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“Safety, it’s all about getting attitudes right” – Right?

“Safety, it’s all about getting attitudes right” – Right?

“We need to change people’s attitude to safety.  We need to have them thinking about safety, believing in safety and bringing safety to life throughout the entirety of their working day.  It is only when we engage hearts and minds can we truly build an interdependent safety culture.”

Sounds good, right?  But does a ‘good attitude’ and ‘thinking about the right things’ always result in the ‘right actions’?

There is a famous experiment conducted by John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson involving Princeton Theological Seminary trainees (“From Jerusalem to Jericho”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973).  In this experiment each trainee minister completed a series of tests and then, as a final exercise, were told they had to give a short presentation; half of them were told to speak about vocational roles ministers could pursue and the remainder had to talk about the Good Samaritan, a biblical story about a man who crosses the road to help a fellow traveller in distress after others had walked by.

The experiment was set up so there was a last minute change of venue before the talk which meant each trainee had to get to an adjacent building which deliberately took them past someone slumped in a doorway, head down, not moving.

Before leaving the first building a third of the trainees where told that they were ahead of schedule and that they would probably arrive early and to just wait and an Assistant would meet them.  A third were told that that the Assistant would ready for them by the time they arrived “so please go right over”.  The final third were told they “better get moving”, that the Assistant would already be waiting as they should have started a few minutes ago and they should therefore hurry over.

Each of the three groups had an even split of people giving the Good Samaritan talk and those talking about vocational roles.

The results were revealing: From the first group 63% stopped to offer help; from the second group 45% stopped, however from the group who were told they were already late only 10% stopped to offer help. Time pressure made a huge difference.

What made no difference at all was the topic the trainees were going to talk about (and therefore the subject that was front-of-mind).  In fact, Darley and Batson observed, of the group who were late, “on several occasions a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!”

What Darley and Batson’s study demonstrates is that thinking about norms, principles and standards does not automatically mean that we act upon them.  The research has led some to question whether “ethics” have become a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases; or maybe it’s just that people’s cognition becomes narrowed by hurriedness and they fail to see potential connections.

We may have an awful lot of well-meaning people with positive attitudes to safety in our organisation.  If, however, pressures such as time, money and production become ‘negative activators’ then this can have a far more powerful influence on people’s behaviour than anything they believe to be right – no matter how genuine and heart-felt that belief may be.

Safety is not just a matter of getting ‘attitudes right’ and people thinking the ‘right things’, it is also about creating ‘positive activators’ in the environment that increase the likelihood that the right actions and behaviours are the end result.

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