Setting Aspirational Safety Targets Is an Exercise in Futility
By Peter L Mitchell
Setting targets and objectives is a very important part of our everyday work life. It may be targets for sales, profit, safety, market share, staff turnover, absenteeism, share price and so on. These targets and objectives are vital because they give direction as well as prioritizing behavior.
What is not really understood by management is how targets and objectives affect the behavior of people. There was a school of thought that suggested every target should have an element of "stretch" in it because this would lead to higher performance. Unfortunately, research showed that targets that were out of reach provided a considerable amount of de-motivation and had the opposite effect that they were designed to achieve.
In spite of this research, we see the common use of aspirational targets and this is most common in the health and safety environment. We see plenty of examples that exhort, "Zero Accidents" or similar, such as, "Zero Harm."
These targets are designed for the people who are "at risk" in the workplace and of course this doesn’t include the executives on the management team. At this point there is a dilemma. The people giving the message have no credibility with the people in the workplace. Not only that, the message does not match their practical experience. They know that accidents and harm are the result of risk. Because it’s their environment that they know so well, they know it’s impossible to remove all risk. Their assessment is generally that the messenger has no credibility and nor does the message.
This not only renders the aspirational message useless but also further erodes the worker’s trust in management.
The answer is relatively simple. Involve the "at risk" people and get them to set their target. Make sure that it is achievable in a reasonable amount of time. When it is met, celebrate it. Then repeat the process again. Make sure that the person giving the message is from the "at risk" group. It is likely that they will have much more credibility than somebody from the management team. You may decide to use a union representative who has been elected by their peer group and who has a high degree of credibility.
Involving the "at risk" people in setting their own targets delegates a degree of responsibility and accountability where it belongs. It also demonstrates respect and trust in their knowledge and ability
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