Mirror, Mirror, on the wall… Avoiding ‘Fairy Tale’ Safety Plans


As we approach the panto season, many organisations are making or updating safety plans for the year ahead. No one wants to see that time and effort go to waste and before anyone shouts out “Oh yes we do”, very definitely…

“Oh No We Don’t!”

To avoid wasted planning time & effort, it’s crucial you know where you are as an organisation – before mapping the journey to your target destination.

Where Are We? – The Two Crucial Pieces of Data

Most safety professionals will have accurate historical safety performance data and therefore a good handle on LTIs (Lost Time Incidents) in their organisation.

But do your safety plans also fully factor in the context in which these incidents are happening? Basing your safety plans on fairy tales about the current safety culture is a major pitfall which can render your new safety plan ineffectual – or at least lead to initiatives that fail to deliver the maximum possible improvement on performance.

When it comes to safety culture development, gaining an accurate insight to a) what people think, b) how people feel and, most importantly, c) understanding why they think and feel that way is essential for determining the appropriate next steps. Which means you’ll need a survey of some kind.

Ok, So What’s the Best Way To Survey Safety Culture?

When contemplating how to survey, the temptation is to believe that technology on its own can provide a solution that is quick, cheap and effective.

Tick box, Likert scale surveys (whether online or in the traditional paper format) have their uses. Theoretically they can reach remote workplaces and identify broad trends or hotspots. However, they present a number of pitfalls:

  • They limit true interpersonal communication. This means that although they might be quick and cheap, they fail on effectiveness.
  • Whether conducted online or on paper, traditional surveys often require chasing up to get sufficient responses, to avoid the risk of a non-representative self-selecting sample. The nature of the game means that otherwise you risk only the Happy, Grumpy and possibly Dopey responding, leaving over half the ‘workers’ unrepresented.
  • Some organisations pressurise people into submissions – another way data gets warped, so it’s less than ‘snow white’ and paradoxically even more of a fairy tale.
  • Even with space for free-form response, experience shows it’s only those with the most vehement views that write meaningful comments, so you lose nuance and lack information about the centre of the normal distribution.
  • What you generally find with traditional surveys is that after analysing the data, you’re left with more questions than you originally asked. They won’t really tell you why people selected the pre-set answer they did.

What About Post-Survey Focus Groups?

One way to address this is to run post-survey focus groups around the issues of concern. This can work well, but as we’ve said above, quick survey data can be dirty and dirty data generates false assumptions, which can lead to failing to ask the right questions in the group. Whichever way you look at it there is no substitute for a significant face-to-face element in the survey.

This still leaves one last variable that is critically important, the concept of psychological safety. At face value, anonymous surveys suggest it is safe to be honest, but despite this many people still fear the perception (or reality!) that “he’s behind you!” and can see who wrote what.

Making it safe to talk is essential for the open and honest expression of views. You may have seen what real information is discovered when people are comfortable to chat in the TV show, “Undercover Boss”.

However unfounded, it is always easier to avoid fear of bias or victimisation when surveys are run by an external third party.

The Survey Method To Dwarf All Others

All of this is why in our decades of experience we believe that the one type of survey that dwarfs all the others is an experienced external facilitator taking a representative sample of staff through a well-planned series of face-to-face focus groups.

For all the different ways we have supported surveys and assessments nothing provides as rich results as meeting in person. Sharing time with people is unparalleled – time to relax and understand their experiences of the workplace and ask follow-on questions based on an initial response.

“The one type of survey that dwarfs all the others is an experienced external facilitator taking a representative sample of staff through a well-planned series of face-to-face focus groups.”

Meeting in person enables real connection, understanding why people feel as they do, listening with both ears and eyes. Hearing how things are said, being curious about what isn’t mentioned, asking the follow-up questions to find out what’s on their mind that wasn’t on the initial question list. Picking up on irony, humour and body language, seeing those sideways glances. All missing from paper and electronic communications, it’s only face to face interaction that provides all that richness… Oh yes it does!

Don’t Be Bashful…

Experience of surveying organisations that spans four decades has given us a mine of safety culture survey information and like the dwarfs we have found more than a few diamonds in our time.

If you would like to explore what this could do for your organisation, don’t be Bashful or Sleepy – here’s an offer not to be Sneezy with: we’ll be glad to meet for a coffee in person, play Doc and diagnose the best approach to get you the data you need for your next safety plan. Call us to arrange a coffee and a free consultation – your place or mine?

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