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Safety Leadership: Norms and Safety

Posted by Mark G. Gardner on October 12, 2018 in the category Training

Safety Leadership Norms and Safety

This is a continuation of our blog series on Safety Leadership. In the last article, we discussed the efficacy of rules as a mechanism for influencing employee behavior. We said rules are very important but ineffective. The transportation industry is buried under mountains of federal, state and local rules and regulations. And chances are good your own company has created its own safety rules to add on top of the regulations. But, as we pointed out, rules do not control behavior.

We All Want to Be Accepted

Which brings us to norms. Norms are defined as the accepted way of behaving in a certain setting. Earlier I mentioned that I was a bad kid and that I broke a lot of rules. I was often in trouble. I didn’t obey the rules, but I did abide by the norms. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to have friends. Deep down inside, we all want to be loved and accepted by our peers. It goes back to our earliest days as cavemen. For hundreds of centuries, we lived together in small clans. When the sun went down we wanted to be on the inside of the cave with everyone else. Being on the outside of the cave was downright scary. So, we learned to behave in ways that were socially acceptable. And, through evolution, that trait has been passed on for centuries.

Norms Were Made to Never Be Broken

Norms have a huge influence on how we behave in any given setting. Norms vary from country to country, from business to business and even between different public settings. For example, if you have a piece of unwanted paper in your hand, while standing in line in a bank lobby, you’ll look around and find a trash container to throw it away. You wouldn’t just throw it on the floor. If you did, everyone in line would turn around and give you the stink eye. However, later that same evening, while at a ballgame, you’ll think nothing of eating a hot dog and drinking a beer and throwing the trash on the ground. The social norms for disposing of trash vary greatly depending upon the setting.

Unlike rules, norms are never written down. They’re unwritten guidelines for how to behave. Everyone within a group knows what the acceptable behavior should be. Norms exert an enormous amount of influence on our behavior. We want to be accepted by those around us, so we tend to behave in ways that will help us secure that acceptance. Norms can also be a powerful tool for achieving better safety results. As a leader, you can establish safety-related norms by making unsafe behaviors seem repulsive to everyone. It doesn’t happen overnight. Norms evolve over time.

Why? Because Everyone Else Is Doing It

Years ago, we would take the kids to a fast food restaurant, eat our meal and when we were done, stand up and leave. A waitress would come along behind us and pick up our dirty plates and throw away our trash. That was the norm in those days. In the early 1960s, McDonald’s was expanding its walkup window service to include dining rooms. To avoid the extra expense of hiring waiters, McDonald’s engaged in a social experiment. It placed trash containers in the middle of the dining area with a large “thank you” sign on them. They hired struggling actors and actresses from LA to pose as customers who, at the end of their meal, would stand up, walk over and throw their trash away. These actors made themselves obvious to everyone else in the restaurant. Soon, the other patrons copied their behavior. They started cleaning up after themselves and a new norm was born. Today, it would be unheard of to leave your trash on the table in a McDonald’s or at any other fast food restaurant.

The use of seatbelts is another great example of a norm. In the late 1960s, fewer than 10% of American drivers used their seatbelt. The numbers remained stubbornly low through the 1970s until Sesame Street began featuring skits about wearing seatbelts. They urged their viewers to tell mom and dad to put their seatbelts on. It worked. Over time, our kids made us feel guilty if we didn’t wear our seatbelts. Today, seatbelt use is 95%. And, if someone got in your car and didn’t put their seatbelt on, you’d probably correct their behavior.

Finally, norms evolve because “everyone else is doing it.” We look around, see what other people are doing and then copy their behavior. That’s the best way to be accepted. The best example is speed limits. Virtually all roads in America have posted speed limits. And, virtually all Americans go over the speed limit. The average is 7 MPH over the speed limit. Why? Because everyone else is doing it. This is a great example that shows rules don’t work but norms do.

How to Use Norms to Improve Safety Results

How can you use norms in your location to improve safety results? As we said, norms influence behavior. The fourth level of Avatar’s risk management model is HUMAN FACTORS. At that level of managing risk, we attempt to influence employee behavior. We can do that through education, training, motivation and consistent communication. We can also do that, to some extent, by imposing rules. Most importantly, we can influence employee behavior by creating and maintaining safety norms. Safety leaders get better results when they establish and maintain safety norms.

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