Safety Attitudes Matter: Creating Safety Champions in Your Workforce
By Josh Williams, Ph. D.
Much of the focus on improving organizational safety today focuses on influencing safety behaviors (e.g., Behavior-Based Safety) and improving organizational systems to reduce human error (e.g., Human Performance). These are both critically important to advance safety culture and prevent serious incidents and fatalities.
But what about employee safety attitudes?
During training sessions, I’ve often asked employees to tell me which of the following is most important with their coworkers: experience, intelligence, or attitude. Initially, I expected that most employees, especially those with more tenure, would tell me “experience.” However, employees have overwhelmingly said “attitude” regardless of their age, position, location, or industry. Unfortunately, leaders often view attitudes as a black-and-white issue. You either have a good attitude or a bad one and it doesn’t change over time.
Seminal research from Leon Festinger demonstrates that people experience cognitive dissonance when their attitudes/beliefs and behaviors are incongruent. This unpleasant state motivates them to either change their behaviors or their attitudes so that they’re consistent. For instance, a manager who considers himself a nice person will feel guilty if he finds himself regularly yelling at employees. This realization (and cognitive dissonance) will motivate him to either stop yelling or change the way he views himself.
With this in mind, employees with favorable attitudes toward safety are more likely to exhibit positive safety behaviors such as following safety procedures, reporting safety hazards, participating in safety initiatives, cautioning coworkers about safety hazards, etc. However, when employees have poor safety attitudes, they often hide injuries, take shortcuts, resist safety improvement efforts, and quit providing safety feedback to others.
Employee attitudes can be classified as Complainers, Spectators, and Champions (adapted from Yanna, 1996) which can change based on the safety culture of their organization and the effectiveness of their leaders. So, Complainers can become Champions (and vice-versa). Here’s an explanation of each category.
- Complainers usually voice safety concerns to express displeasure, not to make improvements. They often direct these complaints to other employees instead of safety personnel or supervisors who have the power to make changes. In general, complainers seek out ways to find fault with the organization and other employees. They also believe other people cause their problems, change is inherently bad, and people don’t have control over their own lives. This leads to feelings of anger, resentment, doubt, frustration, and fear.
- Spectators rarely discuss safety concerns, as they believe their actions will have little effect on the company. As a result, they seldom get involved in safety efforts. Spectators typically believe other people will solve important problems, change is unnecessary, most situations are “no big deal,” and people have minimal control over their lives. As a result, Spectators often feel uninspired, detached, unemotional, and indifferent.
- Champions express safety concerns constructively and work effectively with others to make improvements. They also have a positive outlook toward most employees and the organization as a whole. Champions generally believe problems create opportunities for change, change is a sign of growth, and people control their own lives. They also deal with negative aspects of the company in a reasonable, mature fashion. This leads to feelings of confidence, happiness, contentment, personal control, and optimism.
These attitudes are not set in stone. Effective safety leaders use the following techniques to try and move employees from complainers to champions:
- Own up to past organizational mistakes and look to the future to make improvements.
- Treat mistakes as learning opportunities, not occasions to punish.
- Solicit input from employees about safety concerns and respond to these concerns in a timely manner.
- Create opportunities for employees to get involved in safety initiatives.
- Encourage discussions between and within organizational levels.
- Increase the frequency and quality of one-on-one conversations.
- Treat employees fairly and respectfully.
- Address equipment and facility deficiencies that create hazards and frustration.
- Ensure that incident analysis is process-focused and not blame-oriented.
It’s also important to note that complainers may feel isolated if their attitudes aren’t shared by most employees. This occurs when the majority of employees believe that leadership is working hard to improve workplace safety. When this happens, employees have better attitudes and are more inclined to get involved for safety. Complainers may feel pressure to conform to the rest of the group which means they will either keep their concerns to themselves or possibly improve their own attitudes.
There are many sports analogies in which a disgruntled player (complainer) from a team with a notoriously bad culture gets traded to a franchise with a strong culture and then changes their attitude. Alternatively, a player with a good reputation (champion) may lose it quickly when traded to a dysfunctional team. Leaders shape their culture and this directly impacts people’s attitudes.
When leaders commit to building and sustaining a healthy culture, there will be a higher number of safety champions. If not, four of five complainers may turn into forty or fifty over time.