The Power of Small

Even if employers need to create a complete safety overhaul, gradually implementing small changes will yield better results for everyone.

Many leaders are drawn to and often vociferously proclaim an objective of doing “big things.” “Big” as in dramatic, significant, meaningful, a dimensional step-up—you get the idea. Whereas the opposite, “small” seems paltry, insignificant, failing and barely worth the effort.

I’d like to challenge this and offer a realistic strategy for realizing significant achievements. Rather than taking the “big” approach to perpetually swinging for the fences, harness the power of “small.” This means fostering “small changes that make big differences.” It’s not just me championing this. Robert Collier wrote, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day-in and day-out.”

Real growth happens continually, with changes so small they’re often difficult, if not impossible, to see even under continuous observation or in hindsight. It’s only when there are gaps, like revisiting a child you haven’t seen for a period of time, that their growth becomes apparent.

If you believe it’s possible for small actions to result in bigger problems—like saying the absolute “wrong thing” to a significant other or boss, or taking the wrong “small” dose of medication—doesn’t it make sense that the flip side is also true, that the right small actions can potentially build significant advances? And that, conversely, reducing small negative/potentially harmful moves can lessen the likelihood of damage, both to new implementations and, on a personal level, to individual safety?

The following are things to consider when embracing the power of “small” in your work environment:

  • Change always means losing something, which is one reason it’s often stressful. The loss of old, accustomed ways of doing something or the ending of a comfortable relationship can be difficult. Smaller changes mean smaller losses and less giving up what a person is comfortable with, especially when they don’t feel it is by choice.
  • Big changes tend to be resisted. Smaller changes are easier to consider and implement. I have found that the more you ask people to do in their already busy lives, the less likely they are to do it. The 15 minutes of attention I actually get with Level C executives are much more productive than the three hours I wished I had with them, as I’m much more likely to get interrupted in that three-hour meeting.
  • Safety often entails helping others change entrenched habits or patterns of action. The smaller the requested adjustment, the more likely people will adopt it. If continued, these can take root in a new, better default. As Peter Marshall wrote, “Small deeds done are better than great deeds planned.”
  • Thinking “small” can work two ways. In addition to proactively executing new and better sequences, many safety-related incidents can be averted by people lowering their radar to spot and then avoid mental and physical actions that overly heighten their risk. Or, even better, replace these with more protective small actions.
  • Many prevalent soft-tissue injuries (strains/sprains) are due to cumulative trauma, akin to “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Have you heard of anyone who’s “thrown out their back” or otherwise experienced ongoing pain after doing a “small” or “insignificant” task that they’ve done thousands of times in the past without mishap? Like tying their shoes or picking up something very light from the floor like a coin, piece of paper or article of clothing?

Successful change implementation often hinges on “sweating the details.” As in, “For want of a nail, the war was lost.” Again, this works in two ways. The best planning relies on anticipating and accommodating the cascading effects from any instituted change. It also involves foreseeing and taking care of small arrangements that would otherwise sabotage best-laid plans. Examples of this would be making sure the training room is actually unlocked so workers can enter and alerting critical people to change in advance so they can make needed plans and resistance is minimal.

Many safety leaders shake their heads at incidents related to lapses in judgement or poor direction of attention. Even though changing attention patterns entails highly-learnable skills, this can seem overwhelming if trying to make massive changes all at once. Instead, we’ve seen significant success from imparting and letting people experience small upgrades in attention control. So, what are our findings from delivering small-change options to a wide range of people worldwide? When they experience significant improvements they can demonstrably see and feel from making almost invisible-to-others shifts, most become energized, excited and more receptive to other small changes they can make for their own benefit.

Two more relevant quotes here are from Mother Teresa and Darren Rowse. Mother Teresa said, “I don't do great things. I do small things with great love.” Darren Rowse said, “Take some initiative and snap outside of passivity; consistent small actions have impact.”

A not-so-obvious secret to elevating safety performance and culture is to make it easy for people to change. One key to this is to ask for fewer big, potentially threatening changes and instead structure changes into smaller bite-size pieces that people won’t choke on. Anticipate those small bumps in the road that might otherwise misalign or even break the axle of your change vehicle. Reinforce and recognize even “small” accomplishments. Offer positive feedback on even small accomplishments or movements people have made toward a desired direction. This reminds them that they’re able to successfully change and adapt to something new.

Overall, embrace and enlist the power of small.

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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