printech, February, 2004
Good Article On Employee Involvement in Safety

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From: Gary Jones ( )
Date: Sat, 28 Feb 2004 09:30:36

From Occupational Safety and Health News online at

The Secrets of Involvement, Part I

Professionals too frequently drop into the default approach of either "making" or "bribing" people to actively participate. by Robert Pater

You can place it high on the list of what everyone talks about, many try to get, but few succeed. The weather? Taxes? Eliminating paper work? Getting fit?

Eliciting a high level of involvement.

It's understandable that so many professionals long for it, attempting all kinds of tricks and games to activate the "I" word. For many, involvement is the holy grail of organizational leadership overall and of safety in particular. Charisma is in good part measured by the ability to enlist others. Can you really acknowledge someone as a strong leader when others won't willingly walk behind--or better, alongside of--him or her?

Why Involvement?

I have seen everything I'm writing about, many times over. From oxymoron attempts to "pressure people to become involved"--which is as effective as "forcing" yourself to go to sleep--to those few organizations that are realizing substantial step-changes in safety performance and culture. And, whether this is a case of involvement being a leading or trailing indicator (chicken or egg?), tremendous turnarounds always seem to be ignited, or at least accompanied by, a high level of participation.

Let's not waste time fruitlessly chasing a purely theoretical ideal. I suggest first strategically focusing on some underlying benefits of getting everyone involved:

Generating ideas. Creativity is a numbers game: The more ideas proposed, the more likely some genuinely useful ones will come out. And, often, what starts as a "silly idea" or one not fully formed is developed by others, piggyback fashion, into highly helpful ones. In this intensely competitive world, it is critical to harness all available resources--especially the expertise and experience of employees--toward organizational strength. Gone are the days where one "genius" or a very small "braintrust" can know enough to outthink its organizational opponents who band together numerous minds and hearts working in concert.

Activating morale. The more involved people are, in anything, the more likely they are to enjoy what they are doing. Involvement heightens interest and excitement.

Creating buy-in. The principle of "cognitive dissonance" suggests that when people feel involved in the process of change, even if they initially disagree with the results, they are more likely to support the final decision. In other words, part of the process, then part of the implementation. Greater buy-in sets the stage for smoother acceptance and furthering of change.

Sustaining attention. Involvement, on all levels, combats the check-your-brains-at-the-timeclock, mind-numbing nature of some jobs. Mentally repetitive tasks can be a contributing factor in many safety problems, such as hand injuries or slips and falls. When people see what they are doing is part of a larger process they both value and feel part of, they can focus more on what they are doing. The lights are on and somebody's home.

Promoting learning and improvement. On an individual level, involvement entails enlisting as many of a person's senses as possible. For example, everyone processes information/learns in different ways. You may already have heard that some people are auditory learners. They best receive and remember information by hearing descriptions or stories. Others are visual, predominantly accruing new ideas by watching demonstrations, visual aids, movies. A third group is kinesthetic, relying on physically participating to learn--hefting a new tool, or wanting to try out a new machine rather than just hearing or reading about it. This last group prefers not to read manuals or instructions, thank you, instead diving right in and figuring it out by trial and error.

Studies show that, in North America, 10 percent of the population is "auditory," 24 percent is "visual," and 65 percent is "kinesthetic." Yet in many organizations, most training and other safety communications are hearing-based. If the studies are correct, this communication is geared to the smallest style-group of people.

And what's even more important, any time you hear people described as being one of three (or four or five) types, this kind of clean division of styles is superficial. While I, for example, may mostly be kinesthetic, secondarily I'm a visual person, and auditory last.

Because you probably won't know others' processing styles--in other words, the key to their mind lock--the smartest approach might be to send out all messages three different ways. Tell them stories and anecdotes and explain why change is needed (auditory), show them pictures, video, or eye-candy-colored charts (visual), and strongly solicit their questions, ideas, mockups, demonstrations (kinesthetic).

Engaging the Senses

I have asked thousands of leaders in seminars: If you are driving to a new place or if you are the passenger, in which situation are you most likely to be able to find your way back again? Almost all immediately respond, "the driver." Why? Because (they say) you're more involved. Your attention has to be wide (looking for directional cues and landmarks), you feel the wheel, accelerator, and brake. The passenger, on the other hand, doesn't have to be as involved in senses, even if she is navigating. Thinking of ways to involve all of their senses will also draw in people overall.

On an organizational level, involvement entails engaging all staff as part of the process of improvement. Rather than centralized engineers creating a new ergonomic fix (even if theoretically accurate, these modifications are often rejected), it is usually more practical to have those employees actually doing the task help design or modify a tool or station. And, as mentioned above, if they participate in the creation, workers are more likely to actually embrace the new design, rather than shun it.

But what to do, what to do? Developing receptivity, interest, trust, and commitment are all too easy to talk about. But, based on recent complaints, commitment and work ethic are down, no one listens, no one cares (except about The Brand Called Themself).

So professionals too frequently drop into the default approach of either "making" or "bribing" people to actively participate. A direct, pushing approach--which, for some, seems the only arrow in their quiver--inherently backfires. Kurt Lewin's Force Field studies have chronicled what you probably have seen time and again. That, even if you could somehow make people change their behavior through direct positive or negative pressure, this change doesn't last. As soon as the pressure is removed, or directed elsewhere in this age of I've got-many-others-I-now-have-to-work-on, the "target's" behavior goes back to the way it was. Either unconsciously (because the impetus for change came from a now-removed force) or defiantly.

And people seem to have two basic reactions to being "incented" to participate. They either resent the bribe or expect it and always want more.

The good news is, experience shows there are three keys to eliciting involvement. I will explain these keys and illustrate their use in Part II of this column next month.

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