PrioritizationAugust 18, 2017
This post addresses prioritization, the most important principle in managing safe behavior. The concept prioritization means to set the importance of safety at least equivalent to other interests of an organization, such as quality, efficiency or profit. This principle forms the heart of safety management and plays a role in all tactical and operational decisions. The other six management principles for safe behavior support the realization of this.
Ask a CEO in the (chemical) industry “What do you find most important?” and he will spontaneously reply “safety”. He will confirm that this will be noticeable through his actions. Thus, the slogan “safety first” should be unnecessary. However, the fact that this slogan is regularly seen and heard indicates that execution is not at a level that they think it is. Many managers believe that safety is high on their priority list, while others think that safety doesn’t get enough attention.
Functioning of the brain
The above discrepancy can be explained by two specific characteristics of the brain’s functioning. The first has to do with how well we know ourselves. As a manager, how does one prioritize the importance of profit versus safety? Our logic is not accustomed to solving such complicated decisions. We make these kinds of considerations especially on an unconscious level. Our unconsciousness only shows us the end results of this decision, but we are not aware of the steps that were made to come to this conclusion. Subconscious actions usually take place in brain areas where the language is not very active or even absent. Therefore, we hardly have conscious access to this process and cannot explain why we took a certain decision. So we can only reflect to a limited extent on our way of prioritizing.
Survival instinct leads to ambivalent programming
The second theme can be best understood by placing safety in an evolutionary perspective. The evolution of every form of life starts with successful procreation.
Where most animals take care of themselves immediately after birth, humans spend many years with their caretakers before being able to take care of themselves. Living in a group structure is therefore an essential condition for the survival of the human species. Mankind has a double programming regarding safety. On the one hand, he must take care for himself and make sure he stays healthy. On the other hand, he is hardwired to contribute to the continuation of the group. Due to this programming, humans in some situations put the group’s interest on a higher level than their own well-being. Thus, soldiers leave for a war knowing that they might need to sacrifice themselves for a greater purpose. The most committed individuals are willing to take serious risks if it serves their own social system.
The well-being of the organization
This principle was applicable 20,000 years ago to tribes living in the African savannah and is still visible in our present society. Family and employer now replace the role of the tribe. Together, each of them contributes to our safety and security. If an organization is in trouble, employees can be fired to ensure the survival of the company. Every day, employees take risks of being injured for the benefit of the organization. Individuals are willing to disregard safety measures in order to work more efficiently. Research on non-compliance of Live Saving Rules showed that 50% of the employees and 90% of managers who trespassed a critical rule, did this with the conviction that the company would benefit from it. The persons involved knew very well that it involved some extra danger, but they took that for granted. Therefore, both the organization and the employee sometimes place the well-being of the organization above that of the employee. That’s just the way human beings work.
Different times require a different way of prioritizing
Up to 50 years ago, a fatality at work was considered to be horrible but inevitable part of the job. Under the best circumstances, a widow could collect a good pension, but that was it. The survival of the organization had a higher priority than the well-being of individual’s. In some parts of the world, that is still the case. Western societies, however, have evolved dramatically. Fatalities and serious injuries during work are no longer accepted. It is now a reason to loose the “license to operate”. From a societal point of view, such a change seems logical, but in fact it requires a fundamental adjustment of our innate prioritization process. Today’s safety management states that the individual and the organization must be equally important. The principle of prioritization focuses on realizing this.
Prioritizing the individual and organization is not in our primary natural instinct. Both the employee itself and the organization (read management) will sometimes perceive the organization more important than the employee. Current safety management is therefore an attempt to create a second nature that compensates the bad sides of our primary natural instinct, our genetic programming. This change is possible, but it’s far from easy. “Safety first” does not speak for itself. It takes hard work, energy and especially the attention of management.
Prioritization, the core of safety management
Safety management therefore calls for a permanent investment in a second nature of human beings. Such a transformation is not realized by applying simple tips and tricks. It requires a long-term and integrated approach. Brain Based Safety offers both a concept that helps us understand the complexity of the process and a series of concrete tools for management behavior. The six other management principles, discussed in previous and future posts of this blog, also contribute to developing safety management.