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Avoiding the Silent Danger: Three Skills for Improving Your Safety Culture

The other day my oldest son cooked himself a batch of steaming hot Rice-A-Roni. He didn’t even wait until he’d found a place to sit before the first spoonful hit his mouth. And I’m guessing the deliciousness overpowered his cognitive abilities because he then staggered into the TV room and plopped down on one of the couches – a definite “no Rice-A-Roni zone.” Now here’s where things get interesting.

First of all, my son knows the rule. His mother and I explained it, we demonstrated it, we had a group discussion about why it’s important to obey it, we practiced taking food to acceptable eating areas within the house, we posted warning signs – you get the idea. In other words, he definitely should have known better.

So, here’s the crucial moment: I walked into the TV room that day to find son, bowl and rice exactly where they shouldn’t be. What made this a crucial moment was that I knew what happened next would set the tone for either success or failure in the future. Recognizing that opportunity, my brain kicked into gear with five possible responses:

  1. Get upset and yell.
  2. Give my son the “You know you shouldn’t be doing this” look and wait for him to take corrective action.
  3. Remind him of the rule and ask him to come back into compliance.
  4. None of the above – he’s almost done, no rice has spilled and confronting him won’t make a big difference anyway. In fact, it might even make things worse.
  5. Some of all of the above in just the right combination to come off as passive-aggressive.

When it comes to a situation like this, and you’re removed from the actual event, it’s easy to see the right answer. But in the moment, we often choose poorly and set ourselves up for “Groundhog Day,” reliving the same exact scene over and over again. In other words, what you permit is what you promote.

What is the Silent Danger?
Now, how does this story intersect with safety? When people face their own Rice-A-Roni-sized safety dilemma – i.e., the situation isn’t that big of a deal, and the person is almost finished with their task, and it doesn’t look like anyone was or will be injured – there’s a huge pull toward the fourth option listed above: to do nothing because saying something might make things worse. To better understand this pull, my colleagues and I conducted a study to examine what typically happens in these crucial moments, as well as the resulting outcomes, and we found that many organizations face a silent danger.

According to our research, 93 percent of the 1,600 people we studied indicated there were significant safety-related problem behaviors that weren’t being addressed on a day-to-day basis inside their respective organizations. Ninety-three percent! What’s worse, only one out of five people felt able to address these safety violations at all.

The prominence of safety violations and the ubiquity of people unwilling to speak up equate to a troubling pattern. What most leaders perceive as bystander apathy unfortunately can turn out to be bystander agony. For example, a study participant said, “One of our guys was changing out a commercial meter. When you’re doing that, you should always vent the gas outside. Everyone knows that, but we sometimes skip it because we’re trying to save time. We don’t want to be the weak link in the team. So we not only skip the venting, but have stopped reminding each other when we see our buddies taking risks. Well, the small room he was in filled with gas and was ignited by the nearby water heater. The room blew up with the worker trapped inside. Luckily, someone opened the door before he was killed. He came out badly burned. That slowed us down for a few months, but now I see us feeling pressured again to not let the team down when things get crazy. I sometimes feel like I should say something. But …”

People don’t opt to do nothing because they don’t care. In fact, the opposite is true. They care so much that they don’t want to screw it up and aren’t exactly sure how to approach the situation without making it worse. It’s not that they don’t recognize the problem, it’s that they don’t know how to deal with it. Most of what people have seen modeled is some variation of option 1 above – getting upset and yelling – or option 5, passive-aggressive behavior. People feel stuck.

The Good News
But wait! There is good news about this study as well. Remember that one in five people felt comfortable stepping up to these crucial moments? When asked why they were willing to confront issues that others ran from, they said things like, “I just figured you ought to be able to confront an issue without all the backlash, and so I figured out a way to do that.” So, it is possible. But exactly how do you speak up when you perceive danger? It turns out that’s exactly the right question to ask. How you approach the situation is a better predictor of success than how difficult you perceive the problem to be. That leads us to the skills these vocal few have figured out. Here’s what my colleagues and I have discovered over the years.

1. Those skilled at speaking up talk themselves into holding tough conversations that others talk themselves out of. When facing a safety concern, most people quickly make a mental list of the potential risks – no surprise there. What they don’t realize is their brain also quickly compiles a healthy number of risks associated with speaking up. Essentially, many people see the risks of speaking up to be greater than the risks of not speaking up, and they say nothing. “It’s no big deal. She’s most of the way done, and nothing bad has happened. It’s the only time she’s ever done this.”

Those who are skilled at speaking up do the opposite. They see the risks of not speaking up as greater than remaining silent. They ask themselves two vital safety questions: “Who should own this problem?” and “What am I pretending not to notice about my role in the problem?” The idea here is to get your head right before you open your mouth.

Organizations that are most effective at creating a strong safety culture strive for 200 percent accountability – employees are 100 percent accountable for themselves as well as 100 percent accountable for those they work with. Getting people to ask and answer the two vital safety questions goes a long way toward getting people involved in that second 100 percent.

2. Those skilled at speaking up describe the gap. Once they get their head right, those who are skilled at addressing safety concerns speak directly to the person with whom they have a concern in way that clearly identifies what the problem is, minimizes defensiveness and invites the other person into the conversation. One of the best ways to do this is to describe the difference between what is expected and what is observed – the gap. For example, you happen upon a co-worker mid-task to find him unsafely separated from his personal protective equipment. Now what? Describing the gap means you’d approach the situation and say something like, “This is a task that requires eye protection, and yet you aren’t wearing any safety glasses. What’s going on?” The question at the end is just as important as the initial statement. Most people tend to move too quickly to problem-solving before they get the other person’s perspective. Make sure you end in a way that actively invites the other person into dialogue.

3. Those skilled at speaking up make the invisible, visible. Many people quietly slip away from these situations because they’re afraid of how other people will respond. As it turns out, it is key to understand why people become defensive. They don’t become defensive because of what you say (your content), they become defensive because of why they think you’re saying it (your perceived intent).

So, when you point out a gap, others often misinterpret your motive as less than positive (e.g., he’s picking on me). And in this case, a motive that is perceived to be bad equals no communication. When people don’t feel safe, they don’t use dialogue. They resort to other, less productive strategies.

Skilled people take time to make explicit what often is an implicit, invisible aspect of your conversation (your purpose in bringing up the issue). They state their positive intent for addressing their concern up front, and then they help the other person see what positive and/or negative consequences they will experience as a result of their current choices. In essence, people who are skilled at speaking up help others make connections between what’s happening and what it really means.

Improve Accountability – and Results
Most of the time, people face these crucial safety moments one on one, which often narrows our focus from organizations and teams to individuals. That’s understandable and even appropriate as we think about how to best prepare people to be successful. And it’s also important to understand that while these safety violations should be handled one on one, there are tangible systemwide outcomes that emerge when you become skilled at handling these situations individually.

My colleagues and I found that organizations that enable their people to hold others accountable eventually reach an accountability threshold. When 50 percent of your employees start confronting others, accidents resulting in serious injury and/or death drop by 75 percent. Apparently, when people believe there’s a 50-50 chance someone will draw attention to their unsafe behavior, they think twice.

We also disproved a common assumption. It can best be summed up in the words of one of the more vocal study participants: “What do you want me to do? Save money or save lives? You can’t have it both ways!” And yet, according to our data, you can. In fact, you can have it more than both ways. We found that those individuals who had the best safety records also had good quality, productivity and morale records. In other words, once you learn how to hold others accountable with honesty and respect, you increase your capacity to improve your results across all areas of your work and life.

Now, back to the “wrong-site” Rice-A-Roni consumption issue that I referenced at the beginning of the article. I addressed it by first describing the gap to my son (“Hey, Ty, a couple days ago we talked about not bringing food into this area, and yet I’m finding you again with food in this area.”). Then I made the invisible, visible by telling Ty I just wanted to draw the issue to his attention so he didn’t slip into unconscious habits. Amazingly he responded, “Oh yeah. Thanks for the reminder.” Minimal blowback and success – the food returned to the kitchen where it belonged.

So, the question you need to ask yourself is, what percentage of your workforce believes they can talk to anyone regardless of position, level or seniority when they notice others acting in unsafe ways? Would people in your organization confront “Rice-A-Roni behavior” – seemingly small and insignificant behavior? The path to 50 percent and beyond is clear: Improve your accountability skills and improve your results.

About the Author: Steve Willis is vice president of professional services at VitalSmarts ( He has been at the forefront of developing, perfecting and delivering award-winning training programs that have influenced 2 million people worldwide.

Leadership Development