By Kevin Burns
When it comes to safety, managers sometimes wrongly assume that employees are slipping into complacency when what those employees are actually experiencing is disengagement. In 2020, Gallup polling showed that 62 percent of U.S. workers were not engaged in their work—an improvement of only 12 points since 2000. Clearly, disengagement is a problem. For some reason, though, companies expect their employees to be actively engaged in safety while doing work that they are not actively engaged in.
Research by a team at Franklin Covey revealed the stunning extent of employee disengagement: 15 percent of the employee respondents in one international survey “could name even one of the top three goals their leaders had identified.” Furthermore:
Even those people who knew the goal lacked commitment to achieving it. Only 51 percent could say that they were passionate about the team’s goal, leaving almost half the team simply going through the motions. . . . A staggering 81 percent of the people surveyed said they were not held accountable for regular progress on the organization’s goals. And the goals were not translated into specific actions—87 percent had no clear idea what they should be doing to achieve the goal.
When employees can’t articulate the organization’s goals and don’t feel that they align with those goals, when they don’t think they’re being held accountable to achieve the goals, and when they don’t know what they’re supposed to do to help the company achieve the goals, that’s not complacency. That is a disconnect between articulating the company’s goals and getting employee buy-in for those goals.
Employees who are disengaged from their work cannot be accused of being complacent. In order for employees to become complacent, they would need to have been already engaged with safely doing their work right up to the point where they allowed their performance to slide. Employees who have a history of being engaged in their work don’t just suddenly stop being engaged (at least not long enough for them to be considered complacent).
For complacency about safety to be present, an organization must already have a consistently high performance in safety. Its people must have the skills, leadership, communication ability, coaching, and motivation to want to perform at the top in safety. When all of those factors are in place and employees start to become comfortable with their consistent high performance, only then can a slide in performance be considered complacency.
When the vast majority of employees lack a “clear idea what they should be doing to achieve the goal,” that’s a communication and messaging problem. Because the communication is not clear, supervisors are unsure of how to support the message in the field—and without strong direction, employees will feel aimless. Without improved employee engagement and buy-in, a company can’t get high achievement or high safety performance from its employees. Three critical steps can help ensure that the organization’s safety program is understood and well executed.
If employees don’t know the company’s goals and how to help the company achieve them, communication needs to be clearer. Figure out exactly what employees need to do to help the organization achieve its safety goals. Have those goals been spelled out clearly to employees? Will all employees be able to recall the goals (and their roles in fulfilling them) at a moment’s notice? Present the information in a short and simple message that is easier to understand (and much easier to remember) than a long, complex statement.
Supervisors are the first line of response when employees have a question or need help understanding their work. That means they bear the lion’s share of responsibility in clarifying expectations, setting standards, ensuring that processes and procedures are followed, and coaching each employee to improve performance. Supervisors should be committed to the goals of the company without reservation and clear on their role in accomplishing the goals. Companies should give their supervisors the tools and support they need to execute those responsibilities.
The largest number of employees are at the front line, where most activity takes place—and where the greatest potential for safety incidents lies. Therefore it is essential that a company’s front-line employees buy into the company’s safety goals. This buy-in is achievable only when the safety messaging is clear and the goals are fully supported by the supervisors.
Safety is a paramount concern for any organization. For that reason, it’s key to understand how it might decrease under certain conditions—such as when employees are disengaged from safety goals because they don’t understand and embrace them. By making sure that employees and supervisors are clear on what the goals are and have the support they need to achieve them, organizations can keep safety front and center.
Kevin Burns is the president and CEO of KevBurns Learning, where he works with smart, caring companies to energize safety culture, build teamwork, and get employee buy-in. He is the author of PeopleWork: The Human Touch in Workplace Safety and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.