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Following the Safety Rules Isn’t as Black and White as You May Think

March 23, 2016

follows-rules.pngFor the third installment of our S.A.F.E. model review series, we’ll be focusing on the third factor, represented in the acronym by the letter F. The F stands for Follows Rules, and it’s one of the first things that comes to mind when your average layperson thinks about safety in the workplace. While safety must ultimately be about much more than the rules, the reality is that in hazardous environments, we simply need to have policies and procedures in place which keep people out of harm’s way. Safety rules are only one part of the safety equation, but they are a basic and important element.

The thing that people often don’t realize is that everyone sees rules through a unique psychological lens. There are specific personality traits that shape how we view rules, how we feel about them, and ultimately, whether we will consistently follow them or not. It is these traits that form the “Follows Rules” psychological factor in our SafetyDNA. We all possess this trait to varying levels and our standing on this factor impacts our personal exposure to risk.

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The Follows Rules factor consists of a few different components: 1. one’s attitude towards the rules; 2. how often, and in what way, they bend and/or break the rules; and 3. their need for the structure that rules provide. Let’s break this down a little further and explain how each of these three pieces relate to the Follows Rules factor of the S.A.F.E. model.

1. Attitude – An employee’s attitude towards the rules is the biggest predictor of whether or not they’ll follow them. Attitudes can differ pretty significantly, from utmost respect for the rules to the point of refusing to question the logic or reasoning for them, to blatant disregard and contempt for the rules to the point of breaking and questioning them whenever possible just for the sake of it, and everything in between. Some individuals actually like, and prefer, to have rules in place, while others see them as more of a suggestion or a guideline.

2. Bending and Breaking Rules – Whether or not an employee bends or breaks a rule says a lot about their SafetyDNA, but their motivation for doing so is just as important to consider. Someone who has a real problem with authority may ignore or break the rules on purpose, out of malice, just because they get satisfaction out of doing so. Most people, however, try not to skirt the rulebook for the most part, and tend to only do so when they truly believe their best judgment is more appropriate than whatever the specific rule is. This is usually done in order to complete the job or task at hand more effectively and isn’t done out of spite. The motivation behind rule bending and breaking, malicious vs. non-malicious, goes a long way towards determining how often an individual will follow the rules, and thus impacts their overall safety practices at work to a high degree.

3. Need for Structure – Rules do more than just keep people safe at work, they provide a sense of structure. Knowing that there is a clear cut, correct way of doing something comforts many workers because they know they can fall back to that default process if they’re ever unsure or uncomfortable. In addition, knowing there is a system in place for carrying out their duties, and punishing those who do so in an unsafe and incorrect way, helps give employees confidence and peace of mind in their physical work environment. The comfort that rules and the structure they create makes it more likely that workers will end up following them.

Changing your own (or a subordinate’s) attitude towards the rules can be a difficult goal because a person’s attitude is usually pretty set in stone since it’s an extension of their personality. If you can’t change how they view rules, the next best thing to do is work to change how they understand and appreciate a given rule. One of the best ways to do this is to understand the difference between telling vs. explaining.

  • Telling is the act of directing an employee to follow a given rule. “Always wear your hard hat”, or “Never cross these yellow lines”. It’s the bare minimum of information sharing, and in cases where the logic behind a rule isn’t obvious, does nothing for the employees understanding or appreciation for the rule.

  • Explaining goes a step further, providing justification for the rule that you’re telling to an employee. “Always wear your hard hat, debris sometimes falls unexpectedly and we’ve had injuries in the past because of it.” In this example, the rule was told but also explained, providing a reason for why the rule was created, and even giving examples of what can happen if the rule isn’t followed.

Simply telling a rule to an employee is only half the battle. Explaining it to them, including the reasons for it and potential consequences, gives them real examples to tie the rule to, and good reason to follow it. This helps them understand the rule more thoroughly and gives them a better appreciation for it as well. If you want to improve the extent to which you follow the rules, try seeking out higher level information to give yourself a more well-rounded understanding of not only what the rules are, but why they’re in place to begin with. The Follows Rules factor is one of the most basic pieces of the S.A.F.E. model, but it is also one of the most critical and influential as far as impacting safety style.

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Greg Kedenburg Greg Kedenburg is an I/O Psychologist who previously worked for PSI. He is living and working in Chicago, IL.