The future of the safety professionalAugust 2, 2015
In searching for the weakest link in contemporary safety management, we often arrive at the topic behavior. This is partly because there has been much attention to other safety areas: technology, systems and to some extent culture. You might therefore expect that behavior would now occupy a dominant place in the education and training of safety experts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The question therefore arises what is needed to promote safe behavior within organizations. That’s the main topic of this post.
We are herd animals, which means that we take strong account of our social environment when defining our behavior. In order to survive we are evolutionarily programmed to stay together. On a subconscious level we constantly adjust our behavior to that of others. This adjustment is rewarding. People who exhibit a similar behavioral repertoire are regarded as being more sympathetic. This creates situations in which we follow dominant behavioral patterns. Just think of our behavior at a bus stop, a market stall, a sauna, or a meeting at work. In each occasion we behave differently and we adjust to the codes of the majority.
The role of the manager
George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, that all men are equal, but some are more equal than others. The same can be said about the value of role models. We all are behavioral role models for each other, only some are more of a model than others. A leader, by definition, has more access to power and resources. Therefore it is useful to obtain the sympathy of the leader. We do this by aligning our behavior to the behavior of the leader. On a subconscious level we are guided by his exemplary behavior.
From an organizational perspective it is wise to start with the behavior of managers if we want to change behavior of employees. This shaping of behavior already starts in the process of selecting managers and leaders. In making that choice the organization demonstrates the template of desired behavior. So if we want to foster safe behavior amongst all employees we can better start with the development of safe behaving managers. The first layer in an organization (team leader / supervisor) forms the lever for behavioral change of the employees. Upper management is again a lever for this first layer. This principal is called the cascade model of organizational development. In other words, safety management starts with management development.
The first line supervisor is not always present. In such cases the model function shifts to direct colleagues, especially the ones who are high on the social ladder. We all experience a subconscious pressure not to deviate too much from the group norm. This subtle peer pressure ensures that we can collectively exhibit a certain behavior. If this is an unsafe variant we might choose it also, even if we would never have chosen that as a loner. Conversely, if the group chooses collectively for a safe behavior repertoire, the individual will also do so. The understanding of group dynamics is therefore relevant if we want to reinforcement safe behavior.
Apart from his social environment, an employee is also influenced by his previous personal conditioning. This is especially the case when he is alone at work. Both risk detection and the competences to anticipate these risks are crucial. In most cases these two are the result of a long learning process whereby experiences are supplemented by instruction and coaching. The importance of this guidance is proportionate to the severity of the hazards in the workplace. A close and experienced colleague (buddy) is the most suitable one to support this learning process.
The finding that safety of organizations can these days be especially enhanced by reinforcing safe behavior, has an impact on the role of the safety officer. Previously, he could rely on his technical expertise and his knowledge of regulations. Due to this he could claim an expert role within the organization. In his new role he is expected to assist the management in shaping employee behavior. The influence of the manager, however, is not only expressed through a good safety policy but also through his own behavior as a leader. For a safety officer, this means that he needs to enlarge his previous technical role with a role as management coach focused on behavioral issues. A switch from a technical domain to a social domain is needed to become a safety officer 2.0.
Such a role as management coach sounds interesting, but it should be clear that this is not offered on a silver platter. The safety officer will have to gain his authority in this role by the quality of his interventions. The more he is able to help management to reflect on their behavior and to guide them to a different form of influence (from command to role model), the more he will earn the respect that is needed to fulfill that role.
At present a safety officer can evolve into a 2.0 version if he can guide the management to become an adequate safety model. This needs a renewal of the frame of reference, something which does not happen overnight. To achieve this transformation, the safety professional first needs some self-development. If one wants to hold the mirror for others, one also needs to regularly look into the mirror oneself. Training from experts and feedback from peers can be important instruments herein. Studying the background of Brain Based Safety can be a first step in supporting this process.