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What is wrong with being neutral? Well, nothing … on the surface. However, as we dig a bit deeper, we find that neutrality is the root of inaction. Being neutral masquerades as agreeableness, but manifests as an excuse to do nothing.

The psychology of neutrality would suggest that it results when a person just does not perceive something to be important. If you find something important, it will produce emotion, often either excitement or fear. If something is not important to you, these emotions are weak or not present at all. You are neutral. This may be OK when it comes to choosing which movie you’ll see on a Friday night. However, neutrality does not have a role in safety. Let me explain.

Since 1999, I have been on a journey in Nevada and elsewhere to get mine operators and other industries to stop calling safety a priority and to call it a core value. Priorities change. Values do not. If something is a value, then it should by definition be important. So, if safety is a core value, it should be important. Thus, according to psychological theory, it should produce emotions. If decisions about safety don’t produce excitement or fear, it is obviously not important and cannot by definition be a value.

So, let’s take a test to see how important safety is to your mine operation. Please respond to the following with a “yes” or “no”:

1. Is safety discussed as a value at your organization?

2. Do decisions about safety produce strong emotions among:

a. Frontline workers?

b. Frontline supervisors?

c. Superintendents?

d. Managers?

e. Company officers?

3. For everyone for whom you answered “yes,” are those emotions experienced excitement or fear?

You see, if anyone in the chain above does not experience excitement or fear about safety, then you have not fully established safety as a value in your organization’s culture. If safety is not a value, employees will be somewhat indifferent about it. Indifference produces complacency. And complacency lulls us into a false sense of accomplishment when things are going well. What’s worse, safety is a priority when it is convenient, but takes a back seat when it is not.

Typically, when I implement BBS, there are various stakeholders who get very emotional about what they’re asked to do. Some experience excitement and others anger or frustration. Anger is OK. Anger is often a defense mechanism for fear. It signals to me that what we’re doing is important. I’ll take that kind of passion over neutrality any day. My goal then becomes to turn anger, frustration and fear into excitement. That starts to occur as we remove the uncertainty of the change and those who were angry or fearful of the process start to see the benefits firsthand.

I’ve stopped exactly one project in my entire career. It was at a mine site with a general manager who was entirely too neutral about the process. It became clear to me that he was trying to satisfy a corporate requirement. He did not care if the process succeeded or failed. He simply wanted to “check a box,” which is a clear manifestation of neutrality where safety is concerned. I knew, as W. Edwards Deming used to say, that the work system would produce exactly what it is supposed to. A neutral GM would likely produce neutral managers, superintendents, and so on. As a result, the project would likely fail. I was not going to be a party to that.

Bottom line: Don’t remain neutral about safety. Always take stand. And, when you do, be sure you can back-up your position with the facts. Such an approach may help you to save a life.

“Don’t remain neutral about safety. Always take stand. And, when you do, be sure you can back-up your position with the facts. Such an approach may help you to save a life.” — Thomas E. Boyce, Ph.D.

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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 contact Boyce at ted.boyce@cbsafety.com.

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