Through the years, I’ve learned there are messages worth repeating. The message below is one of them. It is important enough that I’ve written about it on numerous occasions. I even touched on it in a podcast with Dave Negri called Contractors Secret Weapon available on YouTube.

To the point, there is no need to “over-justify” safety with promises of tangible rewards and trinkets. Yes, these things are nice. And, when used properly, they send a positive message regarding safety. However, when used as a primary means of motivating safe behavior, the result is predictable. You get changes in safety-related behaviors when the rewards are offered (assuming you are focusing the rewards on behaviors rather than on avoiding injuries), and these improvements are lost when the rewards are removed. Worse yet, rewarding the absence of injuries can produce under-reporting of those injuries. Bottom line: You should not ever promise rewards for desired changes at the start a new safety initiative. It is first important to establish a baseline from which to determine if the rewards are even needed.

So, how do you visibly demonstrate the value of safety and encourage desired changes in your organization? You can start by giving safety feedback effectively. With this approach, you will see visible improvements in day-to-day safety behaviors and also in your key safety performance measures (e.g., recordable injury rate). You are also likely to see improved production, better employee morale, less absenteeism and lower turn-over rates.

If something as simple as feedback can have such a positive impact, why aren’t more managers taking advantage of it? I believe it is because many managers don’t even really know what purpose feedback serves, much less how to deliver it.

By definition, feedback is information about performance that allows the performer (employee) to know whether to change his or her behavior. If change is needed, feedback describes what the change looks like and the benefit of the change. If change is not needed, then feedback reinforces existing desired behaviors in a manner that the performer knows exactly what to keep doing.

To give safety feedback effectively, do the following:

Focus on observable behaviors rather than on the absence of injuries. When we define safety in terms of behaviors that make an injury less likely (e.g., using appropriate PPE, using the right tool for the job, following procedures, etc.), we identify the potential for injury. When behavior feedback corrects an at-risk behavior without criticism, we are practicing prevention. To avoid the blame game, take a situational perspective and avoid labels that describe a person’s character. This can be done by stating specifics in terms of your experience. Corrective feedback will use a lot of “I” statements such as “I noticed” or “I observed” and “from my perspective” or “in my experience.” This will minimize defensiveness. Finally, realize that simply correcting without criticism is not enough. You must replace the at-risk behavior with safe behavior. State or ask about the change that is needed.

Provide positive feedback for safe performance, not just corrective feedback for poor performance. As important as corrective feedback is, we should also provide praise for the safe behaviors observed. When done properly, this form of “social reinforcement” will increase the value of safe behaviors relative to more at-risk ways of accomplishing the same task, even if “we’ve been doing it this way for 20 years and haven’t even been hurt.” Praise should be genuine and specific. And, when giving praise, use a lot of “you” statements, such as, “You did a great job on …” and “When you …” and “As a result of your good performance ….” The key is to make praise all about the person receiving feedback.

Provide feedback right away and be specific about what was seen. To prevent injuries due to at-risk behavior, corrective feedback must occur immediately to sufficiently reduce exposure to the risk. Likewise, to compete with the immediate comfort, convenience, and time-savings often experienced by a performer of at-risk behavior, positive feedback should be given right away. If immediate feedback is not practical and a delay between behavior and feedback occurs, then add even more detail. Being specific about positive feedback will help the performer re-live the event, increasing the likelihood that he or she will perform the safe behavior again in similar circumstances. Being specific also demonstrates that you took the time to notice and care about what you observed.

Provide corrective feedback whenever needed and positive feedback more often. In a reasonably well-functioning mine operation, you should see a lot safe behaviors. Each is an opportunity to increase the value of safety. While it may not be necessary to praise every instance of safe behavior, we should be able to find more things to praise than to correct. So, if you’re good at correcting, a ratio of approximately four instances of praise to each item corrected will get you in the ball park of using positive feedback often enough (see the comment above about being genuine). This is not say you should look for something to correct each time you have provided four positives.

Provide both positive and corrective feedback in private. The old management saying that we should “praise publicly” and “reprimand privately” is NOT good advice. Specifically, BOTH should be done one-on-one and in private. The virtue of doing this with corrective feedback is obvious. And, with positive feedback, you can avoid embarrassing the recipient of the feedback in the presence of their peers (which will negate the intended positive impact of the feedback). Moreover, you can avoid others thinking that they were equally as deserving of the praise (which becomes a negative to them even if a positive to the individual receiving praise). An example of how a positive-turned-negative occurred years ago during a safety awards banquet. Specifically, I felt so badly for one miner who received a safety award, who appeared so distressed over the very public celebration of his accomplishment. Don’t assume people want the spotlight. If you want to reward them publicly, ask them, and respect their wishes if they say “no.”

Avoid the feedback sandwich — positive and corrective feedback should stand alone. Many managers are taught that proper feedback requires that they start with a positive to make a person feel good, follow with a corrective to address the real issue, and end with a positive to motivate the person to action. This is called the “feedback sandwich” and should NOT ever be done. It only confuses people, making each type of feedback less effective. Correction and praise can stand alone. Consider that, if you have recently genuinely praised an employee for safe behavior and do so regularly, he or she will not need to be “buttered up” before receiving corrective feedback. It is only in cultures where genuine praise is not available that “buttering up” is needed to reduce the defensiveness produced by correction. Even then, however, the approach is seen by employees as “management speak” and not genuine.

To resolve conflict, use “and” instead of “but” or “however.” We often assert our point of view with the words “but” or “however.” By definition, these pivot words are often perceived to invalidate whatever the other party has said. This will create a platform for defensiveness. Respect people’s rights to their opinions by considering that more than one position could be true. To demonstrate this respect, add your point of view by starting with the word “and.” It will feel awkward in the beginning and still do wonders to de-escalate conflict. To assist you in adopting this approach simply ask: “Is it wrong or just different?”

While not an exhaustive list of communication principles, the strategies above will help you to better communicate about the safety performance of others. If you apply these principles regularly, they will become routine. And, the improvements in safety you produce will be readily observed and meaningful. As importantly, formal rewards are not used, so you will avoid the “over-justification effect.”

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Dr. Thomas E. “Ted” Boyce is founder and president of the Center for Behavioral Safety LLC., a Nevada-based consulting firm that turns managers into leaders and helps companies create a productive injury-free workplace. Learn more at www.cbsafety.com or email ted.boyce@cbsafety.com.


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