One of the ways we show how different personalities affect safety in the workplace is with the celebrated attitude and influence graph:

Graph showing 4 different types of personalities that affect culture change

The graph features no units, of course, and as an engineer this sends me into a tail spin. Had I submitted such a unit-free graph to my Chemical Process Principles lecturer, Miss Pape, she would have written “What are the units……Elephants?” all over it.

I digress, and as far as I’m aware there’s no SI recognised unit for attitude anyway.

The graph (such as it is) is divided into four quadrants inhabited by the following characters that exist to some degree in all workplaces:

  • Champions: high influence, positive attitude.
  • Players: feel they are low influence (not necessarily true by the way) but have a good attitude.
  • Walking dead: low influence, poor attitude.

I’ll leave you dear reader to speculate on their behaviours, because I want to talk about the occupants of the final quadrant: well poisoners. People with poor attitudes but unfortunately high influence.

Mr Cameron, our Hobson’s choice Prime Minister, is currently experiencing just how disruptive these characters can be. Good luck to him; though he should have seen this one coming. I wonder if Gove will be babysitting Dave’s kids any time soon? Good job that Iain Duncan Smith is so downright uninspiring – the quiet man, with much to be quiet about, perhaps.

I’ve worked with lots of clients with well poisoners in their ranks. They operate at all levels, by the way, and well poisoning leaders are a truly destructive force where safety is concerned. However, in this case, I want to talk about the well poisoning staff member.

The situation is almost always the same

WP (catchy name, eh?) will be well known to the rest of the workforce. For reasons of self-preservation they try to avoid working with or near this individual, and quietly warn new starters about this person.
Yellow oil barrel with toxic logo
Generally, people won’t inform their management of the presence of WP and, what is more, if leaders aren’t out and about enough they won’t see him in action. Team leaders are unlikely to be unaware of what’s really going on, but may not want to rock the boat by taking action.

Your first challenge is to establish whether these characters are present in the workplace.

A culture assessment, properly carried out and preferably with focus groups, will reveal the presence of these characters. However, for people to be honest about the situation, strict anonymity has to be preserved, and the process only works if someone independent of the organisation is leading the focus groups (know anyone?).

How to deal with well poisoners

The knee-jerk reaction is to sack ‘em – though this is unrealistic on a number of counts. Firstly, HR will tell you that their employment record only ever says ‘satisfactory’ and that there’s a process to be followed before people can be removed from the workplace. Secondly, it is only fair to give people a chance to change.

A good place to start is with your team leaders

They must be aware of the safe behaviours that apply, and that it’s their job to encourage and enforce these standards. If they’ve been lax in this area it must be explained that this isn’t acceptable any more.

The next step is to brief your work teams on what the standards of safe behaviour are. Also, you might care to admit that enforcement of these standards hasn’t been as rigorous as you’d have liked, but that those days are over, and there is now an expectation that these standards will be followed.

The final stage involves vigilance by leaders, to ensure that standards are being met. However, the story doesn’t end there. If someone behaves unsafely we have to understand why and then embark on a coaching approach to change this behaviour. If this doesn’t work, then more vigorous enforcement must follow, which is something that everyone wants to avoid.

I wonder if Cameron will be ‘coaching’ certain members of his cabinet, after the referendum?