The Top 10 Mistakes Managers Make Managing Safety Performance

Biggest Mistake Number 3

Biggest Mistake Number 3: Trying To Manage Attitudes

“The action of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.”

~ John Locke

It’s a scene that every one in operations and those of us who have ever managed operations knows all too well.

We’ve gathered up the entire department for an important safety meeting – important because we’re rolling out a new company safety policy. Everyone in the outfit is sitting in the meeting room as we walk in to lead the communication session.

There in the front row, where most of the seats are empty, are three of our very best folks. Smiling, happy to be in the meeting, and interested in what is about to be announced, they even look glad to see us. We’re more than happy to see them. In fact, we wish the entire room were full of people just like them.

But life in operations isn’t like that. Occupying the middle rows are more than a few who sit and wait to size up what they’ll hear.

Then there’s the back row.

Every chair filled. You’d think the meeting was a standing room only crowd – if it weren’t for all the empty seats right in the front row. Spanning the back of the room, arms folded, hats pulled down, and sunglasses on, we’d always see “the usual suspects.”

We can’t say that we’re the least bit surprised. We wait in anticipation – dread would be closer to the truth – for what they’ll have to say about the policy. The best we could hope for is that they just say nothing. Of course it never works out that way, and once they get involved in the action, it’s never a pleasant experience.

Every organization is made up of people in the front row, the middle rows, and the back row. Billy Martin once said the role of managing a baseball team was to keep the twelve players who were sure you were nuts from convincing the twelve who hadn’t made up their minds.

If only we could change the attitude of those in the back of the room to be something more like those in the front.

Managing attitudes

Changing attitude seemed like great idea, and, brother, did we ever try. We paid consultants to run attitude surveys. We put up banners proclaiming: “The A in Safety stands for Attitude.” We hung posters in the conference room to remind everyone that “Your safety performance starts with your attitude.”

When all else failed, during performance evaluations we did our best to counsel and coach those with attitudes still lacking.

For all our effort, what did we have to show? Rarely anything.

Genius at work

One of the benefits of growing up in management in the Baby Boomer generation was that we got exposed to some of the greatest thinkers on the subject of management: notables like Peter Drucker; W. Edwards Deming, Tom Peters, and Phillip Crosby.

Add to that list Dr. Richard Beckhard.

The name Richard Beckhard might not be quite as familiar to our generation. Measure the impact of ideas on the world of people at work, and you’d find Beckhard to be the equal of Deming. Dr. Beckhard’s expertise lay in the field of organization behavior: the relationship between people at work. Just as Deming applied the principals of statistics to manufacturing product quality, Beckhard translated the principals of human behavior to the working world.

A longtime professor at MIT, Beckhard served as consultant to some of the biggest companies and industries around. In the 1970’s, when the commercial aviation industry concluded that miss-communication in the cockpit was a leading cause of accidents, the industry hired Professor Beckhard to look into the problem, figure out the causes, and make recommendations. Dr. Beckhard’s work served as the basis for what is today known as CRM – Crew Resource Management.

The Doctor makes a house call

Almost twenty years ago, a small group of managers had the rare privilege of spending a day with Dr. Beckard, in what amounted to an open forum.

If we were expecting the towering presence of Dr. Deming, or the dapper elegance of Peter Drucker, we were in for a surprise. Dr.Beckhard looked – and acted – like he’d be just as comfortable sitting up in a big chair – as Santa Claus at Macy’s. What a wonderfully approachable icon.

Of course, none of us were smart enough to come prepared with good questions, so Dr. Beckhard held class. And the impact was lasting.

CRM – The Inside Story

Dr. Beckhard told us all about his experience with the aviation cockpit crew study. “How can you see what’s going on without actually being there?” he asked. His solution: fly in the jump seat and take lots of notes. We still chuckle at the thought of Dr. Beckhard trying to buckle in the narrow confines of a cockpit jump seat. Bet that Santa never had to put up with that.

As he watched life in the cockpit unfold, it became clear that a considerable segment of the airline pilot population, growing up in the military, fell into the trap of giving and accepting orders without questioning command decisions. That unquestioning adherence to the orders of the captain had, on more than one occasion, let to fatal errors in judgment.

Dr. Beckard on Attitude

A student of human behavior, Beckhard didn’t disagree the soundness of our premise that, by managing attitudes, we’d be fixing the root cause of behavior. But, Beckhard went on to point out, trying to manage attitude leaves you with two problems, neither of which are inconsequential.

The first problem: it’s up to the individual to make the change in attitude. You can’t do that if you’re the manager.

The second problem: how do you know for sure what the attitude is in the first place?

Can you hear me now?

Two simple statements, and two profound insights into the challenge of managing people at work. The real geniuses have the ability to explain things in simple terms the rest of us can understand.

Beckhard made his case on the folly of trying to manage attitude to a small group of managers almost twenty years ago. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones to have heard his message on the subject.

If we’d taken it to heart, we would see fewer posters urging people to have the right attitude about safety; we’d see fewer safety attitude surveys; and hear less about working on “culture” to get everyone thinking the same way about safety.

But most of us didn’t hear the message, and we keep plugging away on changing attitude as the way to improve safety performance.

It’s one of the biggest mistakes managers make, managing safety performance. 

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