In a recent blog (Your Organization’s Safety Immune System) we talked about people being the “white blood cells” of our "safety immune system", but also that we have to help them become competent to do so. People care about the safety of others, but most people do not have the natural ability to conduct a successful intervention discussion. Isn’t it ironic that most organizational leaders assume that their employees have that very ability when they tell them to intervene when they see something unsafe. It takes skill to successfully tell someone that their actions could lead to injury. Many times people don’t intervene because they are afraid of reactance/defensiveness on the part of the other person. Having the skills to deal with defensiveness is essential to being willing to enter into this potentially high stress conversation in the first place. Success involves understanding where defensiveness comes from, how to deal with it before it arises and what to do when we encounter it both in others and in ourselves. The intervention conversation is not a script, but rather a process that involves understanding the dynamics of the inhibiting forces and development of a set of skills that lead to effective communication. Defensiveness. We have all experienced defensiveness both in ourselves and in other people. Defensiveness arises because we perceive that we are under attack. We are naturally inclined to defend our bodies and our property from danger, but we are also naturally inclined to protect/defend our personal dignity from criticism and our reputation from public ridicule. When we perceive that our dignity or reputation are threatened, we defend either internally by retreating/avoiding or externally by pushing back either physically or verbally. Thus we enter the Defensive Cycle™.
When we see someone doing something undesirable, such as acting in an unsafe manner we automatically attempt to understand why they are doing it and most of the time we automatically attribute it to something internal to the person. This leads to the well-documented phenomenon of the “Fundamental Attribution Error” (FAE), whereby we have a tendency to attribute failure on the part of others to negative personal qualities such as inattention, lack of motivation, etc., thus leading to the assignment of causation and blame. When you fall victim to the FAE you will likely become frustrated or even angry with the other person, and if you enter into a conversation, you will likely come across as blaming the person, whether you mean to or not. When the other person perceives you blaming, they will most likely guess that you are attacking their dignity or reputation, whether you mean to or not. When this happens they naturally become defensive. In turn, if the person gets quiet (defends internally), you will guess that you were right and they took your words to heart so you will expect performance changes which may or may not occur. If, on the other hand, the person becomes aggressive (defends externally), you will guess that they are attacking your dignity or reputation and you will then become defensive and either retreat or push back yourself. And the cycle goes on until someone retreats, or until you are able to stop the defensiveness and focus not on the person but on the context that created the unsafe performance in the first place. You have to change your intent from blame to understanding and you have to communicate that intent to the other person.
Recognizing that we are in the Defensive Cycle™ is the first step to controlling defensiveness and conducting a successful intervention. It is at this point that we need to stop and remember that when people engage in unsafe actions it is because it makes sense to them (local rationality) given the context in which they find themselves. When we commit the FAE we are limiting the possible causes of their decision to act in an unsafe manner to their motivation and/or other internal attribute and then allowing that guess to create frustration which causes us to come across as blaming the person. Recognizing that there could be other contextual factors driving their decision will reduce our tendency to blame, stop the defensive cycle before it begins and significantly increase our chances of having a successful intervention discussion.
Over the past decade we have trained many frontline workers and supervisors/managers in the skills needed to deal with defensiveness, hold an intervention discussion and create sustained behavior change. We have also found that following training, interventions increase and incidents decrease as a result of simply creating competence which leads to confidence, thus strengthening the “white blood cells” needed for the "safety immune system" to work.