To answer this we need to go back to basics. Let’s look at a seemingly obvious point: why safety is important in the first place.
You might say there’s a moral or legal duty to prevent harm and you’d be correct. There are obvious commercial reasons too, like the cost of downtime or poor reputation.
Like most business leaders reading this, you’re probably now thinking ‘yes, we know all this – that’s why we have systems in place to take care of safety.’ Some of you may even be lucky enough to have certificates on your walls to prove that.
Yet, also like most other businesses, injuries are probably still happening (or waiting to happen) in your workplace. Maybe you’re unlucky enough to have seen a serious accident in your time – one you thought tragic, but ultimately unavoidable.
Or perhaps you’re thinking ‘performance in my organisation isn’t actually getting any worse, so what’s the problem?’ Well, ask yourself this – why isn’t it getting any better?
The point is: systems can only take you so far
Even the best policies are only ever as good as the actions of the people who put them into practice. Because when humans inevitably don’t follow them or take shortcuts (as they often do under pressure to hit targets), policies are nothing but words on a page.
Take work permit systems, for example. Piper Alpha had a fantastic one but the original catalyst to that tragedy, which resulted in 167 people dying, was human fallibility within their system.
It wasn’t being used properly and guess why not…
Because of behaviour
Now we’re back to our original question: why does putting behaviour at the centre of your safety vision benefit your business?
Behaviour is all about what people do, how they interact and the consequences of their actions. And culture is all about why they do it: their values and how leaders influence them. At Tribe, our mission is to help business leaders like you understand and develop these underlying attitudes and beliefs that affect the behaviour of your workforce.
And defining, demonstrating, observing and challenging these behaviours – specific actions by individuals, is a much easier, much more specific way to express what you expect from people in your workplace.
Focus on the positive
One enormous benefit of behaviour is that you can focus on the positive, and give safety a good name in your organisation.
Until you look at things from a behavioural perspective, all the measures of safety tend to be exclusively negative: what went wrong, and why, and always afterwards. ‘How many accidents? How many days have we lost?’ These are all negative ways to measure performance at your business. They’re impossible even to measure in a positive way – after all you can’t ask ‘how many accidents have we not had?’.
When it comes to behaviour though, yes of course we can measure unsafe behaviours in a negative way, but it’s just as easy to measure the positive.
For once we don’t have to be so negative, miserable and demoralising. Staff can focus on what’s going well in your business, rather than just what failed during a horrendous incident.
In this way, even the measurement of safety itself becomes an act of positive reinforcement, through praise and appreciation. Isn’t that far more motivating than accusation and recrimination?
An example from the production line
From a behavioural point of view, let’s say you’re examining why someone performs a task safely on the factory floor. This would be what we call an effective safety discussion (more on this later).
Suppose you spot a member of your staff wearing the right protective equipment at a hazardous machine – so you ask ‘OK, well done, so why did it happen this way?’ Because someone in procurement remembered to buy the right kit in time for them to be able to do their job properly. You probe further: ‘How come?’ Well, it turns out someone in the office made sure invoices were paid on time so the supplier could send it to us. ‘Great – production wasn’t interrupted and products were made to our usual high-standards – how can we make sure this always happens?’.
You see what happened there: we’re learning why some things work better than others in the context of behaviour, without anyone suffering and without any catastrophic incident affecting your business.
This is why behavioural safety means better business
It encourages you to pay attention to all the many many times things go well, but unnoticed – as is the case during most uneventful days at work.
Why should you only learn from the one time things go wrong? Why not also learn from the other nine times it went well? You’re increasing your chances of success many times over – everyone knows that’s a much smarter way to run any business.
Likewise, if you do spot a problem that concerns you on the production line – someone using a tool improperly for example, focusing on the behaviour means you can challenge unsafe acts before they become a problem. You can even pose a question to whoever did it: ‘how can we prevent other people making this same mistake and putting themselves at risk? Let’s fix this together.’ There’s a right (and wrong) way to do this, of course – that’s where Tribe can help.
By using this approach you’ll transform your business from reactive to proactive. By praising all those times things go well you’ll inspire more of the same behaviour. That’s what we call a positive culture of continuous improvement. You’ll generate a far more engaging atmosphere and better attitudes around the whole subject of safety this way.
There’s another hugely compelling reason why behavioural safety means better business.
Did you spot it?
Let’s look back to our example about safety equipment on the production line. Someone was doing their job properly, and by observing, challenging, praising and learning you’re effectively discovering how to scale that success up – so everyone works better and more productively.
Now think about that.
You don’t just improve safety – you boost quality and efficiency at the same time. So, with a little creativity, it isn’t hard to imagine applying this whole behavioural approach to improve working environments, security, people’s well-being and everything else that makes business great.
Behavioural safety is just where your journey begins, yet its positive benefits – of effective communication and strong leadership reach every corner of your business.
What happens next?
Of course, the secret to achieving all this is holding effective conversations about safety – knowing how to approach people, involve them and bring out the best in them without making them feel defensive.
That’ll be the topic of our next article.
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