Over the last month, I’ve been writing about workplace safety here on the All-In Blog––specifically, how we get it so wrong. Years ago, I had ongoing conversations with Bob, a smart operations manager for a large chemical company that employed us both. It all started when I told Bob that we––senior management––only knew about 10% of the injuries and incidents that actually happened in our plants, a phenomenon that was not exclusive to our organization. We then dove into why people weren’t reporting what was really happening, and explored the incorrect focus that we’d help cultivate. I explained there were two primary issues: 1) we were focused on what we did wrong instead of how to do it right; and 2) we were using an exclusively preventative strategy.

We covered our misguided focus on incidents and injuries last week. This week, I’ll share our discussion about preventative orientation.

Prevention is no fun

“Here’s the problem with a preventative orientation,” I began. “Have you ever had to lose weight or pay off a debt?” Bob nodded. “How much fun was it?”

“It wasn’t,” Bob replied.

“I agree––so would most people,” I said. “Making something that we don’t want go away is boring at best, and at worst, absolute drudgery. This is one of many reasons why you’ll never see our people fighting to be first in line for a safety meeting.”

Most people don’t enjoy or take pride in avoiding something bad. We never see a business owner running around celebrating the fact that she avoided bankruptcy. We wouldn’t praise our child for reaching his 21st birthday without doing time in the penitentiary.

Dodging failure is not something we typically commend––and for good reason. We expect not to fail. Working without incident or injury should be no different.

“But in our safety paradigm, we reward the avoidance of failure all the time,” I told Bob. “We serve pizza and give away fishing poles to the department that had the fewest injuries last month. We present commemorative plaques to the managers of sites who’ve completed the calendar year without incident.”

“But shouldn’t we reward good performance?” Bob asked.

“Of course,” I said. “But in our paradigm, we aren’t really rewarding good performance. We reward people for not screwing up. That’s different than recognizing success––and it’s a big reason why safety lacks the excitement and joy that other business imperatives such as productivity and quality earn.”

Prevention does not motivate

“We waste hours excessively investigating accidents or fretting over the OSHA classification of an injury’s severity, just so we can make an arbitrary numerical safety goal,” I said. “It’d be much more productive to invest that time developing ourselves and our culture to create a community where safe thoughts, words, and actions are expected, understood, agreed upon, and rewarded.”

Bob sat silently, not rejecting or immediately accepting any piece.

“My son is a professional golfer trying to work his way to the big time,” I continued. “When his coach wants to help him improve his golf swing, would it be more motivating for him to say, ‘Charlie, you want me to teach you how to not hit the ball out of bounds?’––something Charlie doesn’t want to do anyway––or ‘Charlie, how would you like to improve your swing mechanics so that you always put the ball in the fairway?’”

“The latter, obviously,” Bob said.

“Then, Bob, if it’s so obvious, why do we always speak in terms of avoiding failure in safety?” I asked. “Why do we choose an orientation and use language that is not motivating?”

“Because our safety paradigm is grounded in Heinrich’s models and principles,” Bob answered.

“Correct,” I said. “If we want to change our safety orientation to something more useful, what’s our first step?”

“We have to acknowledge that the safety paradigm we presently use is no longer useful,” Bob said. “Then, we need to embrace a new paradigm that doesn’t have the limitations of our current one and gives us new abilities.”

“Are you willing to tell me that you are ready to make that shift?” I said. “Are you ready to commit to a new paradigm of safety?”

“Yes,” Bob said. “But was it really necessary to spend these last several sessions discussing the limitations of our current paradigm ad nauseam?” Couldn’t you have just explained the new one to me from the start?”

“Based on my experience, it was necessary,” I said. “People like us who have been working in this paradigm for decades are experts in it. The moment we let go of it, we lose that status. Instantly, we become novices. A change like that can be daunting, so people need good reasons to make it. I had to help you find those reasons, and the best way I know how to do that is to lead you through pointing out what’s wrong––the conversations we’ve had over the last several weeks.”

Bob finally understood. He nodded and almost smiled. I knew I had to seize the moment.

“I want you to spend the next week noticing all the ways our current safety paradigm limits us, just as you go about your job,” I said. “Jot them down as you see them. It’ll help you come to our next session convinced that change is needed, unencumbered and ready to explore.”

Bob agreed, and I promised him that during our next session, I’d finally reveal a safety paradigm that is more positive, fun, motivating, and capable of creating unprecedented performance. We both left that meeting anticipating that conversation.

Next week, I’ll share what we discussed. Let’s go All-In.