Do you have a people problem or a situation problem?

attribution errorAs a manager, it is likely that some of the biggest challenges you face are those that you consider to be “people problems.”

[I will not be discussing any of the myriad of technical dilemmas of managers – those that are centered on manufacturing methods, research, product development, engineering, technology, logistics, etc].

In this post, I am referring to the kinds of problems where the character of the individual is perceived to be the main reason for a performance issue.  For example:

  • An employee fails to follow work instructions, which results in rework.
  • A worker is injured when she takes an unnecessary risk to get the job done.
  • A number of employees are perpetually late when submitting expense reports.
  • An employee’s timeliness in completing some assignments is unacceptable.
  • Supervisors do not spend enough time talking to their employees.

If you were faced with any of the challenges listed, what would you do? Many of us would engage the employee in some form of training, coaching, counseling, and/or expectation setting.   In other words, we assume that the behavior is largely determined by the individual’s character, personality, or mindset. Unfortunately, we frequently overlook the power of “situations” in determining someone’s behavior.

A number of years ago, Stanford psychologist Lee Ross conducted a literature review on a large number of studies in psychology.  He concluded that we have a tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. Ross referred to this tendency as the Fundamental Attribution Error.  We make this error when we attribute people’s behavior to the way they are (their character) rather than to the situation they are in (their environment).

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How can we get employees to speak up (when they see risky behavior)?

Speak UpVictor has over 20 years experience in the warehouse.  You have a few years of experience and were just hired a few weeks ago.  Today, you are working as a team, unloading pallets of packaged materials that were delivered from the dock. As both of you approach the first pallet, Victor takes a position directly in front of the strapping that is straining under tension.  You see that this puts him in the line of fire. Instinctively, you take a step back when Victor pulls a pair of snips from his pocket to cut the strapping…

Do you speak up? Do you stop him?  Are you sure?

Perhaps you would say something.  But a surprising number of people in this situation would stay silent. Their thought process would be something like, “Surely he must know how to perform this task safely. He’s done it thousands of times.  I’m the rookie here.  Who am I to question his experience and job knowledge?”

Peer pressure is a powerful social influence.  Most of us are fearful of being considered an outcast if we are the dissenter, especially if we have less informal authority than other people in our natural work group.

You may think of peer pressure as overt statements from co-workers. “Look, this is the way things are done around here.”  But this is not always the case.  In the scenario above, Victor did not have to remind you about his seniority and experience.  It was implied and understood.

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Five-Step Guide for a Safety Conversation

bubbles-normal-800pxIt takes at least two people to have a conversation. For a conversation to be effective, each person needs to alternatively talk and listen. Unfortunately, some leaders are prone to lecturing, with very little listening. This ineffective communication style isn’t isolated to senior leaders who ascribe to the command-and-control approach to management. It can be seen at all levels of organizations.

The prevalent communication style of managers and supervisors is a barometer of the safety culture. Occasional, one-way safety conversations are telltale signs of a culture of compliance. Frequent, interactive safety conversations are indicative of a culture of commitment.

As indicated in a previous post, the motive for having a conversation significantly influences the safety culture.  To recap:

  • If the reason you have any safety conversation is to exert control, the approach will be to criticize and seek compliance through correction.
  • If the reason you have any safety conversation is because you care, the approach will be to coach and seek commitment through collaboration.

One communication model1 suggests that an effective organizational conversation has four attributes: intimacy (building trust and listening), interactivity (promoting discussion), inclusion (collaborating on solutions), and intentionality (sharing a common purpose).

In this article, I introduce a guide for an effective safety conversation – one that starts with caring.  This guide incorporates the four attributes of an effective conversation. It also stimulates a conversation that enables coaching and collaboration.

Five-Step Guide for a Safety ConversationTM

5-Step Safety Conversation

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Four ways to successfully engineer change

Cengineer changehange is hard.  Leading others through change can be a daunting
challenge.  However, if leaders understand and apply some basic principles, even large organizations can be re-aligned and move in a different direction.

I was thinking about this as I watched a video about operating a large rail yard.  I noticed that when an engine hooked up to a long train of cars, the engineer did not simply pull forward after it was coupled.  Instead, he backed up first.  Then, he slowly accelerated forward.  By backing up, the couplings between each rail car were compressed.  As a result, when the engine started forward, there was a small amount of slack in the couplings between each car.  When the engine started moving forward it was pulling (for an instant) just one car – then two cars, then three cars, and so on.

By following this procedure, the engine was able to eventually pull several hundred cars.  If the engineer did not back up first, he would have to pull all the cars at the same time.  The total weight of a long train would cause even the strongest engine to lose traction and spin its wheels.

This is a wonderful metaphor for leading change. Continue Reading

Social Influence – A Prime Driver of Workplace Safety

Social InfluenceWe are influenced by the actions of others more than we may care to admit. Many researchers have confirmed that social influence has a powerful effect on our decisions.

We experience many forms of social influence, although we probably don’t think about it.  Perhaps you purchased something after hearing about it from a friend or family member.  Or you may have joined an organization or club because someone you know is one of the members.  Throughout our lives, we have been powerfully persuaded or casually nudged thousands of times to make a decision or take an action because of social influence.

Indeed, the authors of Influencer contend that there are six sources of influence.  They refer to one of these influences as social motivation (although most of us think of this as peer pressure).

Let’s review a recent study by Pedro Gardette of Stanford that supports this concept. He wanted to measure the effect of social influence on the purchasing patterns of airline passengers. Continue Reading

Dear Supervisor – Do you expect me to be injured?

Safety Expectations
Image courtesy of Atlantic Training

One of my summer jobs was working at a busy warehouse, filling wooden pallets with various orders of canned fruit or juice products. Forklifts then loaded the pallets on a trailer for shipping.

I remember the day I filled out the employment application.  The job was on second shift.  It was hard to find anyone who wanted to work these hours, so I was hired.  The woman from human resources asked me if I could start working the same night.  I showed up 30 minutes before my shift for orientation.  While I don’t recall everything that was said, the supervisor’s safety expectations were memorable.  The speech from Lyle went something like this:

“Most of these guys have been working here for more than 15 years.  So ask them anything you want to know.  The work isn’t that hard, but you can expect to get a few minor injuries before the summer is over.  Nothing serious – maybe a gash from a box cutter or a sore toe from a case that is dropped accidentally. No open-toed shoes, by the way.  There’s a first aid kit in the break room.  If you need something more than a bandage or ointment, come see me.  Now look, the number one thing you need to remember is that those guys running the forklifts are moving fast.  The sooner we get these trucks loaded, the more time we all have at the end of the shift to relax.  So stay clear of them at all times. They have the right-of-way in the aisles.  Any questions?”

What questions would an 18-year-old ask?  I had none.

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