One of the great challenges we face in leading a safety culture is how to communicate safety such that it has a lasting impact on employees. Treating safety as a mere policy, an obligation, a training point, or an item on a checklist is a big concern because the level of an employee’s commitment to safety will usually not exceed the level of commitment to safety that they see in their leaders.
Where We Get It Wrong
What I’ve witnessed time and again when observing safety communication at a plant/facility level, a department level, or even a toolbox-talk level is a tendency to “sterilize” and “externalize” the message. This can happen in many different ways – a plant manager reinforcing the importance of complying with a neglected safety policy; a department manager discussing the safety metrics for the department over the past month; a toolbox-meeting leader citing an interesting statistic for a certain type of injury or unsafe behavior.
While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with including these things in your safety communication, making these things the focal point subtly reinforces the perception of employees that safety is something “outside” of their own personal experiences and values. Besides, as interesting as a statistic may be in the moment, almost no one remembers it afterwards.
A better way to communicate an “internalized” safety culture – and to enhance the impact of your safety communication – is to create what is known as a vicarious experience through the use of stories.
What in the world is a “vicarious” experience? Technically, it is: “an experience that occurs in the imagination through the feelings, emotions and actions of another.” In short, a vicarious experience means that I get to fully experience the impact of someone else’s tragedy without personally getting hurt. It capitalizes on the connection and empathy we feel toward others who have suffered a tragedy, and it does this by telling that person’s story.
An Example of Vicarious Experience
Many of you can relate to the effectiveness of this sort of thing if you’ve ever attended a conference event that featured a keynote speaker who had undergone a personal tragedy. As the “story” was being told, you no doubt were fully engaged, fully attentive, and perhaps even experienced some degree of empathetic emotional connection to the speaker. You may have found yourself wincing as the speaker described in excruciating detail what the injury felt like. You may have “felt” the pain of the reconstructive surgery. You may have had an emotional response over the impact of that incident to the speaker’s family, and may even have been able to imagine your own family in the same situation.
“But I don’t have an experience like that!” you might say. “I have never undergone a significant injury, or at least one that is significant enough to rival what I’ve heard in conferences!” The good news is, none of that matters. You can tell someone else’s story with the same effect.
Bringing it Down to Earth
A number of years ago I spoke at a Plant Managers Summit for one of my clients. During one segment of that Summit a few of the company’s plant managers were asked to relate recent significant injuries or fatalities they’d experienced at their plants. When the first plant manager got up to tell his story about a fatality that occurred recently on his watch, you could hear a pin drop in the room.
It’s important to point out here that the plant manager who told the story did not possess exceptional presentation skills. Far from it. He appeared nervous and hesitant to speak, and was soft-spoken throughout. There were no theatrics, no intentional tugging at heartstrings, no well-timed pauses or strategic calls to action – none of that. Just pure authenticity. And yet everyone sat in complete silence, eyes glued on the plant manager as he told the story in graphic detail, as he relayed the impact it had on that person’s family, and how it impacted his own life and decision making. The audience sat in silence as he recalled how he could not eat or sleep for weeks, how he began second-guessing everything he did, how it changed the way he interviews and hires new employees, and how it completely transformed how he thinks about safety – no longer as a policy, but as people and the families they leave behind when this sort of thing occurs.
That story struck a chord with the rest of the plant managers in the audience. It was poignant, cogent and powerful. It made an impact on them, but more importantly it internalized safety for them. They walked away from that session thinking about safety in a different way.
A Better Way to Internalize Safety
That is what we need to do more of in our own safety communication. People respond to stories more than they do stats. Don’t have a story of your own? No problem. Steal someone else’s. Learn about a related incident that happened at a sister plant or a different company in the same industry. Find out who that person was, what family he/she had, how it impacted (or must have impacted) those s/he left behind. Tell the story, and then watch the difference in impact it makes on your hearers.
That’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS Newsletter. Until next time.
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