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Ditch the platitudes, it’s time to engage with employees

The phrase “people are our best asset” is a commonplace of company annual reports. But words cost nothing. The top-down approach in many organisations suggests that, whatever they say, managers see employees as a necessary inconvenience rather than a source of creativity and competitive advantage. Those employers are missing a trick.

When people refer to the Hawthorne effect, they most often use it as shorthand for the impact on people’s behaviour of being put under observation. It derives from a study of raising and lowering the lighting levels at the Hawthorne Works in Illinois in the 1920s, which found workers’ productivity went up during the study regardless of how bright (or not) the shopfloor was.

But as safety author Bridget Leathley has noted, there is a more important lesson from researcher Elton Mayo’s experiments at Hawthorne. He found that employees worked harder and took less time off because they were engaged in the project, not simply because they reacted positively to being studied. Consistent improvements came from changes that the employees either suggested or were consulted on.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but somehow it still needs restating, even today. Organisations still underestimate the intelligence and potential of their employees and act as though they expect to be let down by them.

A six-month trial of a four-day working week in 70-odd UK companies recently published its half-time results. They show that only a handful of the businesses report any loss in productivity from employees working 20% fewer hours – half say it has actually gone up. The organisers of the pilot said that “a lot of businesses have more flexibility and nimbleness among their people and teams than leaders often know at the outset”.

Well, yes. But the reason the leaders don’t know is because they don’t try very hard to find out.

This goes for safety management too. Health and safety professionals have knowledge and expertise that is not usually shared by people “on the tools”, such as a tested method for judging risk by weighing likelihood and potential severity of an accident. But frontline workers also have specialist knowledge that comes from doing their jobs day-in, day-out. Pooling these competences is the obvious way to find the safest and most efficient way to work.

Above the level of individual tasks, this collaborative approach is also necessary for whole safety management systems to thrive. Analysis of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident identified the lack of a good “safety culture” as a contributing factor. Since then, it has been accepted that excellent health and safety depends on more than just strong rules and good training and equipment.

Sociologist Anthony Giddens’ theory of structure-agency dualism argues that people are influenced by systems, but they also act to influence those systems, for good or bad. Anyone with a few years of management experience has seen how the best-laid plans of a senior leadership team can run aground in the face of employee resistance or inaction. Consulting people on a proposal, or better still, giving them a hand in developing it, gives them some stake in the success of a project and makes it more likely to stay on course.

The Holy Grail in most safety culture models is the “interdependent” or “generative” state in which everyone in an organisation sees health and safety as their personal responsibility and looks out for their peers as well as themselves. There is no chance of getting close to that nirvana while people still see health and safety as something that is done to them, however well intentioned. There’s even less chance while many employees suspect they are seen as interchangeable cogs, rather than trusted partners in an enterprise. To achieve a great safety culture, or a great business, you need to pay more than lip service to employee involvement.

Guest blog written by writer, editor and speaker, Louis Wustemann