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Please enjoy this sample chapter (Start from a Place of Trust) from 10 Ideas to Make Safety Suck Less. You can pick up the book on Amazon and Audible.
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…rather than from a place of distrust.
The company requires you to upload an itemized receipt for that cup of coffee you purchased on your last work trip into their expense resolution system, and they require that you keep a hard copy until the end of time; your boss demands a thorough accounting of how you spent each minute of the previous week be emailed to them every Friday afternoon for their review and critique; the company bans the carrying of pocketknives at their locations; your organization applies GPS monitoring systems to practically anything with wheels; a strict “professional” dress code is enforced by the company that covers everything from types and styles of haircuts, to the general statement of “all employees shall wear pants at all times while at company locations.”
We reside within work worlds built upon the bedrock of distrust. Surely, we cannot trust a person to buy a cup of coffee without undergoing a thorough auditing of the purchase! We could never possibly trust a seasoned and high-performing professional with something as critical as managing their own time and priorities! Although we trust people with multi-million-dollar pieces of equipment, the management of wildly complex processes, and to work with insanely hazardous things, how could we ever trust them enough to allow them to carry pocketknives? How could we ever trust them to drive a car? How could we ever trust them to wear trousers?
Simply put, we infantilize our highly skilled and knowledgeable workforces. We lean heavily into this misguided notion of “management knows best, always!” We honestly think that we know what is best for them, that we must do “what is best for them” to them, that we must do it whether they like it or not, and that we require little to no input from them because surely, they could not possibly know what is best for them. As sad as it is, we simply cannot muster up the ability to trust the people we employee. We write rules, micromanage, surveil, monitor, and brutally punish those unlucky few that we find to be out of compliance with our Tayloristic and parent-child approaches to overseeing our workforces.
Often, the only “wrongdoing” discovered is non-compliance with the surveillance mechanism or management system itself – a missed form, forgetting to upload a receipt, the avoidance or bypassing of vehicle monitoring systems, and various other acts that many organizations believe to be near-treasonous offenses. The targeted behavior is not even caught, simple non-compliance with the system or process put in place to catch the behavior is enough to warrant extreme corrective measures taken against the offender.
We genuinely believe that if we do not have these ridged structures of rules and monitoring then our work worlds will devolve into chaos – we believe that these mechanisms are strong defenses that prevent undesirable behaviors from manifesting in our workplaces. We just cannot seem to see beyond these simplistic, misguided, and ineffective approaches. Tactics that regularly harm the majority of our workforces – the people that would never purposely seek to take advantage of or cause harm to the organization – while almost never catching the miniscule amount of people that actively seek to take advantage of or cause harm to the organization.
We are writing rules, building large Orwellian monitoring systems, and using brutal enforcement tactics in the hopes of catching “wrongdoers,” but all these systems are catching (and harshly punishing) are honest hardworking people trying to get work done within a complex and everchanging world. We invest massive amounts of time, energy, and resources into constructing these systems, sometimes even creating entire departments dedicated to them, all in an attempt to catch those that would dare to toe the waters of non-compliance.
Sometimes we even go so far as to purposefully set up meticulously camouflaged and well laid traps within our work worlds. Pretending like we are trying to snare rabbits or hunt big game, we lay in wait – treating our employees as if they are some form of game animal – to test their willingness and ability to comply. We monitor, evaluate, and question every action (or inaction) they take while attempting to get things done. We do all of this and so much more, all in the name of distrust.
Distrust and blame go hand-in-hand
Distrust and blame are like peanut butter and jelly, bacon and eggs, toast and beans (for my English friends), or biscuits and gravy (for my southern friends). They are the perfect marriage of our human desires, coupling together our innate instinct of distrust and the “feel-good” exercise of blaming into a vengeful monster we then set loose upon those we feel have wronged our organizations. Blame is easy, it feels good, and it makes us really feel like we are taking the moral high ground by harshly punishing others that would break the rules – something, we of course, would never dare to do.
We really favor blame in the space of employee safety. Blame is well primed due to the untrusting views already held about workers. These views are that much more untrusting when related to something as serious as safety and health. Adding fuel to the fire, most organizations view safety as a “you” based activity, as something you choose to get right (or wrong), as a simple endeavor that only requires enough attention, care, and focus, applied by the end user to get right as to avoid the occurrence of events. So, organizations see the application of blame as the obvious choice for most safety and health related missteps or events. Many organizations never trusted their workers to get safety right in the first place – hence their massive structures of rules, surveillance, and enforcement – so when a safety event eventually happens, the end user of the organizations safety systems is swiftly blamed, shamed, retrained, or worse.
We will then drag out our long list of “you” based safety counterfactuals. We will screech things like “you should have paid more attention” “you should have done a better hazard analysis,” “you should have been more responsible for your own safety!” We will look back on these horrific statements as causal of the event at hand and swiftly land on blaming the involved worker.
Possibly worse yet, we use the misguided beliefs as evidence for the need of even larger and stricter systems of distrust – even larger and harsher structures of rules, surveillance, and enforcement. On and on we go, deepening the divide between the organization and the people it employs, and ever strengthening the parent-child relationship we have built with the workforce.
The infantilizing of our workforces
Our primary position of distrust has driven us to treat employees like they are unruly and rambunctious school children, or like they are rebellious and defiant teenagers. This desire to treat our employees as if they are children has only seemed to grow in recent years – we have evolved to become proverbial “helicopter parents” to our workforces. I am nearly certain that you know the constantly hovering, persistently monitoring, and the ‘ever ready to leap into action’ type of parenting style I am referencing – a style of parenting characterized by over focus. Ann Dunnewold, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and author, described the phenomenon of helicopter parenting in a 2019 Parents article as “being involved in a child's life in a way that is overcontrolling, overprotecting, and over perfecting, in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting” (Bayless, 2019). In research from McCarthy and More (2021), helicopter parents tend to:
Worry about safety
Place heavy restrictions on what children can and cannot do
Swoop in to solve problems for children who can likely solve the problem themselves
Impose constant supervision and correction
Make decisions for their children without any input from them
Overly involve themselves with children's teachers and coaches
Keep lines of communication with the child constant, zero independence from one another
Have some level of anxiety or fear
Refuse to allow failure as part of the learning process
Helicopter parenting can have rather dire consequences such as decreased self-confidence, diminished self-esteem, development of entitlement, anxiety and depression, and the development of hostility towards parents for maintaining extreme control over their lives and their decisions (McCarthy & More, 2021).
Parents tend to gravitate towards this overbearing style of parenting due to fear of consequences, anxiety, overcompensation, and pressure from the outside world – these are often the primary reasons why parents go into full-blown helicopter mode (McCarthy & More, 2021).
Is it all beginning to sound a bit too familiar? Not only have we infantilized our workforces through the application of parent-child approaches to management, but our organizations have gone into “full-blown helicopter management mode.” We hover, we monitor, we constantly coach, correct, and micromanage, and we are creating the same negative consequences brought about by this overbearing style of parenting.
The problem deepens – our employees are not children. Our employees are not our children, but we treat them as if they are. We fall into this trap for many of the same reasons that parents do – we fear the consequences of not hovering, we constantly monitor to curb our anxiety, we seek absolute control in hopes of steering clear of potentially dire consequences, and because we see so many of our peers and competitors doing the same. But the fact remains, our employees are not children, and continuing to treat them as if they are, only serves to create harm and vast unintended negative consequences.
Some obvious consequences of infantilizing our workforces:
Reinforcement and solidification of a parent-child relationship with employees
The creation of an “us v. them” atmosphere
Less openness and honesty
Less “raw and real” conversations
Victimization of the workforce
Vilification of the organization
Degradation of ownership and accountability
Vast amounts of time spent hiding or covering up behaviors
An undermining of skill and wellbeing
The negative side effects of our infantilizing approaches to the management of our workforces seems nearly endless. These negative and often unintended consequences are brought about by coupling our desire for blame with our parenting-like approaches to management, and then using our normal torture kit of blunt instruments (like disciplinary action), all in some misguided attempt at creating positive influence and outcomes within our work worlds. But they never work out, they never work as we intend for them to, and they only serve to harm the workforce while leaving the organization blind to vital operational information and with a false sense of security – one that says, “all looks well from here.”
Shifting our assumptions about people
The Oxford Dictionary defines trust as “a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” Personally, I find it very interesting (and feel the need to highlight) that nearly every mechanism we use during pre-hiring and onboarding processes are exercises designed to develop our trust of those we are seeking to employ. We ask situational questions during interviews, we perform background screenings, drug testing, nicotine testing, skill assessments, practical skill evaluations, and reference checks, all in the name of seeking out trust. In more extreme examples we use things like lie-detector testing and psychological tests, examinations such as the polygraph or the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – a psychological test that assesses personality traits and psychopathology), all in hopes of developing trust in the applicant – these are all explorations into the trustworthiness of those we are bringing into our organizations. We invest vast amounts of time, energy, and money into ensuring that we are hiring high-performing and reputable individuals. Yet, as soon as we bring them into our work worlds, we submerge them into our systems of distrust. Even after this barrage of pre-employment poking and prodding, we still distrust those that we choose to employ.
Organizationally speaking, we have a low propensity to trust. We start with poor assumptions about those that make up our workforces, and we then point to some small handful of more extreme negative events to prop up our logic for maintaining this untrusting position. We’ll quickly point out an example where an employee was caught embezzling, that one was found to be charging personal expenses to their company credit card, we will highlight that an employee once cut themselves with a pocketknife and required a trip to the hospital, that a person was once discovered to be drinking on the job, that someone once stole some private customer information – we will use these and other similar examples as our reasoning for continuing to distrust our employees. We use these rare events to form the basic assumption that people should not be trusted, and we broadly apply this belief to all those that we employ. Some basic assumption we draw about those that we employ:
· We simply cannot trust people to do the right things
· People are always trying to “get something over on the company”
· They lack integrity
· They avoid responsibility
· People rarely act with good intentions or with the company’s best interests in mind
· Without constant supervision and monitoring people will be less productive, less safe, take greater risks, break the rules, etc.
· They are fundamentally lazy and desire to work as little as possible
· And more…
These assumptions form the foundations of our systems of distrust – they lead to the artifacts of distrust that we can visibly see or experience within our work worlds. To move beyond our systems of distrust, to embrace trust as our organizational neutral position, these basic assumptions must be reformed and reshaped into better assumptions. Without a fundamental shift in how we view those that work within our organizations, almost nothing will change.
Our new normal – trust as the organizations neutral position
To shift these assumptions, we must lean into the 5 Principles of Human and Organizational Performance (Conklin, 2019), and the tenets of Safety Differently (Dekker, 2014). We must genuinely shift our assumptions towards viewing people as the solution rather than the problem, we must grow an understanding that error is normal and attempting to punish people into not making mistakes only creates harm and undermines learning, we must lean into better assumptions that tell us:
· Most people only want to do a good job
· People want the organization to succeed
· They have integrity
· They are responsible
· They are highly skilled at what they do
· They care, a lot
· And more…
This shift in assumptions will move us beyond our desires for blame, push us to seek out restoration over retribution, and drive us to deconstruct our systems of distrust. The time, energy, and resources that are currently consumed by our mechanisms of monitoring and surveillance can be better spent on asking employees what they need to be successful, and then providing them with just that – the things that help them rather than hurt them.
Trust… even when shit hits the fan
Trust can sometimes feel a bit easier to focus on when things are going well, but its continuation when things have gone awry is vitally important to overcoming our leanings toward retribution, poor reactions, and other problematic items that discourage or prevent us from learning raw and real information about operational surprises occurring in our work worlds – information that is crucial to making better operational decisions and growing betterment within our organizations.
We must purposefully exercise trust when we encounter these surprises by leaning heavily into the better assumptions we have already discussed. When that not-so-great something does happen, when there is an operational upset, a quality escape, an injury, or worse, we must start from a position of trust. A few better assumptions to apply in these situations:
· Employees do not choose to make mistakes
· Everything made perfect sense to those doing the work, until it suddenly didn’t
· If they knew this was going to be the outcome, they would have not proceeded
· They made the best possible decisions they could with the information they had at hand
Focus on seeking restoration
We can begin to move towards restoration by letting go of our typical investigative processes, ones that commonly mirror criminal investigations and focus in on things such as rule violations, the gathering of witness statements, and the collection of evidence. To begin, we can start by asking better and more meaningful questions. According to Dekker (2016), a restorative approach to organizational justice asks questions such as:
Who is hurt?
What do they need?
Whose obligation is it to meet those needs?
This focus on restoration is in stark contrast to our typical focus on retribution, one that often leaves us asking questions such as (adapted from Dekker, 2016):
What rule was broken?
How badly was it broken (or bent)?
Based on the above, what does the “wrongdoer” deserve?
In more recent iterations of retributive approaches to organizational justice, I have seen these lines of inquiry take a softer turn, but the focus remains the same – who broke the rule and what do they deserve? We will ask additional things like:
Was the rule one of our “rules to live by?”
Did they know about the rule?
Were they trained on the rule?
Was this a willful violation, unintentional error, common mistake, and etc.?
But are we really asking anything all that different? Not really. We are still seeking out opportunities for blame, seeking out organizational sins, and chomping at the bit to swiftly “hold people accountable” through the extraction of flesh from those discovered to be so foolish as to violate our most sacred rules. But where has that gotten us so far? Sure, discovering a so-called “violator” or “rule breaker” feels good – it feels like the right thing to do, and it eases our anxiety by making us feel like we have solved the problem. But nothing has been learned, nothing has been made better, and work has not been rendered “safer” through our pursuit of blame and punishment. In fact, a strong case can be made that our efforts are doing just the opposite of what we intended them to do.
The application of blame and punishment within our work worlds does quite a bit, it just does not do what we think it does. We think that we are making our workplaces a bit safer by the removal of pesky and uncaring individuals, we feel that we are teaching people vital lessons through the purposeful application of pain and suffering, we believe that we are demonstrating to our employees the consequences of bending or breaking the rules by making hash examples out of those that do, and we have genuinely convinced ourselves that we will (eventually) punish our way to excellence. So, what actually happens because of our focus on retribution? Absolute silence – silence that is only broken when a failure is so large that it cannot be hidden away.
For the purposes of this book, a focusing in on the more tactical applications of Human and Organizational Performance within organizations, I want to direct attention back to the HOP principle of “learning is vital” (Conklin, 2019). To learn or to blame, is a choice we must actively make as organizations – a choice between two mutually exclusive paths forward. Taking the path of blame is to actively choose to forgo learning. This is where we find ourselves back to embracing better assumptions – choosing to start from a better position even when things have gone wrong – and understanding that choosing to learn less (if at all) by seeking out blame does not serve to make us organizationally smarter. When the not-so-great things occur (and they will), we must respond with a focus on restoration by asking better questions – who is hurt? What do they need? Who is responsible for getting them what they need? Is the location safe and secure? If it is not safe and secure, how can we render it safe and secure? As we move beyond our initial response to an event, we must focus in on raw and real learning – we must seek to understand.
Seeking to understand
To continue down this path of “tactical applications” of Human and Organizational Performance, let’s dig into some better approaches to learning from events. When an unintended operational upset occurs, whether it is an injury, an environmental event, or quality issue, we must seek to understand. Based off the better post-event assumptions we have already discussed; we must purposefully and deliberately take a more learning centric approach. In contrast to our more traditional approaches to investigating events, ones that have focused heavily on individual behaviors and errors, our more learning centric approaches take a deep dive into normal work, into the context surrounding the occurrence, and seek to learn enough that we can understand or “put ourselves in the shoes of” those that experienced the event. These efforts are collaborative endeavors – avoiding offenders and prosecutors – that involve and learn from those nearest to the event, rather than placing them on trial.
Some final words on starting from a place of trusting our fellow humans
Of course, we can choose to continue to be distrusting of our fellow humans. We can choose to continue to maintain and operate our systems of distrust – ever trying to punish and comply our ways to operational excellence. But allow me to insert a rather pointed question here: What kind of existence is that? What type of awful dystopian future awaits us within our work worlds (and beyond) if we continue to embrace these misanthropic views of our fellow humans – especially for those that are entrusted to our care? If our hope is to craft a better work world (and, a better world in general), then we must invest our efforts into building and maintaining systems of trust rather than distrust. If our hope is do things well, we must embrace and lean into trusting our fellow human beings.