Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Dear Crucial Skills,
Our company has worked long and hard to improve workplace safety and we’ve made some great strides. I have good employees that work for me and I’m sure none of them come to work with the thought that they will have an accident that day, but unfortunately it sometimes happens. Why would employees continue to take risks or shortcuts that lead to accidents?
What Can Be Done
I congratulate you and your company on your success. Recently in the U.S., many of the most obvious workplace threats have been reduced or eliminated, making American workers far safer.
However, in 2007 more than 5,600 people were killed on the job and more than 4 million were injured.¹ In addition to this tragic human toll, these injuries cost firms more than $48.6 billion.² Clearly, there is much more that needs to be done.
Most of the gains in workplace safety can be attributed to improvements in equipment, policies, systems, and training. However, the issues left to address are the informal, cultural challenges.
Here at VitalSmarts, we conducted interviews and surveys among more than 1,500 employees from more than 20 firms. Our research revealed that the ugly secret behind most workplace injuries is that someone is aware of the threat well in advance, but is either unwilling or unable to speak up.
Specifically, we uncovered five crucial conversations that exist in most organizations that are politically incorrect or uncomfortable to surface. Ninety-three percent of employees say their workgroup is currently at risk from one or more of these five “accidents waiting to happen.” In fact, nearly half are aware of an injury or death caused by these workplace dangers.
The five crucial conversations of a safety culture are:
1. Get It Done. These are unsafe practices justified by tight timelines. According to the results, 78 percent of respondents see their coworkers take unsafe shortcuts. These common and risky shortcuts are undiscussable for 75 percent of the workforce.
2. Undiscussable Incompetence. These are unsafe practices that stem from skill deficits that can’t be discussed. Sixty-five percent of respondents see their coworkers create unsafe conditions due to incompetence, and 74 percent of workers say safety risks sustained by incompetence are undiscussable.
3. Just This Once. These are unsafe practices justified as exceptions to the rule. Fifty-five percent of respondents see their coworkers make unsafe exceptions. Only one in four speak up and share their real concerns with the person who is putting safety at risk.
4. This Is Overboard. These are unsafe practices that bypass precautions already considered excessive. The majority of respondents—66 percent—see their coworkers violate safety precautions they’ve discounted. Almost three out of four either say nothing or fall short of speaking up candidly to share their real concerns.
5. Are You a Team Player? These are unsafe practices that are justified for the good of the team, company, or customer. Sixty-three percent of respondents see their coworkers violate safety precautions for this cause. Only 28 percent say they speak up and share their concerns with the person.
The missing ingredient in a safety culture is the willingness and ability to effectively hold those who are engaging in unsafe behavior and practices accountable.
In order to create a culture of safety, everyone must have the skills to hold others accountable. These are the skills we train in Crucial Accountability workshops. The other essential component is to use the Six Sources of Influence to motivate and enable the team members to be accountable.
I witnessed a dramatically successful strategy work for a team on an oil rig working to reduce accidents and injuries and a team at a hospital improving patient safety. They both implemented a 200 percent accountability initiative.
After being trained in Crucial Accountability skills, as part of an Influencer plan, the workers agreed that they were 100 percent accountable to abide by the safety protocols. They also committed to be 100 percent accountable to speak up when they saw someone else violating safe practices. Each signed a “200 percent accountability” poster and gave others permission to confront them if there was any question about their own compliance. With amazing speed, workers reported a change in their culture and an improvement in the vital behaviors that lead to a safer workplace for workers and patients.
Accountability is the implicit assumption that underlies every safety program. Yet as our research shows, this assumption is more fiction than fact. Consequently, accountability is the critical weakness of most approaches to safety. If people don’t hold each other accountable for acting on observed threats, then more training to help them recognize threats will be of limited value. Silence, not blindness, is the problem.
This research also points to an exceptionally high-leverage strategy for improving workplace safety. If leaders focus on the five undiscussables and transform them from undiscussables into approachable accountability conversations, they can expect dramatic improvements in workplace safety.
All the best in your worthy effort to keep your people safe.
¹Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, July 2009.
²”2008 Workplace Safety Index,” Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, 2008.