The Confrontation Calamity

EHS Today - June 2014
By: Terry L. Mathis
Printable Version

Many in the safety community have adopted a concept that is not only incorrect, but will ultimately do more harm than good. This concept has been labeled "confrontation." Some proponents of this concept have gone so far as to claim that it is possibly the most crucial skill of safety. Workers must be willing to confront each other when they see risks being taken. Supervisors must confront risk takers and the whole organization must be willing to confront its own willingness to take risks.

Much of this thinking is a reaction to safety cultures in which workers hesitate or refuse to talk to each other about safety issues. Certainly worker interaction can potentially improve safety, but the wrong kind of interaction can be worse than no interaction at all. Supervisors also must be active communicators of safety in the workplace. If they fail to direct and correct safety practices during the course of work, serious consequences can follow. But again, what should be the nature of safety's supervisory style? Should it be confrontational or cooperative? Should it be simply correcting or coaching?

The problems with the confrontation concept are four-fold: 1.) It attempts to improve one aspect of safety while inadvertently damaging another. 2.) It makes an incomplete assumption about risk taking. 3.) It utilizes a change methodology that has been proven to be less effective than others. 4.) It has no process indicators to measure or manage its implementation or results.

Safety excellence efforts are typically two-fold: They attempt to improve accident-reduction efforts and to create a desirable safety culture in which there is collaboration and cooperation. While confrontation can make some claim to address accident reduction, it creates a safety culture of enmity. Confrontation is, by its very nature, adversarial. Proponents of confrontation attempt to qualify it and soften it by explaining that the person attacking has good intentions. Just as some experts once tried to combine the opposing ideas of construction and criticism into constructive criticism, they now have a new set of contradictions to reconcile. Well-meaning criticism is still critical, just as well-meaning confrontation is still confrontational. A culture in which people, because of their good intentions, are willing to attack each other is not a culture of excellence. Coaching and collaboration are the tools of excellence, and confrontation is the antithesis of these tools.

The concept that confrontation can improve accident reduction assumes that all or most safety decisions are within the control of the worker and not influenced by organizational or conditional issues. If a worker's decision to take a risk is impacted by outside influences such as the availability of tools and equipment or workstation design, confrontation does not discover or document these. There is also no methodology in confrontation to remove or alter such influences on safety decisions. Allowing these influences to persist unaddressed is a formula to make sure they continue to shape future behavior. Confronting workers over issues which they cannot control is a formula for disagreement, not improvement. Naively assuming that confrontation can overcome obstacles and barriers to safety is an approach doomed to failure and disappointment.

Additionally, the idea that a person making a bad decision can be coerced into making a better decision through confrontation is, at best, questionable. Confrontation usually causes a defensive response rather than an openness to constructive improvement. Even though some advocates of confrontation attempt to expand the concept to include positive reinforcement, this is a serious misnomer at best. Confrontation and positive reinforcement are polar opposites. Positive reinforcement of safe behavior has been proven to be a more effective method of accomplishing behavioral change. Targeting specific behaviors to improve safety and positively reinforcing them has proven more effective than simply looking for random safe behaviors to reinforce. Confronting unsafe behavior does not automatically create safe behavior. Confrontation does not target specific improvements and reinforce workers for progress. It only singles out the negatives and centers all interpersonal encounters around them. If confrontation creates any behavioral change at all, it is often a forced change. Forced changes are usually temporary and go away after the person exerting the force goes away. The end result is that even the most well-intentioned confrontation fails to change behaviors effectively, efficiently, or permanently.

Another serious problem with the confrontational approach to improving safety is a complete lack of process metrics. No one has prescribed an effective way to measure the quantity, quality or the impact of confrontation on safety improvement. Confronting simply becomes another program that is implemented and evaluated at the end of the year by the variation in lagging indicators. Safety processes without process indicators are being abandoned in favor of ones that can be measured and managed. Although measurement is not management, it is a critical element of management. Without process metrics, organizations cannot know if confrontation is happening or not. They cannot know how often it is happening or if the quality of it is increasing or decreasing. Without process metrics, it is virtually impossible to determine if changes in lagging indicators are being caused by the process or by other factors. The value and effectiveness of such processes can only be guessed.

Confrontation is little more than another attempt to avoid failure rather than achieve success in safety. It is a program to address the reluctance to discuss safety in the workplace that replaces silence with enmity. Programmatic approaches to safety are quickly being replaced with strategic approaches. Organizations are creating comprehensive safety strategies and executing against them. Such strategies almost always address both accident-reduction behaviors and safety culture building behaviors. Even if confrontation was believed to prevent accidents, it would seldom pass the test of contributing to the creation of desirable safety culture. Programs and processes to improve safety should fit in and contribute strategic value or be abandoned. Regardless of whatever good intentions one may have, confrontation is not an effective way to strategically achieve safety culture and performance excellence.

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