A Resolution – or a Commitment?

“The way to get started is to stop talking – and start doing 
     ~Walt Disney

Four weeks into the new year, how are you doing on those New Year’s Resolutions you made back on the First? 

In order for you to answer that question (assuming you even want to; this really is none of my business) two requirements have to be met: first, that you made resolutions, and second, you remember what they were. 

The most recent survey by the Economist suggests for 2022, only one in four of us is making resolutions. If you’re in the majority, don’t jump to the conclusion that you’re not because making New Year’s resolutions is so your parent’s thing: the study reports, “two in five under 30 plan to make new year’s resolutions for 2022.” 

I’ll own up to being shocked by that finding.

But, on further review, the finding would suggest the younger you are, the more important your future is to you.  My experience suggests that’s true. After all, the whole point of this resolution thing is making the future better, not worse. 

Still, making a resolution is one thing; converting the words of a resolution into action is what actually makes the difference.

Doing that takes commitment.

Regarding Commitment

Our ability to use language to communicate is one of our distinguishing characteristics as humans. How long have we collectively been talking to each other? That’s a subject scientific debate: estimates range from 50,000 to 2 million years. That difference is huge, and not very likely to be resolved anytime soon, since nobody bothered to record the date for posterity. 

Spoken language started long before we created the written word.

Language –­­ the use of words – is a complex and confusing process, with few absolutes. I once watched three people, who spoke English as their second language better than I do as my one and only, argue for ten minutes on what word to use in their native tongue to translate an English word I use all the time. 

I came away with great appreciation and admiration for anyone who has to learn English. English ain’t easy – or simple.

If you want an example of the complexity and subtlety of the words we use, consider the words resolution and commitment. 

Leaders routinely employ the word commitment in their process of managing safety performance. When rolling out a new policy, a leader asks for a commitment from followers to make the change. When coaching up a follower who hasn’t, the leader wants a commitment to do so in the future. Commitment is intended to convey a promise: “Promise me that in the future, you will….” 

On the other hand, sometimes a leader questions the commitment of a follower to work safely. Used that way, the leader is describing an attitude: what a follower believes, values, thinks, feels, that drives their behavior: “You need to place a greater value on being careful.”

As to those resolutions some of us make at the start of the year, they are hardly promises to anyone, and our commitment to act on our resolutions can vary all over the map.

Consider a Contract

In the new year, one of the things I’ve committed to is writing a second edition of my book, Alive And Well At The End Of The Day. This isn’t just another resolution: if that were the case, it probably wouldn’t happen. It’s more than a promise – “Ok, boss, I’ll try.” I signed a written agreement with my publisher. 

In the English language, that’s called a contract: a legally enforceable document. Absent an Act of God, I am on the hook to produce a manuscript. Which I will.

That’s the power of a contract.  Wouldn’t it be nice if you could wield such power over your followers on important matters involving safety, such as following a newly created safety procedure. Of course, if you did, whenever someone failed to comply, you’d have to call in the lawyers.

So, maybe a commitment isn’t such a bad idea.

The Second Edition

Truth to tell, the second edition was not my idea of a good idea: it took a lot of time and effort to persuade me. That’s how influence works.

As to the basis of my resistance to somebody else’s suggestion – it was exactly that – it wasn’t just about the work required on my part. I wrote the book to last: no fads; just principles and practices that have stood the test of time. Get that right, I reasoned, there should be no need for a second edition.

As for those lasting principles and practices, I can’t imagine a time when a leader’s personal example and credibility won’t matter to the process of influence, or a world where production and cost become more important than sending everyone home, alive and well at the end of the day. 

Or when the front-line leader won’t matter to leading safety performance. That is the essence of the book.

Still, it has been more than a decade since the first edition was published. In the time since, I’ve had the privilege of seeing firsthand a bigger and wider slice of the world of industry. And there’s been another decade of real-life tragedy, adding to all that came before.   

More beneficial to future readers is the additional decade’s worth of practice and experience teaching those principles and practices. I can attest to the truth: in the process of teaching, the teacher learns the most. In the last decade, I’ve learned plenty.

Now I’m actually excited about this undertaking.  I did not see that coming.

Back To The Future

Alive And Well At The End Of The Day can be traced back to the very beginning of the NEWS. In 2003, I authored a series, “The Top Ten Mistakes Managers Make Managing Safety Performance”. The first editions of the NEWS described the biggest mistakes, starting with 10, and down to Number 1. 

As to the basis of the list – the mistakes and their significance – it was solely a matter of opinion. Mine: based on personal observation and experience. 

My process dates to July 5, 1968: that’s when my industrial career began, on midnight shift in a chemical plant, working for a Production Foreman named Andy Varab. Poor guy. I’m still observing. 

As to my experience, I will freely admit to making many of these mistakes myself, during my tenure as a supervisor and manager. 

One time, when I was explaining these mistakes to a room full of leaders, they got mad: how dare I accuse them of making these mistakes! But I didn’t know that until several years later. Had they raised objection on the spot, I would have explained no single leader makes all of these mistakes, or even any of these mistakes. These are significant mistakes I have seen made by leaders in significant numbers. 

We all make mistakes. The key is to not keep making the same mistakes. When it came time to write the book, the first chapter I completed came straight from those mistakes. 

As to what those mistakes were, the list went as follows:

10. Believing “Good Luck” Is Enough
9. Failing To Ask Good Questions
8. Driving Out All Fear
7. Focusing On The Short Run
6. Trying To Buy A Game
5. Dissing Safety Performance Measurement
4. Thinking Safety Management Doesn’t Require Leadership
3. Trying To Manage Attitude
2. Believing Safety Performance Is Just Another Business Goal
1. Forgetting That Safety Is Really About Execution – And Failing To Recognize Who Manages Execution

Now that it’s time to re-write the book, one decision I’m facing is whether those mistakes are still the biggest. Some of these date back a half a century. I’d like to think in time, we leaders would collectively have figured out how to stop making “those mistakes.” 

If that’s true, in 2022 there might only be the five big mistakes, all new and entirely different. 

Wouldn’t that be nice. And nicer to write about.

On that note, time to ask for a favor.

Our First Readers Poll

Nowadays, seems like you can’t buy a thing without being asked to fill out a survey. You’re probably on survey overload, but this seems the perfect opportunity to ask for your opinion on mistakes being made. 

What do you think are the biggest mistakes managers are making in managing safety performance?

You’re out on the front lines of industry, seeing firsthand what’s really going on, and know the truth.

This survey is anonymous. It won’t be traced in any way to industry, company, role or individual. It won’t take more than 5 minutes to complete.

The survey isn’t intended to be scientific or statistically valid, but if enough leaders like you respond, it will be incredibly helpful, not just to editing the book, but to the cause of sending everyone home, alive and well at the end of the day.

After all, that is the whole point of it.

Paul Balmert
January 2022

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