April 23, 2020

Do Your Leaders Understand How Safe Decisions and Safe Behaviors Work Together? COVID-19 as an SIF Issue

Within the network of causal factors underlying incident causation are two points of intersection: the safety related decisions that are made, and the safe behaviors performed. This applies across levels, from the board of directors to the front-line worker, but the dynamics change depending on level and role. In order to craft and execute optimal SIF prevention strategies, including COVID-19, our leaders need to understand the dynamic relationship between decision making and behavior, at all levels.

For example, as we face COVID-19 uncertainty, how should leaders be thinking about where to focus attention? Our clients tell us there are two main areas of concern: keeping the workplace safe from COVID-19, and addressing the cultural issues related to workplace re-entry. Both are important and both require understanding how decision making and behavior interact.

Is the primary COVID-19 exposure reduction mechanism to target worker behavior, or leadership decision making? If both, where and how should leaders direct resources? Many leaders, often senior leaders, think that the behavior of the worker is the primary issue. This applies to COVID-19 as it does to SIF events generally. Some feel frustration when they see unsafe worker behavior, without recognizing the role of their own decisions in creating it.

We know from multiple SIF analyses and studies1 that a bright line can be seen connecting senior leader decision making with worker behavior. As one senior leader put it in a recent conversation, “We own the behavior of the worker.” Another said “We create the behavior of the worker.” Yes, the worker’s decision making is also an important factor, but in a different way than that of the senior leader. Effective prevention requires a broad understanding of how all this works.

So how is behavior related to decision making? And how do these things relate to COVID-19 prevention in the workplace? How do they connect to the broad set of issues related to re-entry? In this post I’ll lay out some of what is known and some implications for safety improvement strategy, using the present crisis to exemplify guiding principles.

Decision making and behavior are the inside and outside of the same thing.

A behavior is an observable action, outside the person, what you can see them do. Am I maintaining sufficient distance from other employees? Have the surfaces I come in contact with been effectively cleaned? A decision is a choice between options, you can’t see it directly from the outside, but you can be aware of it internally. (More on this later, you aren’t always aware of it.) It comes into your awareness most prominently when you have a decision dilemma, which happens when the best choice between options isn’t clear. As a leader, I decide our policy on who needs to wear facial covering, and when. Are we doing enough of the right things to avoid COVID-19 fatalities and community spread? Are we ready for successful re-entry?

The relationship between the two is multi-faceted. The decisions I make have direct influence on the behaviors I perform. The behaviors I perform also influence the decisions I make in the future. The linkage is tight, but it isn’t always easy to see. But one leads to the other. I make a decision and then I behave. I see that our organization is at risk from COVID-19, I make a decision and I take action. I decide to create a powerful emergency-response task-force.  My first action is to call on my most capable executive to lead it. You can see the decision and the resulting behavior. 

The impact of behavior and of decision-making changes according to level and role.

The higher up you go in an organization, the stronger the impact of decision-making. If I decide it’s essential to implement strict COVID-19 mitigations as quickly as possible, an entire set of behaviors follows: mine, those that report to me, and those that work in the organization I lead.  This is a pivotal decision, one that reaches a long way. Interestingly, our studies show that even pivotal decisions are often made without the leader realizing their full implications. We see this over and over when analyzing SIF events. The decision to defer maintenance, which turned out to be pivotal to the fatality, was made without leadership awareness of its implications. Sometimes it wasn’t even considered in safety terms.

To the senior executive, decision-making is the most powerful mechanism I have for creating a safe workplace.  Yes the behaviors I perform matter greatly, but those behaviors originate with decisions I’ve made. And the decision capability I have reaches far into the organization.

At the front-line level, I see the hazard, or I know the procedure, and decide to perform the safe behavior. But often I don’t see the hazard. I’ve gotten used to it, or it comes from a change in operating method, manpower or team composition – which are very likely changes with all the COVID-19 measures – and it didn’t occur to me that the change created a hazard. For the front-line worker, the protective behavior is where the emphasis is. Protecting myself with PPE is central. Maintaining physical distance is central.

Influencing behavior and influencing decision making require different strategies and have different pitfalls.

If I’ve learned anything about influencing behavior, it’s that in the majority of organizations it inevitably leads to blaming workers. This is the most damaging thing I can do as a leader: blaming the worker for behavior that I have caused. Almost no leader does this intentionally, but in our culture and leadership assessments, we see it frequently. It happens at every level from the first line supervisor to the CEO. The result is a toxic safety culture that breeds distrust and dysfunction throughout the organization. Nothing good for safety can happen in a culture like this, let alone COVID-19 prevention.

Leaders create culture by influencing behavior, and both culture and behavior begin with leadership decision making. Influencing leadership decision making is the most powerful SIF prevention strategy available to us. So the strategy for COVID-19 prevention and re-entry has to include knowing the decision-making capability of leaders. Our studies have shown that the largest constellation of leadership decisions that influence a safe workplace are those made by the site manager and his or her direct reports. These decisions are influenced by decisions made above the site level. Both levels need to be included in a successful improvement strategy.

Senior leaders need to ask: What decisions are we making, now, in the past, and in the future, that will have the greatest impact on COVID-19 prevention?

1Bell, K.J. & Krause, T.K. (2015). Safety-Related Decision Making in Organizations: New Research and Implications for SIF Prevention. Ojai: CA. Presented at ASSP’s Annual Safety Conference 2016. Published here.