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Are poor safety habits holding back your safety culture progression?

getting attentionIf you've ever felt that a lot of your friends or colleagues are robotic and don't think much, I've got some news for you.  You're probably right.

An unbelievable 95% of our actions are controlled by the subconscious mind meaning only 5% of the time we are present and moving in the direction of our dreams and wishes.  In that high 95%, we are just playing out programs that we have simply picked up from other people.

The brain has been designed this way, so that we don't constantly have to think about what we need to do.  Can you imagine how tough life would be if we couldn't remember how to talk or we had to constantly re-learn how to walk every time we got up?  We would never be able to achieve anything other than just survival.  There'd be no time to design cars, computers or even elaborate meals.  We would be too busy just trying to get our hands and feet to work.

The Ups and Downs

This is both good and bad from a safety perspective.

It's good in that once you teach someone the right safety process and they've got it correctly stored in their memory, they will keep doing it right, as long as the circumstances don't change (ie: a new switch is installed).

That's why it's so important that when teaching a safety process you have all workers doing the task correctly.  Otherwise, they will inadvertently teach any new starter the wrong process, just through the new employee watching them.

Our brains have been designed to model other people.  Known as "mirror neurons", they are designed to copy emotions and behaviours.  It's kind of a shortcut mechanism to learn quickly.

Of course, the downside is that if someone isn't following the right safety process to begin with they will be on automatic, continually doing it the wrong way and unconsciously encouraging others to do it incorrectly as well.

When it comes to organisations, they are very much guided by long-held organisational habits or patterns that have arisen from thousands of independent decisions over time.

That's why poor safety cultures can be so hard to improve, when the habits have been occurring company wide for so long.  All you need is one person to undertake an activity incorrectly, for it to become an acceptable routine.

How to get around Poor Safety Habits

It's fairly obvious that it's crucial that new workers are taught the right habits from the start and everyone in the workplace also accomplishes the task correctly.

The key is being alert to any poor safety habits sneaking into the organisation that can appear over time. 

This means safety leaders need to have a good understanding of both the poor and good safety habits within their organisation, in order to ensure that the right actions are always being undertaken.

The only way to improve poor safety habits is to draw attention to it.  Effectively, you need to get the brain's attention because attention determines whether or not we will consciously change a behaviour, so that it becomes a habit.

You can think of getting attention as like a spark plug igniting fuel to start an engine.  Once the brain is aware that a poor safety behaviour is being undertaken incorrectly, it can then start to work on it to improve.

In the book, Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, attention is described as an energy that without it, no work can be done.  Attention is so important, that it is actually our most critical tool when it comes to improving the quality of our life.

One of the modules I teach in the SELLSAFE Communication System is the 4 Step AURA process which includes all of the skills to get people to pay Attention, Understand and Remember, in order to take the right Actions.  This order is so crucial because it is through getting attention that you help the brain to both understand and remember.  Attention has enormous catalytic properties in changing safety behaviours.  It provides a powerful energy for change.

This is because our brain relies on past patterns to know what to do.  Our brains actually use pre-recorded patterns to make sense of our experience to decide whether something is boring or interesting.  Our thinking machines are actually activated when something novel or unusual occurs, so that we can learn for the future.

The good news is once you get attention, you stand a chance of breaking up old patterns. 

But the key is to get full 100% attention, in order to encourage the brain to learn so that patterns can be updated with new information.

In fact, this is such an important part of our biological design that our brains are actually hard-wired to seek out novelty and challenges.  When our mind stops to attention, it actually releases the feel good hormone dopamine, which gives your brain a boost of energy to rise to the challenge of "let's figure this out mode."

There are lots of different ways to get attention.  My favourite is to actually get people thinking by asking questions.  Our brains are like big computers and are designed to be almost obsessive about answering any question asked of it.

Used wisely you can get people to think about what they're doing with a few carefully chosen words.  That's what explains why so many of us get annoyed when we are told to improve by just statements (or being "told off").  Most statements are ineffective because they are not powerful enough to get the brain's attention.

Learning how to uncover poor safety habits and then rectifying them is so important with ensuring safety excellence.  As a safety leader, it's important that you are aware of any poor safety behaviours and work quickly to eradicate them, so they don't spread throughout an organisation quickly.

Of course, the essential key to all of this is becoming a clear safety communicator that can uncover poor safety behaviours, work out how to fix them and communicate the best methods.  This means being open to change and new ways of doing things.  As mentioned previously, our brains love novelty and challenge, but nothing changes until we put our full attention to solving a problem.  So the real question is: are you ready to put your attention to changing your communication style?  


Photo credit: Stuart Miles