April 9, 2019

“Fixing Stupid” Starts with Personal Reflection

Over my many years of helping organizations improve safety and overall business results, I’ve heard countless managers and even front-line employees say (usually after an incident), “You can’t fix stupid!” This statement bothers me on many levels and, in my opinion, reflects the very mental model that keeps organizations from improving and advancing their safety culture.

Sometimes the comment is made by the injured employee as a self-deprecating explanation of something they knew better than to do. Much more often it is a degrading comment made by a supervisor, manager or executive, one I’m sure the speaker wouldn’t want the injured employee to overhear.  Here’s the thing: if others hear your sentiments on injuries by ‘stupid people,’ you create a belief in your line supervisors and employees that the same will be said about them if and when they make a mistake, and that belief becomes a barrier to improving your safety culture.

Let’s be honest. If this is one of your habitual sayings, it will be hard to change. It will take more than changing your words. You probably need to change your thinking and your assumptions. Here are several reasons you should try:

  1. All humans make mistakes (See references 1 & 2)
    — sometimes even mistakes that seem almost impossible. Brain research over the last 10 years sheds new light on how our brains are pre-wired for these kinds of mistakes, particularly with routine tasks. Our brains are designed to make us miss something that’s right in front of us; forget information that isn’t used; exaggerate the importance of recent experience; or repeat motions we’ve made a thousand times.
  2. Saying out loud (or even thinking) you have stupid employees reduces psychological safety in your organization — that is, your employees’ willingness to speak up with new ideas, express concerns, report minor incidents or near misses, etc., for fear of being the next victim of that statement.
  3. In some cases, mistakes represent real gaps in competency —it is far better to spend some of your leadership time assuring the quality of your on-boarding and job training processes.
  4. When you make this statement, it tells people around you that you have a singular view of incident causation — and you put all the blame for injuries solely on employee behavior. Again, recent studies disprove that notion and suggest the best way to prevent incidents is by taking a ‘systems’ view to fully understand all the contributors to incidents and recognizing how these secondary factors influence the behavior you see in your organization.

So, once you’re motivated to stop saying this, how do you actually stop yourself? As soon as you begin to think about employee behavior as the only cause of accidents, catch yourself. Take a deep breath and a moment of personal reflection. As disheartening as it is to hear bad news, personally reflect on how you as a leader may have contributed to this situation via your words, beliefs and approach. Keep in mind that your leadership actions (and inactions) are measures your employees use to gauge the effectiveness of your influence, including:

  • How well you’ve created and communicated your personal vision of what effective safety looks like.
  • How well you’ve defined specific expectations for safety performance at your level and from every level between you to the front-line.
  • How often you have truly meaningful safety conversations with employees. If you regularly discuss safety issues, do those you interact with come to the conclusion you really care about their well-being and their concerns?
  • How well you assure the quality of the safety leadership capabilities of those leaders who report to you. Are they doing the first three bullets above?
  • How well you collaborated with and engaged front-line employees in safety decisions.

Personal reflection is a much more constructive way to react to bad news; even better is asking for other’s feedback to corroborate or correct your own perceptions. When other people see you doing this, they will feel more comfortable engaging on safety issues with you, and that’s when you start to create a culture where employees freely share their personal reflections when things aren’t going right. You’ll have more and better information to work with, plus you’ll have a basis of trust and communication to build all sorts of things.

(1) Reason, J. (1990). Human Error. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139062367

(2) Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., & Tversky, A. (Eds.). (1982). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511809477

“Fixing Stupid” Starts with Personal Reflection

April 9, 2019


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