Power of Habit

Learn, Apply, Practice and Create a Habit

Carl Potter
Written by Carl Potter, CSP, CMC

Safety habits can be either good or bad.  You may have heard it said before about an individual, “They have poor safety habits,” or “They have good safety habits.” When supervisors, team leads, or co-workers don’t say something to someone who is performing an unsafe act, the action goes unchecked.  The offender, either consciously or unconsciously, considers the action as acceptable behavior and will repeat and habitualize the action. And as others observe the poor performance being overlooked, they too can begin to develop a poor safety habit.  Conversely, we can promote good safety habits by taking time to do some on the spot corrective coaching.

When a frontline leader observes a good safety habit, they may find it easy to smile and walk on by, yet this is a good time to practice great leadership by reinforcing positive behavior.  It is likely that the person observed is not thinking, “I hope he stops and compliments me on my safe work practice.”  More likely they are thinking, “I hope I am doing this right so I don’t get in trouble.” Most formal leaders (supervisors and team leads) are quicker to point out unsafe acts than they are to give kudos for appropriate safety actions.  Getting the kind of safe behavior across the organization requires both recognition of good performance and resetting of not-so-good performance.  When the approach to conducting a task is unsafe, provide coaching and then later follow up with the individual to confirm they have changed behavior.  And every leader and even co-workers should also make it a practice to not pass up the chance to compliment someone for a good habit.

One of my friends and a fellow Associate of the Safety Institute is Bruce Bolger.  Bruce is a safety professional that focuses on the importance of emotional intelligence in safety and leadership. Bruce suggests… We should all strive to improve communications with our employees.  We tend to get wrapped up in our day-to-day activities and miss important opportunities to provide employees with feedback.  When we do provide feedback many times it might be in the form of negative, possibly demoralizing criticism.  Another insidious form of feedback is that of “Tacit Agreement or Approval”.  This occurs when a safety professional or member of management (supervisor, manager, etc.) sees something that everyone is aware of being unacceptable, and says nothing.  Even though no words are spoken everyone is aware of the situation and it has now become an “acceptable norm” due to the failure of management to address the issue. These situations significantly damage safety culture and personal credibility.

Great leaders provide timely, pinpointed feedback.  They do so out of caring for their individual’s safety and their employees’ personal success.  Feedback needs to include both positive feedback but also those opportunities for improvement.  Research indicates, “high performing” teams typically use a 5 to 1 ratio. Five positive pinpointed recognitions for every one identification of opportunity for improvement.  Some organizations I have seen practice the 5 to 1 ratio but unfortunately, in reverse, five negatives to one ‘good job’.  That ratio does not make for a meaningful work environment and will result in the loss of good people.

Think of the last time you received positive feedback from your boss.  How did it make you feel? Now think of that question in terms of your employees?  Are you providing that positive recognition when you see things being done right?  Now is the time to start identifying those behaviors that are keeping your employees safe.  Tell them how much you appreciate their willingness to do things the “right way”.  Make the recognition stick with pinpointed observations and what exactly it was that you saw.  And when the time comes to provide the safety coaching opportunity, do so from a position of caring, not because it violates some regulation or company policy.  Caring for an individual’s welfare goes a long way in looking for the positive behavior change we all want to achieve.

Good habits are the result of learning.  We attend a technical or safety workshop and learn how to do a task safe and then leave the class.  At this point the behavior is not a habit but a learned behavior.  Once the person applies the learned behavior for the first time in their job the behavior is set and will be repeated to become a habit – good or bad.  Hopefully the habit is a safe one.  If the habit is unsafe, coaching should be applied to make adjustments so that the person can properly apply and practice until it becomes a habit.

When it comes to results in the workplace everything falls on the shoulders of formal leadership. The level of safety, quality, and production are the result of formal leadership in the workplace. Leaders must learn, apply, practice, and create habits themselves that result in an environment of trust where workers can engage in good habits.  To become a leader with good habits one must be open to continued learning and coaching.  If you are a formal leader in your workplace what are you doing to confirm that you have good habits?   What are you doing to confirm that the individuals assigned to you and make up your span of control are practicing good safety habits?

If you would like your frontline leaders to learn, apply, and practice positive reinforcement, visit Bruce Bolger’s page at safetyinstitute.com and request information.

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Carl Potter is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) who presents his motivational safety message to audiences across the United States.  In addition, he is the author of more than a dozen safety books, is the founder of the Safety Institute, and is an Aircraft Commander and Safety Officer for the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary.  Carl is considered an expert in training personnel in hazard recognition and control process.  To learn more about Carl Potter and how he might work with your organization to create a workplace where it is difficult to get hurt, visit: www.safetyinstitute.com.  Email him directly at: carl@safetyinstitute.com

View another safety culture related blog post by Carl Potter entitled: Employee Engagement and Safety Culture Success.

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