The Power of Discovery in Safety

Discovering new safety strategies requires a hands-on approach.

I’d like to share a major key we’ve discovered in close to four decades of preparing organizational members, from CEOs to line staff, how to work and live much safer. We work to harness the power of discovery to simultaneously engage, energize and elevate safer actions and performance. Discovery taps into and unleashes the innate drives of curiosity, self-determination and accomplishment. For example, the exhilaration you felt when you were finally able to find your balance to stay upright on a bicycle or on skis without falling.

Sure, we’ve frequently encountered entrenched approaches of broadcasting policies and procedures companies expect workers to follow. We tell them and they make it happen or we try to persuade or guilt trip them into complying. We then try to punish them when they don’t measure up.

I understand the draw to manage safety this way. Of course, all organizations must have baseline policies and procedures, especially in process safety where the repercussions can be enormous where regulating agencies require these. Typically, dictating safety methods are driven by highly-trained professionals or leaders responsible for considering a bigger picture than line workers. Amidst overloaded schedules, this expert-driven approach may appeal by appearing faster and easier to tell than the extra time entailed in asking to uncover then overcome obstacles to adopting new methods. Any kind of engagement always takes more time than just broadcasting what to do and how to do it. Furthermore, being a decisive “ready-set-action director” can support some who value being important or in control and can quickly check off pre-set objectives to some degree.

I’ve often heard too many attempted engagement approaches that are actually seen by workers as insincere, manipulative or just impatiently going through the motions of asking either under pressure to get onboard or without leaders really listening. Ron Bowles says, “Just as workers can learn to ‘pencil whip’ forms, safety leaders can fall into the trap of ‘pencil whipping’ leadership (as in merely issuing a directive to get it done without taking the time to engage workers to develop understanding and support.) Plus, consider how many safety programs, interventions, emphasis, mandates, and more a 20-year employee has seen in their career. It’s only reasonable to expect their first response become jaded and think, ‘here we go again.’”

I continuously remind myself that each individual marches to the beat of his own drum, considering new beliefs and adopting information and different methods. Being more deliberate doesn’t necessarily reflect negatively on a person’s intelligence or interest in safety.

But this command-and-control path is also beset with divots. In my experience, this kind of approach reflects the lowest two out of four levels of safety culture. It’s unlikely to drive you into the land of global-class performance.

In contrast, discovery underlies changing beliefs. There’s nothing that deeply and lastingly motivates people as when they self-convince, discovering something for themselves. In the same way that the ten things I tell you no matter how true they are is far less important than the one idea or realization you come to yourself.

Think more about discovery as “try it out and see for yourself.” They can personally explore and determine how a safety procedure, PPE or technique might best work for them. What minor adaptations to make for it to make sense, become comfortable and, above all, be used.

We base our MoveSMART® systems on providing discovery opportunities for people to wake up and experience powerful, positive impacts they can immediately access just by making some of the right, small changes. To truly make the largest impact, however, it’s not enough to just tell or even show a seemingly amazing demonstration. Nowadays, so many are used to being tricked by magic, diverted by media special effects or even blatantly lied to that many people have become honorary citizens of the State of Missouri whose unofficial nickname is “Show Me.” Leaders, take this to an even higher level and find ways for people to discover for themselves. If we can do it, so can you.

Invite people to get out of their seats and try it out for themselves. Don’t just discuss or show new PPE, pass it around and encourage people to try it on. Ron Bowles says, “Discovery (and ownership of the solution) can be as simple as trying on and selecting from three different styles of safety glasses to determine which pair they personally prefer.” Don’t merely tell people to get closer to a load they’ll lift, have them try lifting that same load. Make it light for safety purposes. Position their feet at different distances so they can experience for themselves that increasing distance from an object increases tension on the lower back while ratcheting down available lifting strength.

You’ve likely heard that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” We’ve long gone by an extension of this: “A physical experience is worth a million words or scores of videos.” Ron Bowles says, “Discovering new information or methods for yourself leads to you making this your own. Then no one has to enforce compliance; instead, you become an advocate for yourself (and often for others.)”

Granted, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but the real change can and does happen, often with highly resistant people. Experiencing the positive impact of guided discovery raises energy and excitement for safety. It internally motivates, upgrades beliefs and commitment that can fission safety performance to previously unheard-of levels.

This article originally appeared in the May 1, 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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