimes this process protects us from further harm, both physical and psychological and sometimes financial.
Another common way to secure a long-lasting bias is to adopt it from a family member or respected mentor. Let's say the person you respected most when growing up believed that the path to success is hard work, dedication, and family is first. Not only did this person preach it to everyone, but they also demonstrated it by waking up early and going to bed late walking their talk. The likelihood is very high that, through their influence, today you feel empowered to live your life in a similar fashion.
Imagine the impact of understanding where you stand and how this can be leveraged to influence others towards safer behaviors. Imagine if your views can be integrated with those of others so that your growth as a leader is but assured. I call this looking outside your window.
Most of us live in our worlds making judgment calls based on our interpretation of how things should go or should be. By looking outside our windows, we can better understand what is going on externally so we can better plan internally. The more windows we install, the more sunlight we can enjoy, the better we can see, the more we can understand, and the more powerfully we can influence.
Securing a thorough understanding of your biases is paramount to self-checking your decisions, approaches to issues, and work relationships. Bulletproof employees are also saturated with biases. Understanding yours will help you understand theirs and in the process will help you implement more efficient and sustainable solutions.
Unit Bias and Risk Blind Spots
Now, back to "unit bias," what it is, and how leadership, unknowingly, can cause employees to behave in ways that risk lives.
A good example of unit bias is when you have a jumbo bag of potato chips very accessible. The likelihood is very high that you will consume more chips than if you had a much smaller bag. The focus here is on having to finish one bag regardless of size. This is one unit. You have one apple; you eat it regardless of size. This is one unit. Another example is focusing your running workout on completing it within one hour; distance traveled does not matter. If you focus your workout on distance traveled, time does not matter. In these cases, your definition of what a unit is determines when and how you complete your workout.
Let's take a look at another unit bias example, one that happens all too often. A worker is overcome in an oxygen-deficient atmosphere while working in a confined space and a second worker makes the decision to go in and perform a rescue. The unit bias here is the rescue. It must be completed now, so the second employee does not undertake safety precautions. The risk changed, but the risk evaluation is not recalculated. Good intent but a bad decision that leads to another bulletproof employee fatality. Another real-life example occurred when two employees were directed by their boss to fix the heater issue in a back shed. Apparently, there was an urgent need, a true priority, ASAP, to get this accomplished right now, yesterday! Both employees go in; they smell gas in the dark shed. They cannot see well in the shed. With no other light source, one of them makes the decision to strike a cigarette lighter for better visibility. That decision caused both to lose their lives as the ignition source, oxygen, and fuel combined to cause a catastrophic explosion. What is the unit bias here? Schedule! Get the job done ASAP! This narrow focus caused a blindness to the other real hazards, flammable gas mixture and an explosion. I call these risk blind spots.
Let's do the analysis on the following example and ask yourself what process factors likely encouraged this worker to behave in this way and does leadership own some of the undesired outcomes? Can you identify any risk blind spots?
A client seriously injures one of his subcontractors when he jokingly shoots the subcontractor with a shop made compressed air tennis ball launcher while advising him that all he will feel is a puff of air. At first glance, most would say this is horseplay, employee fault, and disciplinary action is justified. He is another bulletproof employee needing to be taught a lesson! Let's take a step back and before jumping to this conclusion as the cause, let's consider a couple of pertinent questions:
1. How is it that the employees have so much time on their hands to manufacture dangerous toys with company resources, and;
2. Where is the supervision?
By diving deep into these questions, you can start to see how a bulletproof employee is a byproduct of a leadership process. The employee unit bias, in this case, is making work fun.
Let's consider this next one: A trained operator drills a hole in his respirator cartridge just large enough to place a cigarette through and smoke it while working. The first reaction most of us experience is one of shock. How could this be? The second reaction is typically disciplinary action for this bulletproof employee. Let's ask one revealing question before proceeding down the disciplinary action path: How is it that this employee came to the conclusion that it is okay to use his respirator cartridge as a cigarette holder? It turns out, in this employee's culture, elders teach, and the young learn. The work was being performed overseas within the employee’s homeland. Western leadership placed an early career employee in a leadership role over the elder as the respirator course instructor. This action caused all of the elders in the class to tune out anything the early career employee had to say. Since the elders did not approve of the instructor, no one in the village did either. Needless to say that by refusing to learn, the elders missed the entire reason and purpose of wearing a respirator. This Western leadership process created bulletproof employees (the elders, the leaders of the village) because it did not consider the culture aspect and impact within the design of the program’s safety management system. The unit bias in this example is culture norms.
Our last example is about an employee who catapults face-first over and onto a concrete floor when the pallet jack he is pushing falls off the raised edge of truck’s tailgate. How did this happen? Traditional approaches say the employee failed to perform his work safety and leave it at that as the cause of all causes. But, where is the job planning and who is overseeing this employee's work? The employee did not take into account the risk blind spot, in this case, the elevation difference, for a reason. The unit bias is moving the material from point "A" to point "B" to meet a schedule without regard to anything else.
Designing the process right the first time is the key. Once a process failure occurs, focus on the reason for the employee’s behavior and you will help bulletproof employees make the safety connection. Managing how you view the bulletproof employee while making an effort to understand why they do what they do is the biggest obstacle in influencing their decision-making process. Understanding the power of unit bias and the elimination of risk blind spots help convert bulletproof employees into engaged champions.
We all know the term, incremental rationalization. We live it, experience it, and count on it. Bulletproof employees use incremental rationalization to validate one bad decision on top of another one.
We travel at the 55 miles per hour speed limit one day, then 60, then 65, then 70, then 75, then 80 on following days because nothing has ever happened; until it does. Then we are back to driving at 55 miles per hour. The issue comes in when incremental rationalization is not placed in check once in a while to confirm that one questionable action does not justify another.
Incremental rationalization can create a culture busting at the seams with bulletproof employees. This occurs when one risky action permitted today builds on more dangerous actions tomorrow and even scarier ones the following day. Before long, you have employees taking significant and unnecessary risks because nothing has ever happened in the past since leadership intervention has not discouraged their behavior.
Understanding how a bulletproof employee reaches his or her conclusions is the first step in helping them make the connection. The fact is that their actions make perfect sense to them at the time. Bulletproof employees do not view the risk they are taking as pertinent to their safety or the safety of others. The fact is leadership processes cause the bulletproof employee to behave the way they do. Focus on finding that faulty process.
Incremental rationalization creates risk blind spots by design. Not performing a detailed safety inspection of your car every time you drive it is a safety blind spot that we all create. How does this happen? It happens because we assign a low-risk factor to the eventuality of a catastrophic vehicle failure. Our brakes always work, our horn, steering linkage and tires do, as well. Why check them every time? Bulletproof employees perform the same risk-based analysis at work. They view a high-risk outcome as not possible at the time an action is taken. They consider a risky choice as good if the result is consistently positive and bad if the outcome is not as expected. Expected results encourage the same risky behavior without leadership intervention and process modifications. A good strategy to implement is determining the risk factors bulletproof employees consider having a higher importance than the real risks associated with their actions.
Often, organizational pressures encourage employees to undertake unmitigated risks. Employee statements such as: "I thought completing this work now was a priority" or "It was my understanding that it did not matter how it got done as long as it gets done,” are leading indicators that your culture is fostering bulletproof employees utilizing unit bias and incremental rationalization as justifications for actions. Another example is when you hear, “We do not have the resources to get all of this done.”
Effective strategies to combat incremental rationalization include encouraging open and honest conversations with employees, understanding expectations, yours and theirs, perceived time constraints and unit biases. Align their safety as a top priority and a value above all else. Think ten steps ahead by considering the consequences of leadership actions as they relate to the resulting employee reactions and behaviors.
The Relevance of Accountability
Accountability is one of those concepts that everyone knows, but few want to recognize because it applies to someone else. It is evasive, hard to capture yet easy to spot. It is a riddle for most organizations. Accountability can be externally or self-imposed. We've seen how organizations that do not have it fail and those that have too much of it also fail. In one case, no one is responsible for anything, in the other, everyone is accountable. In both cases, too little or too much is not a good thing.
There are situations where line supervisors value and focus much more on personal friendships with each of their employees over their responsibilities to the employer. In these cases, the department’s overall performance often leads to productivity losses, missed commitments and non-compliance with the company's safety requirements. Employees tend to show up late for work and leave early. Employees take frequent breaks and do not wear the proper personal protective equipment to perform their jobs. The workplace suddenly transforms into a social club. In the end, this leads to injuries and a customer that may not be enamored with the organization's performance. The issue here is a lack of accountability and a real haven for bulletproof employees.
In another case, the line supervisor values and focuses much more on his responsibilities to his employer over the personal relationships with his employees. The line supervisor is quick on the attack and the blame game: "Meet the schedule, the schedule, the schedule. Lower cost, lower cost, and lower cost. Higher quality, higher quality, and more top quality. Chop, chop!" This approach leads to a high rate of disciplinary actions, high employee stress and high turnover rates which convert into productivity losses, missed commitments and ultimately non-compliance with the company's safety requirements.
In the end, an unbalanced application of accountability often leads to injuries and a customer that was not enamored with the organization’s performance.
The strategy is to find a balance that promotes openness, the assumption of responsibilities and the prevention of a bullet proof employee culture. Consequential leadership is a tool that can assist in this regard.
Consequential Leadership: If-Then Proposition
There is an arsenal of written material on the topic of leadership and even more debate about which is the best for a particular situation. Undoubtedly and like accountability, too much of consequential leadership is not a good thing for any organization. Achieving balance in leadership introduces stability within the organization. One of the most useful tools in turning around bulletproof employees is the consistent and predictable application of consequential leadership at the right moment in time. Establish accountability by applying the appropriate dose. Holding yourself and others accountable for meeting commitments builds a sound basis for expectation management and accurate forecasts of future outcomes.
One of the most prominent examples of consequential leadership occurs thousands of times every day in the airline industry.
How is it possible to take hundreds of strangers on an airplane from diverse backgrounds and walks of life (all ages, men, women and children, multiple faiths, retirees, early and mid-career professionals from various global employers) and have them exactly behave as other strangers want them to act?
Think about it. These travelers allow others to physically search them at will, to tell them where and when they must sit, when they can move about, what to do with their phones and computers, what luggage they can take on board and what luggage they must check in, what personal items they can and cannot carry onboard, when they can board the plane, who goes first, second, third and fourth and, last but not least, when they can use the restroom. Deviations are not permitted and the airline’s demands cannot be questioned. One hundred percent compliance is required. How can this happen and why do most people comply nearly one hundred percent of the time?
The flight crew is on a mission:
"Ma'am, your bag is too large. You must check it. Sir, you are in group five, we are boarding group three."
"Step aside please, wheelchair coming through."
"At this time, all small electronic devices must be placed in airplane mode and all larger electronics must be turned off."
"This is a reminder to all passengers that the seatbelt sign is illuminated. Please, return to your seats and buckle your seatbelts."
"It is now permitted to use your electronic devices in airplane mode."
"Ma'am, please push your seat forward, turn off your computer, close and stow your table tray. We are about to land."
Flight crews have a tough job. They are the leaders, the enforcers and the customer service representatives. Why is it then that we, as road warriors, virtually comply every time? The airlines do not have an employee/employer relationship or anything else that can force its passengers to behave exactly as the flight attendants demand other than the power and influence of consistently enforced safety rules.
Consequential leadership is an if-then proposition between parties. The proposition is if you follow what you are directed to do, then you will have a higher probability of achieving your end goal. In the airline passenger scenario, the one commonality everyone shares on the aircraft is to achieve is a safe, uninterrupted flight to their destination, period. If anyone elects not to follow the flight attendant’s directives, the perpetrator(s) will be removed from the plane or, if in route, they likely will be arrested upon arrival thereby not achieving the ultimate goal of an uninterrupted flight.
The airline industry unequivocally enforces the laws governing the friendly skies for the safety of all passengers. We know this to be a fact as inconvenient as the enforcement of the laws may seem. Passengers understand the real consequences of compliance and non-compliance. This mindset leads to perfect strangers unquestionably choosing to follow one safety rule on top of another in rapid succession. So why is it that some employees elect not to follow their employer's safety rules? There are likely many reasons. One of them is that consequential leadership is not where it needs to be for the facilitation of safety compliance.
If perfect strangers can stoically follow safety rules at 30,000 feet, so can workers at ground level. Imagine the outcome if elements of consequential leadership made its way into a leadership environment where there is an unwavering commitment to safety excellence. An environment where everyone meets commitments and holds each other accountable, where trust and respect reigns and where influence is the only mechanism necessary to excite safety compliance, real innovation and accelerated business growth.
Consider performing a thorough internal self-check of your leadership team. What would happen if you and the rest of the leadership team guided your organization onboard as their flight crew? How would you handle safety infractions on the plane? What actions would you or your leadership team take if several of your passengers decide they are not going to buckle their seatbelt or they choose to "light up" in their seats? Will your aircraft's takeoffs equal the number of safe landings? The answers to these questions determine if your organization is well underway toward achieving ultimate safety performance and its overall organizational goals or not and if bulletproof employees are lurking at your work site.
Excellence in organizational safety performance often is gained, in part, through the power and influence of applying a much-needed dose of consequential leadership. Everyone must understand the real consequences of their choices. After all, employee compliance with safety rules is a real indicator of ultimate leadership effectiveness. An accountable culture leads to a compliant safety culture and bulletproof-free employees. Increasing employee engagement helps facilitate a responsible employee culture.
Information Pit Stops and Employee Engagement
Another strategy for preventing the creation of bulletproof employees and for improving their information retention is to utilize information pit stops whenever possible. The reason you remember where you were, the time of day and who you were with on any a significant life milestone is because the information you recalled had a profound emotional impact.
Combining information and emotion within a message leads to long-term retention. I call this an information pit stop. Speak to employees from their point of view and they will understand yours better for a longer period time.
Utilizing information pit stops to increase employee engagement is critical to an organization. When employee engagement is realized by choice and by design, employees will make it personal. Making it personal drives better, safer decision-making. Design in significant ways employees can be engaged. Employees will, in turn, reward you with an improved safety management system free of bulletproof employees. Help them make the connection.
Strategies to Helping the Bulletproof Employee Make the Connection
Help bulletproof employees make a connection by redesigning defective leadership processes. This is very achievable.
The following mindsets, focus areas, and strategies can make it all happen:
1. Understand what bulletproof employees are, what encourages them to behave the way they do and how they perform their risk assessments. Use this knowledge to drive strategy development.
2. Perform due diligence on your processes. Revise any that solely rely on human behavior for success.
3. Perform a self-check on your biases and take action to keep them in check. Look outside your window. Is there a standard you are using or comparing others to that may be viewed as disjointed? Is there an issue with your approach or approaches that have cemented opinions to the point of no return? Is your bias in conflict with those of others? Identify your organizational risk blind spots.
4. Commit to stepping back and evaluating the intent of the bulletproof employee. Do they not care if they die or is it a case of not seeing the risk they are taking and its impact on everyone? Is there an unspoken expectation that production is ahead of all else at all cost, a unit bias? Is there a culture dichotomy that is the culprit where employees are only playing their roles from their point of view? Incremental rationalization, perhaps.
5. Ensure that the safety culture at your company is one that promotes open discussions without retribution, one that promotes the concept of taking care of each other, one that promotes no tolerance for taking unmitigated or uncontrolled risks, one that holds leadership accountable for employee actions and their wellbeing, one that is committed to making safety a core value and one that focuses on fixing processes rather than fixing people. Encourage employee engagement. Utilize the power of information pit stops.
6. Consider all outcomes of processes the responsibility of leadership, including work-related injuries and illnesses. Adopt the philosophy, that an injury is the result of a process owned, designed, and implemented by leadership and that the in place process at the time of the injury is the ultimate cause of the undesired outcome.
7. Focus more on process changes and less on people changes because behavior changes are often difficult to achieve. People changes will organically occur through their personal risk assessment process.
8. Evaluate your process at every legitimate opportunity to assure a predictable and sustainable result. Trust but verify.
The first step in any journey is the most important because it determines intent, direction and commitment to reach the desired destination. Driving your safety program from the standpoint of reducing risk to the lowest possible levels is essential in any well-implemented safety management system. A leadership team that holds itself accountable for the outcomes of all processes will deter the concept of the bulletproof employees from ever entering the workplace. The focus is then on process design for excellence in safety performance. A team such as this also thinks differently about how to be the sparkplug that ignites an active movement its organization where bulletproof employees embrace change as a cultural norm through the power of leadership.
Go ahead, take that first step and dare to think differently.
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This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.