“March Madness”, Salience and Safety Intervention


I can’t claim to be an avid follower of college basketball. In fact, until this past Sunday I had not watched an entire game all season and certainly couldn’t tell you who the top teams or any of the players were. But that was until I discovered that my undergraduate alma mater (Stephen F. Austin) was playing Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament. “March Madness” had struck me! I ended up watching college basketball all afternoon and evening, yelling at the television and even though my alma mater lost (by 1-point in the last 1.5 seconds of the game) I will be watching college basketball for the next couple of weeks. While some of you who are reading this are probably die-hard college basketball fans, many of you are like me and only become interested when the stakes are high (e.g., your team is playing to advance) or something else, like sitting in a sports bar with friends, makes watching more likely. As I started thinking about writing this blog, it hit me that safety observation and intervention are a lot like “March Madness”. Both normally occur under specific contextual conditions. Both are triggered by a change in the salience of certain aspects of the context that lead to watching and responding. My interest in watching college basketball changed when I learned that SFA was playing Notre Dame. Basketball became much more salient in my context, important to me personally and as a result changed my television viewing behavior. Watching the game led me to “intervene” even if it was simply yelling at the television and talking with my wife about the “great 3-point shot” or the “terrible call by the referee”. As a matter of fact, that change in salience led to me watching continuous basketball until it ended that Sunday and increased the likelihood that I will watch the rest of the tournament. Isn’t that what we want in our workplaces……employees predictably watching each other’s backs and intervening when they see something unsafe? While this analogy doesn’t perfectly translate to the workplace, it would seem to be close enough to provide some help.

So how can we translate this to increasing safety observations and interventions in the workplace?

Remember, I contracted “March Madness” upon learning that the stakes had increased for me, i.e. my alma mater was playing. It would seem that something analogous must happen in the workplace. First there must be an understanding that the stakes are high if we don’t watch each others’ backs. Our research indicates that this is already present in most workplaces. People consistently report that they feel a “moral responsibility" to keep each other safe, so simply reminding employees regularly of their role as a way to increase salience should be all that is necessary.

Secondly, just like I “watched” the games, we need for our employees to attend to the risks and behaviors of others in their contexts. While I don’t need to learn how to watch television, I do need to be aware of the rules of the game, pay attention to the screen and interpret what I see. This has happened for me over time, but in the workplace we need to teach employees what situations and behaviors are high risk in an attempt to increase the salience of those situations and behaviors. This requires training, but also regular reminders through safety and pre-job meetings. While watching basketball on television I have the announcers constantly predicting and interpreting play which acts to direct my attention. That should be the role of each employee, but especially the on-site supervisor. That person’s primary job is to direct attention for their employees.

But what about intervention? I don’t need any training on how to yell at the television when there is a bad call or cheer for my team when they make a good play. But our research indicates very clearly that employees for the most part, while mindful of their role in intervention, don’t necessarily feel competent to do so. They know that “yelling” at each other has a high probability of leading to defensiveness and anger. In other words, while we can get “March Madness” into our workplaces from a motivational and observational perspective, getting the right kind of intervention does not come naturally. Our research and experience demonstrate that providing employees with the right kind of intervention skills increases their competence while simultaneously leading to an increase in confidence and an increase in intervention frequency and success.

The NCAA basketball tournament only happens once a year but safety observation and intervention are a year round necessity. Maybe we can replicate the “March Madness” process to improve safety all the time!