Influencing Crew Safety
Influence sways our beliefs and our direction in life. We are swayed by the news, public opinion, social media, our family and friends, and by some things we don’t even know are influencing us.
In the utility industry, this begs the question: How do we as leaders go about influencing those around us in ways that will help to make us safer? What types of influence might resonate with the workforce?
Our approach to influencing any crew or situation matters. Let’s say there is a pressing tactical matter on a job or a change in scope that needs to be discussed. Since that issue is foremost in the leader’s mind, they may come right out with the information before making sure the crew is ready to be engaged. We all have different matters going on in our heads, which provide various levels of distraction. If the crew meeting starts while its attendees have been chatting or ruminating about other things in their lives, the information presented will make less of an impact. Instead, I recommend taking the following three actions to engage and influence workers.
1. First, ask how everyone is. Establishing that you care about the crew releases oxytocin – the hormone of trust – in those individuals (see https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust for more). Creating trust improves our connection with one another and makes it easier for us to share any ideas or concerns about the work ahead. Keep in mind that trust doesn’t require us to like each other; it means we feel free to comment, contribute and ask whatever is on our minds without fear of any kind of retribution.
2. During the meeting, take note of and speak directly to anyone who seems aloof or disconnected. “Bob, you seem a bit distracted. Is there anything going on that we can help you with?” Bob will likely say no, but the group has been alerted that Bob may not be his best self today. Afterward, in private, the crew leader should talk to Bob to make sure both parties – Bob and the crew leader – are comfortable with Bob performing his task for the day.
3. General George S. Patton Jr. said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” As a crew leader, you should watch crew members’ responses to what you’re saying. If all you see are nodding heads, consider that a red flag and try a different approach. Workers will suppress their ideas and concerns when they do not feel it is safe to contribute. Asking questions is perhaps the best antidote to nodding heads. If you ask, that means you must pause long enough to listen to the response. One question can generate discussion and other questions.
Together, all three actions – establishing trust, recognizing if your crew is engaged and prepared, and making it safe to speak up – improve the opportunity for crew members to influence crew safety. These actions are prerequisites before engaging in any endeavor. Think of it like hunting deer, for example. If you have a concern that arises while hunting, the time to discuss that is as soon as the concern is realized – not after someone is accidentally shot.
Tactics to Improve Influence
What tactics can we use to improve our influence and outcomes? Author and motivational speaker Mel Robbins has said that with all the noise in this information age, when a thought pops into your mind – it could be a new idea or a concern – you have five seconds to act on it or the thought will be replaced by something else. She then goes further, suggesting you count down the five seconds backward. Since we are on autopilot so much of the time, counting backward hijacks your brain, slowing it down long enough to focus on the action needed.
When an idea comes to your mind and you ruminate about whether to mention it, that’s something you should pay attention to. The reason that idea appeared in your mind is because you have some level of expertise or engagement with the subject matter. If there is a consequence tied to the idea, vocalizing that is necessary to allow the thought to enter others’ minds as a consideration. That’s how influence works – we can add a thought to others’ minds and that thought prompts other thoughts. When we are silent, we have little influence.
However, as noted earlier, workers need to feel it’s safe to share their thoughts with the rest of the crew. That’s something crew leaders can influence. Let’s look at stop-work authority as an example. We think that by simply telling workers they have stop-work authority, we are influencing them to speak up. That’s a good idea in theory, but if we really want workers to speak up, we must practice and model the behavior. Fishing, hunting, playing the violin and most other skills require practice to get better, and so it is with speaking up on the job. Getting your crew to practice speaking up can be as simple as, after the morning job briefing, asking each crew member to verify that they understand their assignment by (1) stating their role and (2) bringing up any concerns they may have. This can be done again at the end of the day as a post-job briefing. Give everyone the opportunity to debrief about how the job went and what could have gone better. In regularly stating your role and your concerns, you practice speaking up.
The Hamburger Bandwidth
So, what happens when a crew member feels comfortable bringing up an idea they have – but you think it’s a terrible one?
Humans tend to like ideas that we agree with and dislike those that are contrary to our beliefs. Confirmation bias will have you picking apart ideas that don’t support your own, and it will be reinforced by any ideas that align with yours – whether they’re based in fact or not. Add in equality bias – that’s when we crowdsource or follow the majority without considering the level of expertise of the individuals in the group – and we have a formula that can often steer us toward unhelpful results.
But it’s not all bad news. Our subconscious reviews all the information we receive, not just the information we like or believe. It’s kind of like eating a hamburger. The reason you know a hamburger (or a piece of information) is good is because you’ve tasted a bad one (or received a bad or questionable piece of information). We don’t decide we are eating a good hamburger by comparing it only to others we’ve liked in the past; we make that decision based on all the hamburgers we can recall eating over the years. What this essentially means is that if someone comes up with an idea, you don’t have to like it, but you should listen to it. Your subconscious will sort that information and help you determine if the idea is a good one. You will also then store that information, which may come in handy at some later date when your subconscious makes other connections and releases the final product to your consciousness.
Barriers to Influencing Safety
We can’t talk about influencing safety without discussing the barriers to doing so. As I mentioned earlier, if you are in an environment where it may not be safe to contribute an idea, you won’t. And regardless of what you know, if nobody will listen to you, you’ll likely keep your mouth shut; we learn this at a young age.
I have canvassed over 1,000 utility workers with this simple question: “Do crew relationships affect crew safety?” The response has been, “Yes, absolutely,” 100% of the time. When I ask the same question of managers and leaders, they also reply affirmatively. I cannot imagine a better situation for influence than when everyone agrees on something! Yet what are we doing with this low-hanging fruit? We continue to look for system failures, apply new rules and use new tools when the real failures occurred between people. If we want to find a system fix for that, we need to create a consistent approach with tactics that the workforce not only understands but can buy into. The medical field has used the acronym CUS, which stands for concerned-uncomfortable-stop. Everyone involved in the system is trained on these three letters:
- “I am concerned about the approach we are using.” Everyone recognizes the letter “C” is in play.
- “I am uncomfortable with and still concerned about our plan.”
- When the letters “C” and “U” are in play, everyone in the system has the expectation that if those concerns are not resolved, “S” will be the next letter. “Let’s stop the work until my comfort level is addressed.”
If we can come up with a working tactic that is reinforced by management, there is a chance we can see if that tactic works or if we need to tweak, change or replace it. Navy SEAL teams perform simulations and practice for the event that is about to occur. When was the last time you practiced for when your co-worker makes a mistake and sustains an arc flash injury? Or what if a pole comes down with your fellow lineman on it? While you are waiting for the ambulance, the first aid you render will most likely be your first dry run. Imagine if the Navy SEALs used that tactic. If they didn’t practice for and simulate every possible contingency on a mission, it is unlikely they would be as successful as they are.
Tactics and activities influence team dynamics and help to create a shared mental model among team members, but we seem to think annual training on bucket rescue, pole-top rescue, first aid and CPR is enough. If we truly want to influence safety at the sharp end, the workers at the sharp end must come up with safety tactics that are portable, meaning they can be taken with employees wherever they go, regardless of the safety culture of their current employer.
We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Let’s influence them by making our actions moving pictures of our beliefs. Start with trust. Use your own emotional intelligence to recognize when your crew is not connecting and interacting in beneficial ways. Then, make it safe to speak up in your crew by listening to understand concerns early in the job process.
About the Author: Bill Martin, CUSP, NRP, RN, DIMM, is the president and CEO of Think Tank Project LLC (www.thinkprojectllc.com). He has held previous roles as a lineman, line supervisor and safety director.
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