I was spellbound. Here I was not reading a book about teams, but listening to the wisdom of a team who had lived it day in and day out. This experience occurred during a recent workshop on workplace safety. I had the privilege of working with a high-performing team that has a stellar safety record. The purpose of the workshop was to invite additional dialogue regarding a survey the team had taken. The plan was to seek additional detail and nuance about what they were thinking, feeling, and the experiences that influenced their ratings in this survey that measured areas of safety in their workplace ranging from corporate ethics to hazard recognition.
While others took some time to warm to the task, this group was immediately engaged. They didn’t need encouragement or assurances of confidentiality. They jumped right in to a lively dialogue on each section. It wasn’t long before my curiosity was killing me—how was this group so invested, open, engaged, honest, and committed not just to safety, but to everything else they did?
So I gently interrupted our conversation. “Can I deviate for a moment from the agenda and ask what drives your team and keeps all of you invested and committed to what you’re doing and how you do it?” Immediately, they started to share the glue that binds them together in their common pursuit of safety and performance.
The first thing out of their mouths was a statement that indicated they each held a sense of common mission and purpose that drove their thinking, feelings and behavior. “We are very aware that what we do is very dangerous. One mistake has the potential to not only injure one of us—it could also have serious consequences for the people at this plant and the surrounding community. We don’t ever want that to happen.”
What came next was, “We know each other and we care about each other.” And the caring extends to wives, children, girlfriends, and boyfriends. “We know a lot about each others’ families; we know their names, what schools they go to, the sports they play, and when things are going good and not so good. When you know people’s families, you have a deeper understanding that what we’re doing and how we’re doing it has far-reaching consequences. This also helps us to keep in touch with how a person is doing personally, and sometimes we pitch in to give a coworker a break when he or she needs it.”
We agree to disagree. “It’s taken us some time, but we’ve come to the conclusion that disagreeing is just part of life. We don’t get that upset anymore when we disagree. We give each other space and sooner rather than later we come around and work things out. We know that nothing is more important than safety and that keeps us from going off on each other.”
We take personal accountability for our actions. “This has also taken us some time, but we’ve come to accept that we are the ones who can make a difference. It doesn't do us any good to complain, blame and look to somebody else to make our decisions. Our behavior and choices make the biggest difference, and we feel more secure and satisfied being accountable and in control.”
This team had no formal training in teamwork; they had only learned from their experiences and continued to put what worked into practice. This created a culture in which purpose, accountability, respect, caring, and dialogue was the glue that kept them safe and performing to their individual and team best. They are what books are written about.
That evening, I reflected again on the special opportunity I had to join in on these insightful and inspiring discussions. It became clear that what I teach and facilitate is what this group had intuitively and experientially put into practice. Their culture is infused with intrinsic motivation. They are motivated from the inside out. No one is dangling carrots or rewards or threatening them with consequences if they don’t act responsibly. They act safely and responsibly because it matters to them, and they take ownership and pride in it.
Self-Determination Theory informs us that if people are given or find a sense of purpose in what they do; if they are given the resources, permission and support to have autonomy in making decisions; the encouragement and opportunity to develop relationships with each other and their managers; and the ability to influence the things that matter most to them—they will not only achieve, they will thrive.
This team thrives in a very difficult environment. They do hard and dangerous work. Their success can be framed in a theoretical model, but what is most impressive is their commitment to make it stick—they are the glue.
© Tom Wojick, The Renewal Group, September 2012
My colleague and I had a great visit to Galveston and a very positive, affirming and learning experience at the National Safety Council’s Texas Conference and Expo, the theme of which was The Pursuit of Continuous Improvement: a Journey to Safety Excellence. Our presentation, “A Path To Sustainable Zero,” was well received and generated many comments and questions from the participants. One said, “It’s refreshing to hear about a program that gets to the heart of what safety is really about.” Another offered, “I wish more companies had the courage to take an honest look at and approach to safety.”
In addition to presenting, we also had the opportunity to listen and learn from the experiences of other safety professionals. One of the presentations I attended was on initiating a behavioral-based safety program. The presenter outlined the key steps in the process: form a committee, create observation checklists and train employees to be observers who know how to use the checklists. He emphasized that it was critical to take blame out of the observations so that trust can be built. He further commented that without trust the program would never be accepted and it could not produce results. And then the “ah-ha!” moment: in response to a question concerning implementation, the presenter said, “Before you can even begin the process, you (management) must make decisions on what you want and what roles you want employees to play.” There it is. The defining paradigm, or worldview, that is the foundation of most safety programs. It is one in which management operates from a core belief that employees are not interested, capable or trustworthy enough to make the “right decisions” pertaining to their safety and to the safety of their co-workers. And it is this core belief that causes organizations to lose the war on safety.
Daniel Pink states in his book Drive, “Organizations still operate from assumptions about human potential that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science.” This is why organizations continue to search for the holy grail of safety without realizing it is their core world view about human motivation and potential that is the impediment to building and sustaining a high-performing safety culture. They are constricted and bound by antiquated 20th century science on human motivation.
Edward Deci, Ph.D, a pioneer in the Self-Determination Theory, says, “Unfortunately, we observe many mangers and academics who doggedly cling to the now discredited tools of command-and-control methods; these methods ensure the death of employees’ motivation and pro-active engagement in work.” I doubt that there is a “Holy Grail of Safety,” but I’m convinced that the path to building and sustaining a high-performing safety culture is not found by following and applying folklore science and discredited tools of command and control management, which is why “A Path To Sustainable Zero” adheres to a view that nurtures the intrinsic importance of safety.
“A Path To Sustainable Zero” operates from the belief that employees want to be safe and that they care about the safety of each other, and if given the opportunity and trust to demonstrate these intrinsic values they will not disappoint themselves, their co-workers or their organization.
In a recent “what do we want” focus group, a handful of employees crafted the following statement:
“I want to work in an environment that regards my personal safety as a top priority so I can fully engage in my work. I want to feel respected and cared for and to experience satisfaction in the work I perform.”
It’s not managements’ role to force safety on their employees but rather to encourage and allow it to emerge from within them. This statement validates that employees deeply care about safety and that the role of management is to provide the resources, support and training safety leaders and supervisors need to foster and monitor the development of their employees’ intrinsic motivation to create and sustain a safe workplace.
It isn’t perfect and it does take time for employees to trust the transition to a totally new model and approach to safety. Remember that they’ve been trained in Skinner’s operant conditioning system, which believes animals must be trained with carrots and sticks in order to perform. However, if management stays on the new path with the conviction that employees are capable and invested in creating a safe workplace, it won’t be long before employees become fully engaged and everyone experiences the benefits and rewards of a high performing safety culture.