In the first part of this article (“Personal Protective Emotional Armor: Part 1,” December 2013), we briefly touched on the evolution of the value of human capital in the utility workplace. In the 1970s, government – including OSHA – and industry leaders began to combine efforts to define written safety procedures for nearly every craft. In recent years, with a growing interest in leading indicators such as near misses – which are often caused due to workers thinking and feeling that they are safe – it has become more commonplace for employers and employees to discuss thoughts and feelings.
Today, based on continued studies in the fields of emotional intelligence and neuroscience, the industry is learning more and more about the role the human brain plays in everyday decisions. In the last few years, we have discovered a great deal about how people’s decisions are directly impacted by what they were thinking and how they were feeling at the time, and this information can be particularly helpful in the safety arena. For example, when a root cause analysis is conducted after an incident, employers can now gain much more insight into why the incident occurred based on a greater understanding of workers’ thoughts and emotions.
An important point that can’t be stressed enough is that humans are feeling creatures first and thinking creatures second. Leaders are wise to remember this critical fact when dealing with people. It’s not enough to tell them what to do. The truth is that how workers feel about following a procedure is why most safety professionals are dealing with at-risk behavior. It’s not a lack of knowledge that is causing unsafe work; our workforce is educated. The problem is a lack of aligning employees’ personal feelings with what we know is required on the job.
Companies invest a tremendous amount of time, effort and money into training employees with regard to regulations, procedures and compliance measures. Leaders at many companies, however, have never been trained to understand the feeling side of human beings. The study of human performance hasn’t uncovered everything, but it has unearthed enough to confirm that knowing what to do and actually doing it are two separate chapters of training and development, and this gap is a battle safety professionals wage every day.
Science has validated that the emotional part of the brain can take over the thinking part, limiting learning, adaptability and innovation. To combat this takeover, people must learn to be aware of what’s happening inside them and regulate their emotions. In the working world, it’s something that should be learned by everyone in a leadership position and then taught and passed on to positively influence others.
Personal protective emotional armor, or PPE-A, is one technique that can assist you in your day-to-day practice of better understanding your thoughts and emotions. As discussed in Part 1 of this article, PPE-A is far less tangible than the typical PPE used by many in the utility industry, but it serves a distinct purpose – to help protect safety leaders and supervisors from the disruptive thoughts and emotions that come their way each day and can hinder the critical values they hold dear.
Five Mental Skills
Leaders should wear their PPE-A every day. It’s important to note, however, that PPE-A is only one item that can be used to teach people about understanding and regulating their emotions in a way that helps to keep them safe. Mental skills training is a growing field of study that enables individuals to achieve quick results by putting personal effort into improving themselves, and the Mental 5 is an easy-to-use mental skills training tool that can be taught and discussed during team meetings. When developed, the following skills that comprise the Mental 5 keep individuals focused on their work and create the best emotional states for the tasks they must perform.
Your brain is constantly thinking, and these thoughts are also referred to as self-talk or chatter. This self-talk or chatter essentially is composed of random words and mental pictures flashing in your mind, and someone with high-level communication skills has the ability to, on demand, select the most appropriate words and mental pictures for the task at hand. Heightening your ability to regulate these words and pictures will result in greater personal decision-making skills over time. Additionally, in your role as a leader, effectively demonstrating and teaching this know-how to others will positively influence them to make their own wise decisions whether you’re nearby or far away.
Practice Tip: When possible, share ideas about thoughts and feelings with your team using written correspondence. This brings thoughts and feelings to the forefront by making them more tangible. Prior to performing a task, collaborate with your team to create a list of five critical thoughts everyone must have in their internal chatter in order to safely and successfully finish the task. Completing this exercise in advance of every job opens up the lines of communication and helps to reinforce positive, necessary internal chatter.
Your brain will think some thoughts over and over again. These words and mental pictures that keep popping up are known as repetitive thoughts. Some are good and others are not so good. However, your brain has the capacity to not only become more aware of positive words and mental pictures, but to also concentrate so that you can bring them to the forefront of your mind during times of self-talk and when performing any type of task, even a hazardous one.
Practice Tip: Concentration can be a difficult skill to master since most of us struggle to stay focused on a task for a significant amount of time. The first step toward developing concentration is simply accepting that your mind will wander, and that it will do so even at the worst times, such as when you are performing a hazardous task. While it’s undesirable for your mind to wander during potentially dangerous moments, understand that every time you bring your mind back into focus, you are engaging in a physical repetition similar to one that you would perform while lifting weights. The more repetitions you perform, the more your muscle tone improves. Or, the more often you bring your mind back into focus, the better concentration you will develop.
Your brain processes an average of five to 16 words and mental pictures per second. Yes, it’s that powerful and that quick. Some of these words and pictures are worthless – such as those that violate a safety policy – and must be tossed out like trash. As you learn to organize and throw away the trashy words and pictures that distract and disrupt your decision-making in the moment, you must also have a collection of good words and pictures stored in your mental menu. A number of these good words and pictures will originate from your core personal values as well as your company’s safety manual and training program. Today’s leaders and safety professionals must continue to define their mental menus while also helping others define and refine their own.
Keeping your thoughts and emotions organized allows you to become more peaceful, confident and courageous, and in turn you can influence others to attain those same emotional states. Conversely, if you are constantly disorganized and stressed out, you will likely fail to lead and influence others in a constructive way.
Practice Tip: The mental menu is something you can help others create based on your new understanding that some thoughts, words and mental pictures will constantly threaten what you work so hard to protect. Use the communication practice tip previously discussed to define and refine your group’s core words and feelings. Although tasks and dialogue supporting awareness of thoughts and feelings will change from job to job, helping others to filter and organize their thoughts will always be an effective means of improving their mental skills.
The mental skill of discrimination includes actively making decisions about which thoughts to keep and which ones to disregard. Ideally, you want to hold on to the ones that make you better as an individual and as a leader, and toss out the ones that don’t serve to move you forward in a favorable way. Proper mental discrimination is an ongoing practice; your thoughts should be regulated and changed as needed throughout each day as new challenges occur. When you catch a thought working against you, consciously change the thought in that moment and get back to concentrating on your task. Your priority should be to think about what is most important right here, right now, in this moment.
Your ability to teach this mental skill is based on how well you demonstrate it to others. When working with your team on a job, you must learn to share important thoughts and feelings, and talk about them on a regular basis. For instance, discuss how a piece of equipment should be handled and any potential distractions you might encounter while handling it, or how you are dealing with a difficult person in a work-related scenario that keeps popping up in your head. Your role as your brother’s keeper is to help your crew members choose the right words and mental pictures for their internal chatter.
Practice Tip: Most of us have triggers that set off the alarm system in our emotional brain. A trigger can be anything from a negative experience to a traumatic event that, internally, was never properly dealt with. As you develop your mental skill of discrimination, learn to make judgments about mental words and pictures as soon as they pop up in your thoughts, and teach others to do the same. It’s also crucial to become aware of when an emotional alarm has been triggered by paying attention to your body’s signs, such as changes in your heart rate and breathing patterns and experiencing tingling skin and sweating. These changes are a result of a high level of stress hormones in your body, which can negatively impact your decision-making skills.
In order to create new procedures or processes – or anything new in general – innovation is required. On a personal level, learning the mental skill of innovation will help you to create new ideas, words and pictures within your personal chatter. And when you have mastered innovation, you can help others embrace your words and mental pictures and even create new ideas of their own. This is a critical skill for supervisors to hone because, to be successful, they must be able to both share their vision and motivate workers to get on board with that vision in order to meet goals.
Practice Tip: It’s easy to see what’s wrong in any given situation and become apathetic, but those with strong innovation skills operate with an attitude of optimism. They are adaptable and better able to solve problems and resolve conflicts than those without well-developed innovation skills. To become increasingly more innovative, consciously seek out new possibilities and recognize them with verbal affirmations, and condemn “impossibility thinking” whenever it rears its ugly head.
Much of a person’s mental developmental journey is about becoming aware of disruptive thoughts and emotions, and then learning to regulate them. When properly cultivated, the five mental skills previously discussed, as well as the PPE-A technique, can help elevate your awareness of your internal chatter and your ability to change your thoughts as needed to become a better individual and supervisor. These skills are necessary prerequisites to leading by example and teaching others to do the same.
About the Author: Parrish Taylor is the author and instructor of Mental & Emotional Training (M.E.T.), a skills development program. He has successfully implemented workforce development strategies within the electric utility sector for numerous clients including Entergy, Cleco and Oklahoma Gas & Electric. To learn more, visit www.parrishtaylor.com. Taylor has also served as an adult learning consultant for the last 20 years. Learn more at www.tmctraining.net.
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