In our last blog, we explored how team members can support each other by intervening effectively in unsafe situations. [Your Organization’s Safety Immune System (Part 2): Strengthening Immunity] Now we will look into something slightly different: How coworkers can prevent risks by supporting each other. In other words, how helping each other improves safety performance. There are clear safety implications when, for example, an experienced employee goes out of her way to teach a new-hire how to use a tool correctly, or when an employee drops what he is doing to help a coworker lift a heavy object. While the organization's culture can impact people's helpfulness (or lack thereof), people either do or don’t help for other reasons as well.
It is generally recognized that there are two forms of helping behavior, both of which are present in the workplace. One is referred to as "egoistic helping," in which the helper does so because he either wants something in return or desires the positive feeling that comes from helping. The other form is referred to as "altruistic helping" because the helper expects nothing in return and helps only to benefit the other person.
Altruistic Helping: The helper adopts the perspective of the other person (which is called "empathy") and helps out of a desire to benefit or reduce any negative impact on that person. For example, people donate money to a disaster relief effort because they empathize with and want to alleviate the suffering of those affected.
When team members truly care about each other's wellbeing, altruistic helping is more likely to occur. This is sometimes referred to as "active caring" and it is an important foundation for teamwork and team support. Organizations that take steps to increase empathy among team members will likely see an increase in altruistic helping behavior.
Egoistic Helping: The helper does not adopt the perspective of the other person, but helps in an attempt to further his own positive feelings, secure personal gain or create indebtedness. For example, people donate money to a disaster relief effort because the donation is tax deductible and it feels good to support the cause. Egoistic helping isn't bad...just less "noble" looking than altruistic helping.
Research has shown that positive emotional states increase helping behavior (e.g., Cunningham, 1979). Workplaces that produce pleasant, optimistic, hopeful feelings (in other words, "high employee morale") will have people helping each other more often. An explanation for this phenomenon is that people want to maintain their good mood, and helping others is one way of accomplishing that desire. As such, a workplace that promotes positive feelings also appears to increase egoistic helping behavior.
The Point: If an organization wanted to increase helping behavior within it's workforce, it would do well to set its sights on (1) interpersonal empathy and (2) employee morale. It might at first seem that these are too "wishy-washy" to have any place in safety management, but there are quite tangible steps that can be taken to improve both.
*Looking back on our previous blog, we see implications for safety intervention as well. Interpersonal empathy and employee morale may also increase the likelihood that people will intervene in unsafe situations; but neither is sufficient. Even when people want to intervene, most will not until they are confident that they can do so effectively and without creating social tension. People also need to learn how to intervene.