Do you ever have trouble remembering someone’s name, or a task that you were supposed to have accomplished but didn’t, or maybe how to safely execute a procedure that you don’t do very often? I know…. you can’t remember! Well if you do forget then you are perfectly normal. Forgetting is a cognitive event that everyone experiences from time to time, but why? What causes us to forget and is there anything we can do about it? Bottom line is that when we forget, we have either failed to encode the information into long-term-memory (LTM), which means we don’t have the information stored in the first place, or we have failed to retrieve it effectively. The failure to remember the name of someone that we have just met is probably an encoding failure because we don’t move the person’s name from working memory to LTM and it just disappears or gets knocked-out because of the short-term nature of working memory. To get it into LTM we have to “elaborate” on the information in some way, maybe with a rhyme, or rehearsal, or some other mnemonic technique. The problem is that most of us either don’t expend the effort needed to transfer information like names of people we probably won’t meet again to LTM, or other information that comes in right after we hear the name interferes with transfer. But what about information that is important, like a meeting that we scheduled for 10:00 AM next Monday with a coworker about an important project that we are working on, or wearing your safety glasses when using a grinder in your home workshop? Both are important but might require different assistance to avoid forgetting. Maybe you put the meeting on your calendar but didn’t create a reminder because this is an important meeting and you will certainly not forget to check your calendar Sunday night. But you were busy watching Sunday Night Football and didn’t check your calendar and when you got a call from your coworker at 10:10 on Monday morning asking why you weren’t in the meeting, you were totally shocked that you hadn’t remembered the event. Maybe you began operating your grinder without putting on your safety glasses because the glasses weren’t readily available. These types of retrieval failures are most likely caused by something that impacts us all….interference at retrieval. There has been a lot of research into the effects of interference on memory both at encoding and at retrieval and the evidence is pretty clear…..retrieval is cue dependent (a context effect) in that it is stimulated by hints and clues from the external and internal environment (i.e., our context). If the salient cues that were present at encoding are present at retrieval, then you are less likely to forget, i.e. have a retrieval failure. The more similar the context at encoding and retrieval the greater the chances of remembering. Interference by dissimilar cues like the report that you started working on at 8:00 AM on Monday when you got to work increase the chances of forgetting the meeting. Or not having safety glasses readily available and obvious on the grinder. The way we can capitalize on the strengths of our brains and overcome it’s short comings is to better understand how our brains work. In the case of the meeting, creating cues that will be present at both encoding and retrieval is very helpful. Creating a reminder when putting the event on your calendar and then experiencing that same reminder cue before the meeting, or putting the meeting on your to-do list and then visualizing your to-do list at the beginning of the day are things that capitalize on our brain’s strengths and help avoid its weaknesses. But what about remembering to wear your safety glasses when operating a grinder? Something as simple as hanging safety glasses on the grinder switch can help. Also, research has clearly demonstrated that emotional cues tied to information at encoding increase the chances of accurate retrieval. Creating a visual image of an eye injury or hearing/reading a vivid story of a real grinder related eye injury will increase the chances that simply seeing the grinder will cause you to remember to put on your safety glasses. The bottom line is that the more we understand how we function cognitively, the better able we are to create contexts that help us remember and succeed.
I have been thinking about the role of “attention” in personal safety lately. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard supervisors say…”He wouldn’t have gotten hurt if he had just been paying attention.” In reality, he was paying attention, just to the wrong things. Let me illustrate this with a brief observation. Two of my grandsons (ages 4 and 6) play organized baseball. The 4-year old plays what is called Tee-ball. It is Tee-ball because the coach places the ball on a chest high Tee and the batter attempts to hit the ball into the field of play where there are players on the opposing team manning the normal defensive positions. It is my observation of the players on defense that has helped me understand attention to a greater depth. Most of the batters at this age can’t hit the ball past the infield and most of them are lucky to get it to the pitchers mound, so the outfielders have very little chance of actually having a ball get to them and they seem to know this. For the most part, the “pitcher” (i.e., the person standing on the mound) and to some extent the other in-fielders watch the batter and respond to the ball. The outfielders however are a very different story. They spend their time playing in the dirt, rolling on the ground, chasing butterflies or chasing each other. When, on the rare occasion that a ball does get to the outfield the coach has to yell instructions to his outfielders to get them to look for the ball, pick it up and throw it to the infield. There is a definite difference of attention between the infield and the outfield in Tee-ball. This is not the case in the “machine-pitch” league that my 6-year old grandson plays in however. For the most part all of the defensive players seem to attend to the batter and respond when the ball is hit. So what is the difference? Obviously there is a maturational difference between the 4/5-year olds and the 6/7-year olds but I don’t think this explains all of the attentional difference because even Tee-ball players seem to pay more attention when playing the infield. I think much of it has to do with expectations and saliency. Attention is the process of selecting among the many competing stimuli that are present in one’s environment and then processing some while inhibiting the processing of others. That selection process is driven by the goals and expectations that we have and the salience of the external variables in our environment. The goal of a 4-year old “pitcher” is to impress her parents, grandparents and coach and she expects the ball to come her way, thus attention is directed to the batter and the ball. The 4-year old outfielder has a goal of getting through this inning so that he can bat again and impress his audience knowing that the probability of having a ball come his way is very small. The goals and expectations are different in the infield and outfield so the stimuli that are attended to are different. The same is true in the workplace. What is salient, important and obvious to the supervisor (after the injury occurred) are not necessarily what was salient, important and obvious to the injured employee before the injury occurred. We can’t attend to everything, so it is the job of the supervisor (parent; Tee-ball coach) to make those stimuli that are the most important (e.g., risk in the workplace, batter and ball in the Tee-ball game) salient. This is where the discussions that take place before, during and after the job are so important to focusing the attention of workers on the salient stimuli in their environment. Blaming the person for “not paying attention” is not the answer because we don’t intentionally “not pay attention”. Creating a context where the important stimuli are salient is a good starting point.
If you examine the research literature on the topic of “psychological stress” you will find that there is a lot of disagreement on a definition of that term. However, there is almost total agreement that while stress can have positive effects in some situations, it can also have very negative effects on human performance in other situations. For our purposes we will accept the Mirriam-Webster definition of stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” While this definition ignores the positive effects of moderate stress that research shows is needed for motivation and action, it does describe a state that we all have experienced, and some of you may be experiencing right now. Stress comes in several forms, including acute stress (in an emergency situation), chronic stress (from factors such as job, family, etc), stressful life events (e.g., divorce, death of a loved one, etc) and just those daily hassles (e.g., traffic, arguments, etc). The one common thing in all of these types of stress is that they originate as a response to context. There’s that word again….the one that we seem to talk about in just about all of our blogs. Not only is stress a response to various aspects of our context, stress becomes part of our context and then impacts our performance and the decisions that we make. Stress is our physiological response to our interpretation/appraisal of our context and it directly impacts cognition, social behavior and general performance. Salient contextual factors such as noise, peer pressure, authority pressure, task load and time pressure have been shown to have detrimental impact on performance. Research is clear that high levels of stress cause us to narrow our attention span, decrease search behavior, react slower to peripheral cues, reduce our vigilance, degrade problem solving and rely on over learned responses that may or may not be best in the current situation. In other words, we tend to make poorer decisions that can lead to failure and even injury. Stress also causes us to lose our team perspective and it decreases the frequency with which we provide help to others. This is especially impactful when working in high risk environments where watching your partners back and intervening when necessary is critical to maintaining safety and stopping unsafe actions and incidents.
So how do we deal with this so that stress doesn’t negatively impact performance?
We suggest a two-pronged approach involving (1) control of context and (2) control of how we interpret context in the moment. Keep in mind that we are talking about normal stress reactions that we all experience, not pathological reactions that are best dealt with by trained therapists. Let’s start with control of context and let’s set that context in the workplace. In the workplace, context is, to a large extent under the control/influence of supervision and management. So what should supervisors and managers do? They should attempt to set realistic production objectives with realistic time constraints to create a context that help control stress produced by task load and time pressure. They should minimize where possible the amount and duration of noise. They should make sure that employees are trained so that they have the knowledge and skills required to meet those production objectives. Simply being aware of the negative impact of stress, the relationship between stress and context, and the impact that they personally can have on that context will go a long way in stress control. But what about how the individual interprets context in the moment. Simple awareness that we can control stress reactions through our interpretation of context is a very good starting point. In our February 25, 2015 blog we discussed how we are “Hardwired to Jump to Conclusions”. In that discussion we saw how research supports the involvement of two different cognitive “Systems” in decision making and that System 1 tends to make quick decisions based on past experience and System 2 tends to be more rational and analytic. Research demonstrates that the more stress we are experiencing, the more likely we are to engage in System 1 thinking which increases the likelihood that we will make less informed and perhaps less effective decisions. We suggest that you use the initial physiological stress reactions as a “trigger” to stop, engage System 2 cognitive functions and evaluate your current context to determine what, if anything, can be done to create a different, less stressful context. But what if you can’t change the context? As we all know, there are times when we have a deadline and we are stuck in traffic and we can’t change that. But we can stop, engage System 2 thinking, slow down our physiological response, realize that stressing out is not going to change the situation and figure out the best way out of this situation. This of course takes practice and there are times when we won’t be successful, but understanding stress and how to respond to it can become an effective strategy to help us perform effectively in stressful conditions.
We have been writing and speaking for several years about the importance of an individual's context on their performance and decision making. In fact context is a central component of our SafetyCompass® and PerformanceCompass® training programs. When we talk about context we mean the factors including the individual, others, physical surroundings and organizational systems that are present and salient to the individual in the moment and that impact what the person decides to do. The individuals contribution to context includes such things as knowledge, ability, attention, physical condition and emotional condition. Another aspect of a person's context is their current level of motivation but it is important to note that their current level of motivation is also impacted by their context. There are two types of motivation commonly referred to as “intrinsic motivation” and “extrinsic motivation”. Intrinsic motivation (sometimes also referred to as “self” motivation) comes from within the person and is developed over time as a result of success (meaningful accomplishment) and recognition from individuals that the person deems to be significant (e.g. parents, siblings, boss, etc.). Extrinsic motivation is brought about by the desire for and application of external consequences such as money and praise. It would be nice if everyone was 100% intrinsically motivated but the reality is that we are all, for the most part motivated to do well for the sake of self gratification and for the praise and other external consequences that success derives, e.g. we like the money our successful performance generates. It is also important to understand that our level of intrinsic motivation can be impacted by aspects of our context other than money and praise. Think about how your desire to perform can change because of your physical condition. Are you more motivated when you feel good or when you are sick or tired? Are you more motivated when you understand why you are doing something and how you are supposed to do it? Are there some locations and times of day where/when you seem to be more motivated and productive than others? I seem to have a higher level of motivation and success writing blogs and chapters for our upcoming SafetyCompass book in the morning, in a cubicle in the local library than I do in the afternoon, at my desk in my office. Is your motivation to engage in certain actions impacted by what those you work with find important and talk about? Are you more motivated to do things that your boss says are priorities? Do you find yourself more successful and more motivated when you have your workplace organized in a way that makes you feel more comfortable? Are you more motivated to perform a procedure that you understand and agree with than one that is confusing or just wrong? Most of you would probably consider yourselves to be pretty highly intrinsically motivated but if you answered “yes” to any of these questions then you, like me, are also impacted by extrinsic factors in your contexts. So why is this important? If you are a boss or a parent who has responsibility for the performance of others, you can also have impact on the contexts that those individuals work/live in. The greater your understanding of those contexts and the more you “engineer” them for success, the more successful you, and they will be.
Risk-Taking and Sense-Making Risk tolerance is a real challenge for nearly all of us, whether we are managing a team in a high-risk environment or trying to get a teenager to refrain from using his cellphone while driving. It is also, unfortunately, a somewhat complicated matter. There are plenty of moving parts. Personalities, past experiences, fatigue and mood have all been shown to affect a person’s tolerance for risk. Apart from trying to change individuals’ “predispositions” toward risk-taking, there is a lot that we can do to help minimize risk tolerance in any given context. The key, as it turns out, is to focus our efforts on the context itself.
If you have followed our blog, you are by now familiar with the idea of “local rationality,” which goes something like this: Our actions and decisions are heavily influenced by the factors that are most obvious, pressing and significant (or, “salient”) in our immediate context. In other words, what we do makes sense to us in the moment. When was the last time you did something that, in retrospect, had you mumbling to yourself, “What was I thinking?” When you look back on a previous decision, it doesn’t always make sense because you are no longer under the influence of the context in which you originally made that decision.
What does local rationality have to do with risk tolerance? It’s simple. When someone makes a decision to do something that he knows is risky, it makes sense to him given the factors that are most salient in his immediate context.
If we want to help others be less tolerant of risk, we should start by understanding which factors in a person’s context are likely to lead him to think that it makes sense to do risky things. There are many factors, ranging from the layout of the physical space to the structure of incentive systems. Some are obvious; others are not. Here are a couple of significant but often overlooked factors.
Being in a Position of Relative Power
If you have a chemistry set and a few willing test subjects, give this experiment a shot. Have two people sit in submissive positions (heads downcast, backs slouched) and one person stand over them in a power position (arms crossed, towering and glaring down at the others). After only 60 seconds in these positions, something surprising happens to the brain chemistry of the person in the power position. Testosterone (risk tolerance) and cortisol (risk-aversion) levels change, and this person is now more inclined to do risky things. That’s right; when you are in a position of power relative to others in your context, you are more risk tolerant.
There is an important limiting factor here, though. If the person in power also feels a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of others in that context, the brain chemistry changes and he or she becomes more risk averse. Parents are a great example. They are clearly in a power-position relative to their children, but because parents are profoundly aware of their role in protecting their children, they are less likely to do risky things.
If you want to limit the effects of relative power-positioning on certain individuals’ risk tolerance - think supervisors, team leads, mentors and veteran employees - help them gain a clear sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of others around them.
On a remote job site in West Texas, a young laborer stepped over a pressurized hose on his way to get a tool from his truck. Moments later, the hose erupted and he narrowly avoided a life-changing catastrophe. This young employee was fully aware of the risk of stepping over a pressurized hose, and under normal circumstances, he would never have done something so risky; but in that moment it made sense because his supervisor had just instructed him with a tone of urgency to fetch the tool.
It is well documented that people will do wildly uncharacteristic things when instructed to do so by an authority figure. (See Stanley Milgram’s “Study of Obedience”.) The troubling part is that people will do uncharacteristically dangerous things - risking life and limb - under the influence of minor and even unintentional pressure from an authority figure. Leaders need to be made aware of their influence and unceasingly demonstrate that, for them, working safely trumps other commands.
A Parting Thought
There is certainly more to be said about minimizing risk tolerance, but a critical first step is to recognize that the contexts in which people find themselves, which are the very same contexts that managers, supervisors and parents have substantial control over, directly affect people’s risk tolerance.
So, with that “trouble” employee / relative / friend / child in mind, think to yourself, how might their context lead them to think that it makes sense to do risky things?
Most of our blog posts focus on current thinking about various aspects of safety and human performance and are an attempt to not only contribute to that discussion but to generate further discussion as well. I can’t think of an instance when we took a personal perspective on the subject, but an experience that I had a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about willingness to take risk and how context really does play a crucial role in that decision. I was attending a weekend long family reunion in the Texas hill country where we had 25 family members all staying together in a lodge that we had rented. It was a terrific weekend with a lot of food, fun, reminiscing and watching young cousins really get to know each other for the first time. My nephew brought his boat so that the adventuresome could try their hand at tubing on the river that ran by the property. I decided that since I had engaged in this activity many times in the past that I would simply act as a spotter for my nephew and watch my kids and their kids enjoy the fun. (Actually I was thinking that the rough water and bouncing of the tube would probably have my body hurting for the next week. This, I contend was a good evaluation of risk followed by good decision making).
There was also a rope swing attached to a tree next to the water allowing for high flight followed by a dip in the rather cold river water that attracted everyone to watch the young try their hand at this activity. There were actually two levels from which to begin the adventure over the water, one at the level of the river and one from a wall about 10-feet higher. All of the really young and really old (i.e. my brother-in-law) tried their hand at the rope from the level of the water and all were successful including my older brother-in-law. I arrived at the rope swing shortly after he had made his plunge only to have him and his supporting cast challenge me to take part. I told them that I would think about it and this is where “context” really impacted my decision to take a risk. The last time I had swung on a rope and dropped into water was probably 20 years ago. At that time I would swing out and complete a flip before I entered the water. No reason not to do the same thing now….right? No way I could accomplish this feat in front of my wife, sister, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, not to mention my brother-in-law, by starting from the waters edge. It would have to be from the 10-foot launching point. In my mind, at that moment this all sounded completely reasonable, not to mention fun! As I took my position on the wall I was thinking to myself that all I needed to do was perform like I did last time (20 years ago) and everything would be great. I was successful in getting out over the water before letting go, (needless to say that I didn’t perform the flip that I had imagined…..seems that upper body strength at 65 is less than at 45). I’m not sure how it happened, but I ended up injuring the knuckle on one of my fingers and I woke up the next morning with a stiff left shoulder. By the way, two weeks later I am feeling much better as the swelling in my finger and stiffness in my shoulder are almost gone.
As I reflect on the event, I am amazed at how the context (peer pressure, past success, cheering from my grandchildren, failure to assess my physical condition, etc) led to a decision that was completely rational to me in the moment. I am pretty sure that the memory of the pain for the next several days afterwards will impact my decision making should such an opportunity arise again. Next time I will enter from the waters edge!
In the world of safety, culture is a big deal. In one way or another, culture helps to shape nearly everything that happens within an organization - from shortcuts taken by shift workers to budget cuts made by managers. As important as it is, though, it seems equally as confusing and intractable. Culture appears to emerge as an unexpected by-product of organizational minutia: A brief comment made by a manager, misunderstood by direct-reports, propagated during water cooler conversations, and compounded with otherwise unrelated management decisions to downsize, outsource, reassign, promote, terminate… Safety culture can either grow wild and unmanaged - unpredictably influencing employee performance and elevating risk - or it can be understood and deliberately shaped to ensure that employees uphold the organization’s safety values.
Pin it Down
The trick is to pin it down. A conveniently simple way of capturing the idea of culture is to say that it is the “taken-for-granted way of doing things around here;” but even this is not enough. If we can understand the mechanics that drive culture, we will be better positioned to shift it in support of safety. The good news is that, while presenting itself as extraordinarily complicated, culture is remarkably ordinary at its core. It is just the collective result of our brains doing what they always do.
Our Brains at Work
Recall the first time that you drove a car. While you might have found it exhilarating, it was also stressful and exhausting. Recall how unfamiliar everything felt and how fast everything seemed to move around you. Coming to a four-way stop for the first time, your mind was racing to figure out when and how hard to press the brake pedal, where the front of the car should stop relative to the stop sign, how long you should wait before accelerating, which cars at the intersection had the right-of-way, etc. While we might make mistakes in situations like this, we should not overlook just how amazing it is that our brains can take in such a vast amount of unfamiliar information and, in a near flash, come up with an appropriate course of action. We can give credit to the brain’s “executive system” for this.
Executive or Automatic?
But this is not all that our brains do. Because the executive system has its limitations - it can only handle a small number of challenges at a time, and appears to consume an inordinate amount of our body’s energy in doing so - we would be in bad shape if we had to go through the same elaborate and stressful mental process for the rest of our lives while driving. Fortunately, our brains also “automate” the efforts that work for us. Now, when you approach a four-way-stop, your brain is free to continue thinking about what you need to pick up from the store before going home. When we come up with a way of doing something that works - even elaborate processes - our brains hand it over to an “automatic system.” This automatic system drives our future actions and decisions when we find ourselves in similar circumstances, without pestering the executive system to come up with an appropriate course of action.
Why it Matters
What does driving have to do with culture? Whatever context we find ourselves in - whether it is a four-way-stop or a pre-job planning meeting - our brains take in the range of relevant information, come up with an effective course of action, try it out and, when it works, automate it as “the way to do things in this situation.”
Let’s imagine that a young employee leaves new-hire orientation with a clear understanding of the organization’s safety policies and operating procedures. At that moment, assuming that he wants to succeed within the organization, he believes that proactively contributing during a pre-job planning meeting will lead to recognition and professional success.
Unfortunately, at many companies, the actual ‘production’ context is quite different than the ‘new-hire orientation’ context. There are hurried supervisors, disinterested ‘old timers’, impending deadlines and too little time, and what seemed like the right course of action during orientation now looks like a sure-fire way to get ostracized and opposed. His brain’s “executive system” quickly determines that staying quiet and “pencil whipping” the pre-job planning form like everyone else is a better course of action; and in no time, our hapless new hire is doing so automatically - without thinking twice about whether it is the right thing to do.
If culture is the collective result of brains figuring out how to thrive in a given context, then changing culture comes down to changing context - changing the “rules for success.” If you learned to drive in the United States but find yourself at an intersection in England, your automated way of driving will likely get you into an accident. When the context changes, the executive system has to wake up, find a new way to succeed given the details of the new context, and then automate that for the future.
How does this translate to changing a safety culture? It means that, to change safety culture, we need to change the context that employees work in so that working safely and prioritizing safety when making decisions leads to success.
Three Basic Steps:
Identify the “taken-for-granted” behaviors that you want employees to adopt. Do you want employees to report all incidents and near-misses? Do you want managers to approve budget for safety-critical expenditures?
This exercise amounts to defining your safety culture. Avoid the common mistake of falling back on vague, safety-oriented value statements. If you aren’t specific here, you will not have a solid foundation for the next two steps.
Analyze employees’ contexts to see what is currently inhibiting or competing against these targeted, taken-for-granted behaviors. Are shift workers criticized or blamed by their supervisors for near-misses? Are the managers who cut cost by cutting corners also the ones being promoted?
Be sure to look at the entire context. Often times, factors like physical layout, reporting structure or incentive programs play a critical role in inhibiting these desired, taken-for-granted behaviors.
Change the context so that, when employees exhibit the desired behaviors that you identified in Step 1, they are more likely to thrive within the organization.
“Thriving” means that employees receive recognition, satisfy the expectations of their superiors, avoid resistance and alienation, achieve their professional goals, and avoid conflicting demands for their time and energy, among other things.
Give It a Try
Shifting culture comes down to strategically changing the context that people find themselves in. Give it a try and you might find that it is easier than you expected. You might even consider trying it at home. Start at Step 1; pick one simple "taken-for-granted" behavior and see if you can get people to automate this behavior by changing their context. If you continue the experiment and create a stable working context that consistently encourages safe performance, working safely will eventually become "how people do things around here."
“Hold them accountable for their performance!” This is an often repeated and seldom understood mantra in today’s workplace. Accountability is a critical aspect of the very best organizations, but there is a significant distinction in the way the best approach it. First and foremost, the very best do not equate accountability with punishment. But if accountability is not just punishment, then what is it?
Accountability can be viewed as a 6-step process which, if applied correctly, will create an environment where people will willingly receive feedback and see the process as constructive.
1. Set clear expectations
Never expect results that you haven’t clearly communicated to your employees. If you expect them to perform in a certain manner, you must first communicate that expectation to them. Keep in mind that almost every employee wants to please the boss and experience both organizational and personal success. They can’t do this if they don’t know what is expected of them.
2. Compare results to expectations
When possible, quantitative metrics should be in place for every desired result. These metrics should assess the relationship between the actual result and the result that was expected. If the metric shows success then positive feedback is in order. If, however, the metric indicates a gap, or failure, then move to step #3 with intentional curiosity as to why the gap exists.
3. Account for the “why” behind failure to meet expectations (Don’t assume poor motivation)
I once had a young engineer who was just starting his career ask for the best tip I could give him as a future manager. I told him that he must be curious and a great diagnostician. Human failure is seldom the cause of anything, rather it is almost always the result of something. If you have found a gap between expectations and performance, you should work with the employee to find out what caused it. The vast majority of the time we find out it is something within the work system that caused the gap to occur and not that “they just didn’t care or work hard enough”. Remember that humans work in incredibly complex and dynamic systems and often the consequence of that complexity is human failure. Examine the context (Self; Others; Surroundings; Systems) that the person was in and which aspects of that context impacted performance. Don’t start by assuming that personal motivation is the cause. If you do, you will most likely create defensiveness and fail to find the “real” cause behind the failure. Objectively evaluate all possibilities before finalizing your conclusion. Remember, accountability literally means to “take an account” of what caused the failure.
4. Find a fix so that the person can be successful in the future
Once you have diagnosed the cause of the failure, put a fix into place to eliminate the cause. This could be training or mentoring if knowledge or skill is missing, new equipment if failure is the result of not having the correct resources for success, contractual changes with your clients if there is incentive to rush or take short cuts, or a multitude of other fixes. Just remember that the fix should affect the cause of the actual gap, not just punish the person who failed. If progressive discipline (punishment) is in order, move to step #5.
5. Apply negative consequences appropriately
Yes, sometimes punishment (progressive discipline) is in order, but it should only be used when trying to impact motivation or to document repeated failure. Helping the person understand the consequences of continued failure or the impact that failure is having on how he is perceived by you and/or his team members can have a significant impact of motivation. Keep in mind that the primary objective of any progressive discipline program is performance improvement. So whether you are conducting an informal counseling session or discussing a written reprimand, care should be taken to communicate clearly and respectfully, with a focus on determining the real cause of failure.
6. Model by holding yourself accountable for your results
Employees are impacted more by what they see their supervisors do than by what their supervisors say should be done. If you want your employees to respond positively to being held accountable then you must be open to feedback from your employees and publicly admit and diagnose your own performance gaps. This shows that accountability is not something that should be feared and it also provides the opportunity to make bosses, employees, and the organization more successful.
While these steps are important, the way you communicate is also critical. Make sure you do so with respect and with the person’s best interest in mind. If you can minimize or eliminate defensiveness, you will be well on the road to helping others improve and get the results that you both want.
What does it mean to have a "Formal Culture" and an "Informal Culture"?
Have you ever instituted a new policy or procedure into your organization, spent countless hours and dollars trying to drive the initiative throughout the organization, only to see it fall flat? Organizations large and small face a similar problem -- how to make their organization become what they envision it to be.
When organizational experts refer to the overall performance of an organization, they often use the word “culture”. While there is disagreement on the exact definition of organizational culture, most would agree that it includes the values and behaviors that the majority of participants engage in; what most of the people believe and do most of the time. This is called the “informal culture” as compared to the “formal culture”, or what the leadership wants the culture to be. It makes no difference if your organization is a large corporation, a small “mom and pop”, a non-profit, or an educational institution, each of you have a formal and informal culture. One aspect of great organizations is that they close the gap between the two cultures so that “what’s going on - out there” very much resembles the vision of leadership.
“Informal Culture is what most of the people believe and do most of the time.”
You may wonder if these great organizations close this culture gap by hiring the “right people”, or if they do something more intentional to close this gap. The answer quite simply is both. Great organizations start with great people, but they also understand and affect the other aspects of their culture.
The Best Organizations
The best organizations don’t stop with simply creating rules and policies, they do much more to impact the everyday behavior of their employees. If you’ll refer back to our August 2012 Post on the role of contextual factors in industrial safety incident prevention, the very best bosses and organizations understand that human performance is a result of complex systems. Organizational factors such as rules, policies, and reward systems are only a portion of the complex system that drives human performance. The best organizations understand that it is also people, both the individual and intact teams, plus surroundings that drive their overall performance. If the employee base has failed to implement a new directive from leadership, there could be several reasons affecting this. It could be that employees don’t understand the new initiative, operational pressures contradict the initiative, they don’t have the equipment necessary to make it happen, or a myriad of other factors. The very best organizations are those that are able to gather field intelligence detailing actual performance and factors driving the performance, and then institute corrective measures that enable the workforce to align their own performance with the vision of leadership.
So what does that mean for you if you are in an organization with a gap between your formal and informal cultures? We would first encourage you to perform a cultural analysis to get a better understanding of your informal culture. With this knowledge you will be able to understand what contextual factors are driving the performance of your employees. This information will allow you to initiate corrective measures to close the gap between your formal and informal cultures. The best organizations don’t make the mistake of simply focusing on changing people, they focus on the entire context to enable those on board to perform to a higher standard.
Most organizations have policies and procedures that they expect employees to follow. One difference between the best organizations and the rest is how those policies and procedures integrate with various components of the organization. In this blog we will detail three key organizational components that the best take into consideration when evaluating and implementing new policies and procedures. Let’s begin with an example of the impact of a new policy and its associated procedure in a normal organization.
Company XYZ was having problems tracking expenses incurred by their employees when they were traveling on company business. To deal with these issues, they decided to institute a policy that all employees must use a new web-based program to record all expenses, scan receipts, and track payment. The procedure was straight forward and only required an employee to log into the system using their employee number, input requested information including the vendor name, total amount spent, and scans of receipts. When the information was completed the employee simply hit submit and the program took over from there. The CFO was very excited about this new policy because it was going to make his life and his office staff’s job much easier. Six month’s later they went back to their paper tracking system because they had continued complaints from employees and they terminated one employee who refused to use the system. The CFO determined that it was a failure because employee’s were simply too irresponsible to use a new and simple procedure.
So how do the best avoid these types of problems? Do they simply hire more responsible and competent employees or is there something else? With the example above in mind, let’s examine how the best organizations look at three key factors to help develop and implement new initiatives, including policies and procedures.
1. The Individual Employee (Self):
People are very complex and make decisions about things on the basis of a variety of factors which include knowledge and past experience. People are also typically averse to change because it requires effort and many times is counter to the habits that they have developed over time. The best organizations want to affect both the knowledge and habits of employees to ensure that they actually comply with new P&P. In the case of the expense tracker, the best organizations might train employees on the proper use of the software and hardware (computer and scanner) and on the value associated with the new procedure, so that they had the necessary knowledge and skills and were therefore competent and motivated to use the new procedure. They could also address old habits with email reminders, signage in the workplace, or other means to prompt a break in the old habits associated with the paper tracking system.
2. Other People in the Organization and How They Affect the Individual Employee (Others):
The performance of individual employees is influenced by the people around them in significant and specific ways. Two of the common factors exerting this influence are the “help” and “model” provided by others. When an employee is experiencing difficulty with the execution of a new procedure because of knowledge, skill or resources, getting assistance from a coworker can provide the needed support to create success. The best organizations create work environments where peer support and assistance is both encouraged and reinforced by management. Modeling simply means that other people demonstrate that they are accepting change by utilizing and supporting the new policy or procedure. When an employee sees others using the new procedure to input their expenses without complaint, they are more likely to want to comply with the policy. If they see other employees, especially the boss, not doing so then they are more likely to see the new policy as a mere suggestion and resist or avoid the new procedure all together.
3. The “Stuff” Around Us That Impacts Our Performance (Surroundings):
The best policies and procedures are merely good ideas without the surroundings to support their use. Our employees work in environments that not only include other people, but also physical surroundings such as climate, equipment and the layout of that equipment. These physical surroundings impact the ease with which people can implement new policies and procedures. Let’s return to our expense report example. The operations of the XYZ company are often conducted at remote sites that don’t have the tools of a modern office. Employees have laptops but wifi and scanners are only located at central field offices. Employees rarely spend any significant time in these offices, rather they perform their work out in the field. The equipment they need to use the new procedure is a resource that they would have to travel great distances, after hours to use. For these employees, in these surroundings it was just easier to turn in paper receipts and reports hoping somebody else would log it for them.
Managers in the best organizations understand that the knowledge and habits of individual employees, the help and model provided by others, and the surroundings in which employees find themselves are significant factors in determining the successful utilization of organizational policies and procedures. They understand that without deliberately addressing each of these contextual factors they are likely to fail in the implementation of new initiatives.
I was speaking recently to a group of mid-level safety professionals about redirecting unwanted behaviors and making change within individual and systemic safety systems. I had one participant who was particularly passionate about his views on changing the behaviors of workers. According to him, one cannot be expected to change behavior or work incident free without at least threatening the use of punitive actions. In his own words, “you cannot expect them to work safely if you can’t punish them for not working safely.” He was also quite vocal in his assertion that it is of little use to determine which contextual factors are driving an unsafe behavior. Again quoting him, “why do I need to know why they did it unsafely? If they can’t get it done, find somebody that can.”
I meet managers like this from time-to-time and I’m immediately driven to wonder what it must be like to work for such a person. How could a person like this have risen in the ranks of his corporate structure? How could such an idiot...oh,wait. Am I not making the same mistakes that I now, silently scold him for? You see, when people do things that we see as evil, stupid, or just plain wrong, there are two incredibly common and powerful principles at play. The first principle is called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) and, if allowed to take over one’s thought process, it will make a tyrant out of the most pleasant of us. The FAE says that when we see people do things that we believe to be undesirable, we attribute it to them as being flawed in some way or to them having bad intentions. They are stupid, evil, heartless, or just plain incompetent. If we assume these traits to be the driving factor of an unsafe act and we have organizational power, we will likely move to punish this bad actor for their evil doings. After all, somebody so (insert evil adjective here) deserves to be punished. The truth is that most people are good and decent people who just want to do a good job.
This leads us to our second important principle, Local Rationality. Local Rationality says that when good and decent people do things that are unsafe or break policies or rules, they usually do it without any ill-intent. In fact, because of their own personal context, they do it because it makes sense to them to do it that way; hence the term “local rationality”. As a matter of fact, had you or I been in their situation, given the exact same context, chances are we would have done the same thing. It isn’t motive that normally needs to be changed, it’s context.
With this knowledge, let’s look back at the two questions from our Safety Manager.
- “How can I be expected to change behavior or work incident free, without threatening to to punish the wrong-doers?” and
- “Why do I need to know why they did it unsafely? If they can’t get it done, find somebody that can.”
Once we understand that, in general, people don’t knowingly and blatantly do unsafe things or break rules, rather that they do it because of a possibly flawed work system, e.g. improper equipment, pressure from others, lack of training, etc., then we have the ability to calmly have a conversation to determine why they did what they did. In other words, we determine the context that drove the person to rush, cut corners, use improper tools, etc. Once we know why they did it, we then have a chance of creating lasting change by changing the contextual factors that led to the unsafe act.
Your key take-aways:
- When you see what you think is a pile of stupidity, be curious as to where it came from. Otherwise, you may find yourself stepping in it yourself.
- Maybe it wasn’t stupidity at all. Maybe it was just the by-product of the context in which they work. Find a fix together and you may both come out smelling like roses.