What can Shamu teach us about shaping safety culture?

Recently, at the 2018 WECC Human Performance Conference, I had an enlightening conversation with Dr. Mike Legatt, CEO and Founder of ResilientGrid. We’ve known Mike for years, and in addition to being just an all-around nice guy, he has a ton of experience in human performance, human factors, safety training, and safety cultures. He also has a Ph.D. in clinical health psychology/neuropsychology so naturally, we talked about Shamu. I’ll explain.

Training and Development

After the session provided by Knowledge Vine, Mike approached us and commented that he really liked our approach. I’ll spare you the whole lecture, but the basic idea was that awareness through safety training about human performance, health, and safety, human factors, etc. is great but what should you actually DO to help shape safe behaviors? He said a common mistake he sees in a lot of organizations is starting the process too far down the road. We act like workers are on third base, ready to score, when in reality the initial training and development efforts need to be focused on how to bat. We usually start safety training at a too advanced level and don’t give the right kind of human performance coaching.

The analogy Mike used was training Shamu how to jump over a pole to receive a fish. He said there are two ways to train the whale to jump over the pole. The first way is to put a trainer by the tank with a fish, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When the whale happens to breach over the pole, the trainer will then give him/her a fish. It could be years before the whale randomly decides to jump over the pole, and even then, he/she may not make the connection between the behavior and the reward. The trainer would likely have to sit there forever to “catch” the whale exhibiting the correct behavior enough times before the whale really learns what’s going on.

The second way is to place the pole under the water, halfway between the bottom and the waterline. When the whale swims over the pole, he/she is given a fish, and the pole is raised slightly. This is done until the pole is at the waterline, and the whale now must jump out of the water to go over the pole; which the whale will do because they are smart. Again, whale goes over pole, whale gets fish, pole is raised. Eventually, the pole is high out of the water, and the whale knows what behavior needs to be exhibited to get the reward.

Human Performance Coaching

The same goes for safety training, human performance coaching, and improving safety culture. Often organizations will put the pole high above the water and hope the workers figure it out. The tool or resource is in place, but the workers don’t know what to do with it or if they do understand, they are not sure they CAN do it. Human performance training and development must involve little “wins” that are coached and built upon. Health and safety improvement needs to start small and grow into the desired safety culture. Positive reinforcement must be continually used to ensure positive safety behaviors are continued and engrained in the culture.

Putting a program in place and waiting for the magic to happen is the wrong formula. Expectations may not be clear and may seem out of reach. It takes a clear strategy, continuous coaching, and a willingness to be patient while workers learn human performance or safe behaviors. Start small and develop into something amazing.

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