Speak Up for Safety: Using the Power of Conformity
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
Employees can prevent serious injuries and fatalities by speaking up when they see coworkers operating at-risk. Unfortunately, social norms and pressure may prevent this. Many organizations have created culture that reflect the famous Hank Williams song refrain, “Mind your own business and you won’t be minding mine.” The power of conformity, not speaking up in this case, is powerful. An illustration from social psychology demonstrates this.
Decades ago, Solomon Asch asked groups of up to 15 students in a classroom setting to participate in a “vision test” (Bond, R., & Smith, P. B., 1996). Each student was asked if a series of drawn lines were the same size or not. They were told to verbally give their answer (i.e., yes or no). In actuality, only one person in the classroom was really a participant in the experiment. Everyone else was helping with the study.
Specifically, they were all told to give the same answers to the question, “Are the lines the same size?” They were sometimes told to answer correctly and sometimes told to answer incorrectly. Asch wanted to know how the last person (the actual participant) would respond based on what everyone else said, especially when the previous 14 people responded incorrectly.
Nearly 37% of the time, the actual participant gave the same incorrect response as the rest of the group when the correct answer was clearly obvious (i.e., even for those with poor eyesight). This study demonstrates the power of conformity. Simply put, many participants were uncomfortable acting differently than the rest of the group.
This shows us how vulnerable people are to conformity and social norms. It is therefore critical to constantly reinforce the power of peer-to-peer safety feedback. Serious injuries are more likely to occur when the culture doesn’t promote this peer feedback. For instance, an employee at a soft drink facility developed the habit of scraping off excess glue on sharp blades (that cut labels) by jabbing at the clumps of glue with a rag. This normally worked to remove the glue and kept the line moving. Otherwise, he’d have to spend several minutes shutting down the line and locking out the equipment in order to clean the blade properly (i.e., it’s not moving). This method worked for years until one day when his hand got dragged into the equipment and the blade cut off two of his fingers. This would have been prevented if one of his coworkers, and they had dozens of people working in that area, had spoken up and warned him about the risky behavior.
Some companies have adopted formalized mentoring as a means for experienced and respected leaders to share knowledge, create rapport, and open up communication channels with newer employees. For example, an energy company in Tennessee implemented a “buddy for a week” system. Essentially, experienced employees (with high job knowledge and good attitudes for safety) spent one week with newer employees working together, eating together, spending time in the break room together etc. This process improved rapport between newer and older employees and provided a great way for experienced employees to pass on specific craft knowledge in a direct, hands-on way. Interestingly, some of the experienced employees said they learned from their mentees new ways of doing the job as seen from a fresh perspective. They were also more mindful of their own safety behaviors to ensure they were setting a good example. This program improved safety behaviors but also interpersonal safety communication and morale.
Here are some guidelines for providing effective safety feedback (Williams, 2010):
– Be honest, respectful, and direct with feedback.
– Ask permission to give feedback.
– Acknowledge your coworkers experience and skill.
– Give corrective feedback one-on-one to avoid embarrassment.
– Acknowledge especially safe work practices
– Show caring and emphasize well-being more than rules.
Through consistent messaging, training, and conversations, leaders can begin building a culture of speaking up. When enough people buy-in to this culture, the power of conformity takes over to the point this feedback becomes the company norm.