Workplace safety requires each of us to do our part to keep ourselves and our co-workers free from injury and illness. To meet this goal, we must understand the tools we have and know how to use them. Let’s look at a lineman’s life, for example. He can climb poles, float through the air in a bucket, safely touch energized conductors, balance poles and transformers, and construct all of these items into a working system. The skills needed to accurately accomplish these tasks are a result of training and repetitive practice, but these skills are only partially responsible for the lineman’s success because the lineman is part of and works in a team. True success occurs when the team members who perform the dance are connected to each other.
How do team members connect with one another? You may not know it, but human beings have superhero powers that have evolved over thousands of years. And when we understand how to successfully tap into them, we can improve our connections with others and change outcomes. This article will identify three of your superpowers – reading minds, reasoning and looking into the future – and how to tap into them to improve safety on the job.
Superpower 1: Reading Minds
When we listen to our teammates, much of what we hear is unspoken. Thousands of years of evolution have produced muscles in our faces that move skin over bone. Our subconscious reads and interprets those facial expressions as well as other body language. Were you aware that when your dog reacts poorly to a person it doesn’t know, the dog often is reacting to you? It knows you very well and can read your body’s nonverbal signals.
Active listening is required to kick-start your mindreading skills. After all, you can only truly listen when you are quiet while someone else is speaking. Are you the foreman who reads the job brief to your crew and receives very little input from them? It’s necessary to realize that the more your crew speaks during the job brief, the more powerful your superpower becomes. You’ll be able to hear confidence and weakness, certainty and uncertainty, contempt, compassion, illness and pain. Are you wondering if your crew member is fit for duty today? Watching how they interact with others and listening to them speak will give you clues.
As your mindreading superpower kicks into gear, you also must listen to yourself. The feelings you experience are sometimes difficult to put into words because the feeling part of your brain is not connected to the verbal part of your brain. For instance, try to describe what it is about your significant other that attracted you to them. You will arrive at a group of descriptive terms that, by themselves, do not sufficiently explain your feelings.
So, when you listen to your team, keep track of the feelings you experience and ask questions related to those feelings. If you sense something off with a co-worker you know well, you might discreetly meet with him and say, for example, “John, it sounds like you have identified your role in the bucket today and mentioned the parts of the job you are concerned about. But listening to you this morning, you sound different. I can’t put my finger on it. Are you feeling OK, or is there something on your mind I can help you with?” Perhaps John replies, “My wife is really sick, and we went to the emergency room last night. I didn’t get much sleep.” That insight may lead to changing your team’s lineup for the day, or at least make you aware that John may be distracted from his work.
Superpower 2: Reasoning
The evolution of the human brain over time has improved our reasoning skills. We can apply past learning to present situations and then simulate how it will affect our future plans. Our brain considers all the available information to come up with ideas and strategies.
This superpower – reasoning – has allowed us to achieve some amazing things over the course of history. Flight via airplanes, space travel, electric vehicles and wind power are results of taking what we already knew and applying it to unknowns. It happened by applying the past and present to a simulated future, which also is what happens every time you plan a project and then follow it through to successful completion. What we learn in the process is stored in our brains, allowing us to apply it to similar situations.
The connections in our brain are sorted subconsciously while we do other things. When we sleep, for example, our brain is sorting information and working on problems behind the scenes. We process 11 million bits of information per second unconsciously. Consciously, we process 40 to 50 bits of information per second. So, when you awake with an idea, it did not arrive in your brain with your permission. It was brought to your consciousness from a deeper place.
Our reasoning superpower enables us to make important connections. Insights appear from sorting information. When we ask questions of our co-workers and listen to their responses, the things we agree with and the things we disagree with form the material that results in an insight. We just have to listen. If you want to unleash your reasoning superpower, ask for others’ thoughts and opinions. Listen to understand. If you listen only to respond, your reasoning superpower won’t be activated.
Superpower 3: Looking into the Future
We attempt to look into the future in almost everything we do. When we plan to drive somewhere, we predict a future arrival date and time. An idea becomes a plan and then a construction project. Our very existence depends on our ability to see the future. And while we are good at predicting it, we aren’t always skilled at considering the things that will keep us from reaching our intended destination.
Realize that predicting the future requires eliminating the things that could cause our plan to fail. In our line of work, it’s critical to use risk assessments and risk management methodologies to weigh those things. In addition, by gathering input from all members of our team, we unleash their superpowers and help to engage our own. Listening to their thoughts and ideas helps us understand their perceptions, which in turn allows us to engage in reasoning regarding our potential for success.
The safety of our crews largely hinges on the ability to apply as much available information as possible to the task at hand. We have evolved to do this in real time. In olden times, the post-job brief – often called a debriefing – was a talk around a campfire. This allowed everyone involved to sort the day’s information and apply it to future endeavors. We tend to do this naturally when the perceived risk is high. For example, a complicated project requires more group meetings than a simple project. But if we want to use our superpowers appropriately, we must have more discussions about simpler projects. And where there is a risk of failure, we need to come up with a plan that allows us to fail safely and employ a strategy to improve our odds of success. For instance, if a pickup truck on the job site will be in danger of being hit by motorists, we may want to use an impact attenuator – sometimes referred to as a “crash pillow” – in addition to traffic cones and other mitigation tools. If a risk comes to your mind or the mind of someone else on the crew, we must evaluate the consequences of ignoring it before we move on. A risk that comes to mind is worth the few moments it takes to discuss and evaluate it.
The superpowers of reading minds, reasoning and looking into the future can be improved with practice. The more we engage each other in discussion – and make it safe to do so – the stronger our connections to each other become. And those connections are key to unleashing a high-level understanding of situations and team dynamics. We will begin to notice things others don’t. We will see risks we didn’t consider before. We will have a greater understanding that we need each other to raise our awareness.
So, the next time you and your team are facing a challenge, use your superpowers for good. Quiet your mind and try to picture the situation through your teammates’ eyes. Visualize what they see, and then compare it to what you see. Listen to everyone’s suggestions before offering a response. In time, you will become a force to be reckoned with.
About the Author: Bill Martin, CUSP, NRP, RN, DIMM, currently works in safety and training for Northline Utilities LLC and Northeast Live Line. He has held previous roles as a lineman, line supervisor and safety director.
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