Drifting Toward What?

 In 2021, Tip of the Week

In safety we often focus a lot on how to deal with people who just simply don’t take safety seriously enough in our estimation. It could be the employees who routinely violate our rules. We see it when workers having trouble focusing (or even staying awake!) in our safety training. We also have to deal with it when our organization’s leadership pushes back when we ask for investment in safety equipment or initiatives.

This is all very frustrating for us safety pros. After all, safety should never be questioned, right?

It’s actually not that simple. Here’s the thing, safety is not something that exists in a vacuum. It is a goal amongst other goals. Productivity. Quality. Environmental Sustainability. Fun. These other goals also need to be satisfied.

Furthermore, we have to remember that not all goals are created equal. Some goals exist to enable us to meet other goals. For example, some goals are the ultimate end of whatever we are doing. We can call those terminal goals. Other goals enable us to achieve our terminal goals. We can call those enabling goals. Safety is an enabling goal. This means that doing safety for the sake of safety makes no sense. We need to be doing safety to enable us to achieve our other terminal goals. For example, at a broad level, the terminal goal of life is to live a happy life that fits with one’s values and beliefs. Safety should enable that, not hinder it.

And this leads us back towards those who don’t care about safety, who violate our rules, who drift away from our standards. We often look at those things and get frustrated at those individuals (or perhaps the ‘culture’ of the organization) because we are looking at the gap between the place where they should be (i.e., compliance) and where they currently are. And when we only focus on that gap it is easy to miss the fact that the reason the gap between how we expect work to happen and how it really happens exists is not just because people are aimlessly drifting away from our standards. It exists because people are moving towardssomething else.

What are they moving towards? Well, that’s the question we have to answer. But there is at least one thing I know – the existence of the gap means that our enabling goal (safety) is out of alignment with our other goals. And rather than chastising people for not caring enough, perhaps our time would be better spent understanding what’s behind these goal conflicts and how we can better support people in realigning the goals where we can and managing the conflicts where we can’t. This perspective positions us in the trenches right next to those in the organization, helping them with the messy details of work, rather than as an outside, judgmental force. We are excusing anything. We are just actively helping to fix things.
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