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Why Positivity Is the Key to Strengthening Safety Culture

Group of workers happy and celebrating at work

Positivity gets relatively little traction in the safety world. Many EHS folks find the concept of positivity a little too vague and airy. But it’s quite the opposite—and your ability to cultivate positive interactions can have a massive influence on your safety program.

Research by Barbara L. Fredrickson, conducted at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, has shown that positivity is directly correlated with success in a work environment. More exactly, a positive-to-negative ratio of 3-to-1 is the threshold at which the benefits of positivity begin to materialize.

Of course, you can’t avoid negativity entirely when it comes to safety. Interventions—sometimes contentious ones—need to be conducted. But a hard conversation doesn’t have to be a miserable one. It can center on shared values, like avoiding injury and pride in work, and it can strike encouraging and positive notes where appropriate. And keeping things generally positive throughout your regular course of work will allow you to have hard discussions when you need to without completely tanking the positivity ratio.

Direct, critical interventions are also taken more seriously when negativity isn’t the norm. If a safety manager typically has a sour demeanor then a hard conversation comes off as more of the same, and it doesn’t have the impact that the safety manager would like.

Keeping things relatively positive in safety on a day-to-day basis means there’s a much bigger tonal change when you veer into a critical conversation, and the effect on the receiving end is more noticeable. None of this is to say that you can’t have bad days, or that everything has to be sunshine and roses all the time. A positivity ratio is measured in months and years, not days.

When it comes to saving money, they say that if you worry about the cents the dollars will take care of themselves. The same thing is true of positivity. So while you may not need to worry about individual days, you should pay attention to specific interactions, because positivity is a habit and you can build it through practice.

Work on praising workers when you notice them doing something correctly. Focus on ending hard conversations on a positive note. Start a toolbox talk with a story about someone avoiding an incident because they were attentive to a hazard. (That’ll help you build your storytelling abilities too.) And if you’re looking for more ways to inject some positivity into your safety program, the Humor in Safety Guide is a great resource that doesn’t cost anything to download.

It can take a while for the positivity ratio of your safety program to recalibrate, but once it does, you’ll notice potentially dramatic changes, from better engagement and buy-in to fewer injuries. That’s the power of positivity in safety.

One last concluding note for anyone who might be a little skeptical of the value of positivity in safety. If the idea of positivity isn’t sitting right with you—say, if you prefer a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners approach to safety—then think of it another way. The positivity ratio is a back door way to having more direct, hard interventions with workers without the attendant side effects of low morale.

It’s a ratio, after all. You can have plenty of “negative” interactions (though they can likely more accurately be referred to as challenging safety interventions), as long as they are warranted and you’re balancing them out with positives. (Along with balancing different perspectives, individual factors with system influences, and safety with production).

This excerpt comes from 7 Essential Soft Skills For Hard Workplace Safety Problems, a safety guide for EHS professionals who want to develop stronger interpersonal skills that can lead to better safety outcomes.

Soft Skills Guide

7 Essential Soft Soft Skills For Hard Workplace Safety Problems

You can check all the right boxes and still feel like your safety program is stalled out, and that no one seems to believe in the value of safety. That’s where soft skills come in.

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