Situational awareness is developed by combining three component parts: perception, understanding and prediction. The first part, perception, is a process of gathering information – clues and cues – about what is happening in the environment around you. Some of those clues and cues are obvious. Others are subtle. Some happen right in front of you. Others may happen in places and at times where you never see them… but others do. When others bring safety concerns to your attention, don’t shoot the messenger.
Bearers of bad news
During my safety programs I have the exceptional opportunity to talk with thousands of first responders. Sometimes those discussions focus on specific safety issues or concerns in the organizations represented in the room. I am continually amazed (maybe disappointed is the better word) with how many responders will freely discuss their concerns with me and solicit advice from me. Yet when I ask them if they’ve addressed their concerns with their administrations, the answer is so often no.
Of course, this response always opens the door for me to ask more questions about why. If a student has such significant concerns for safety that he or she would be compelled to shine the light on their organization’s shortcomings in front of a classroom full of people, why would the complainant not address the concerns up the chain of command.
The explanations are fairly consistent. They either fear their supervisor will become defensive or they believe the supervisor will be indifferent to the concern. Either way, such a response is a strong indicator the organization does not have a safety culture.
A safety culture
In organizations that have a strong safety culture all bosses are open to all feedback, good and bad. In organizations with a flawed safety culture, the bosses only want the good news brought to them. If anyone dare bring bad news (i.e., a concern) the boss is quick to attack the messenger.
The battered messenger
Once attacked for bringing the bad news, the emotionally injured messenger will either become fearful, angry or resentful of the boss. Once gripped with fear, the messenger isn’t likely to bring any more bad news to the boss. There’s too much risk for doing that.
The angry or resentful messenger is likely to begin conspiring against the boss – finding a way to get even for being treated so harshly for simply bringing a concern to the forefront. Angry and resentful messengers can be dangerous and they will certain erode any efforts to develop a safety culture because they could begin to undermine bosses and do things that are purposefully inconsistent with safety best practices.
Here’s an example of purposeful defiance. I was doing some safety consulting for a company that had multiple facilities. Each facility did similar type of dangerous work. In one facility the employees wore all their safety equipment properly – hard hats, hearing protection, eye protection, flame resistant clothing, gloves and safety boots. In the other facility, it appeared as though wearing proper safety equipment was optional (which it wasn’t, but looking around you’d think it was).
The employees who were defiant to the safety policies and lax with wearing their safety equipment seemed indifferent to their safety. When I asked about it, I would hear responses like: “Why should I care, they don’t.” Or “We’ve got bigger safety issues than me wearing ear plugs.” Or “Management doesn’t give a rip about us. It’s all about the bottom line here.” If management doesn’t care, don’t expect employees to care.
Rich Gasaway’s Advice
If you’re in a management position, and stop taking the expressions of concern for safety personally, maybe you’re not in a position to fix the problem. But that does not give you the right to attack the messenger. A good supervisor should be an advocate for safety and contribute to developing and maintaining a strong safety culture.
If you’re in the messenger position, don’t bring problems to the attention of management without a solution (or better yet, several solutions). It is easy to see issues and to point them out. It is much more difficult to offer up viable, affordable solutions. Help your boss fix the problem. If the problem impacts your safety, go all-in for helping to fix it. Don’t just go to the boss’s office, vomit, and walk out. That’s not fair.
In all organizations there are many competing priorities. Safety, production (or outcomes) and profit (or cost control) are big priorities. Sometimes it’s difficult to balance all of them. Hopefully safety would be at the top of the list. Some companies have adopted a “safety first” slogan. But when asked, the employees will affirm the slogan does not represent to true priorities. Where safety is truly first, bosses don’t shoot the messengers.
1. Discuss how your organization could develop (or strengthen) its safety culture by developing a process that ensures the messenger is welcomed.
2. Discuss what good boss and bad boss behaviors look (sound) like when a message is delivered.
3. Discuss ways that messengers could deliver their messages in ways that are not confrontational and avoids the appearance of being selfish.
4. Discuss a current safety concern and develop a strategy for how to get it addressed and resolved.
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