ProAct Safety | 12 May 2016
Column: Fear Is the Enemy of Safety Excellence
It is ironic that organizations encourage risk-taking and develop a tolerance for failure in pursuits such as marketing and new-product development but have a completely different view of safety. Certainly, no one wants to fail at safety. Safety failures can be catastrophic and costly. But when the fear of failure becomes the primary driver of safety efforts, the results are often self-limiting.
The fear-driven safety program tends to drive organizations to take steps directly aimed at avoiding failure. The definition of success becomes “to fail less.” The goals are based on negative steps, such as avoiding risks, and the metrics are failure metrics. Blame and punishment are often attached to failures, and the lack of failure is rewarded without regard to the performance that led to it. Luck is rewarded the same as safe performance, as there is nothing to distinguish between the two. Lagging indicators guide efforts, and key performance indicators are either not developed, ignored, or are viewed as “soft” metrics. The proverbial “wag the dog” is in full effect, and the focus on results make the processes and performance that actually produce the results disappear into the background.
Management’s fear of safety failure can lead to other self-limiting approaches. Safety, which should be a strategic job of management, is often delegated to a safety “specialists,” who are expected to lead the effort to fail less. Executives and senior managers often separate their duties from safety and may also allow lower-level managers and supervisors to do the same. Business and safety are managed as two separate priorities and may compete for resources, time, and worker attention. The two become dichotomies in the minds of workers, who often ask which is most important today. The fear of safety failure keeps the business leader’s attention until the fear of business failure becomes greater. Safety based on fear never becomes a value because its priority changes when one fear outweighs another.
Leaders whose primary goal is to avoid failure often try to convey their fear to the workforce. They hypothesize that, if workers fear failure also, it might align efforts to fail less. Guidelines center around avoidance, and management style focuses on negative consequences to emphasize these goals. In this mindset, proactivity in safety means making rules and procedures that minimize failures. The goal is compliance rather than excellence. The safety professionals become the safety police, and workers begin to develop avoidance behaviors. There are only three possible consequences of safety for workers: 1) getting injured; 2) getting caught in non-compliance; or 3) getting away without consequence. Great safety performance is not rewarded more than mediocre performance if neither result in consequences. Excellence is never better than “good enough.”
Read the full column here.