The Power of "WHY" When Communicating Employee Safety

Posted by  Brian Dishman

danger-signs.pngWhich of these two employee safety signs do you find more persuasive? I’ll tell you how I feel when I look at them. I mostly follow rules, so I like to think I wouldn’t touch the sign on the left. As for the sign on the right… Not only would I not touch it, I would feel very uncomfortable being in the same room as that sign. Get me away from it! These two signs could hang on the same type of machine. Both signs want me to comply. However, for me, one of them is more persuasive. The one on the right gives me an almost physical reaction. Why is that?

You may think the emotionally loaded words “kill”, “hurt”, and “dying” have something to do with it. That could be part of it, but there is something deeper…

There is a very wise man named Charlie Munger. He is the long-time, lower-profile business partner of Warren Buffett. Charlie is an interesting person. He has had a lifelong fascination with the intersection of psychology and business, or what he calls The Psychology of Human Misjudgment. After noticing patterns in life and business, a very curious and well-read man, Charlie seems to seek reasons for why intelligent people make poor decisions. His interest serves him well. The conclusions Charlie reached have informed his investment decisions. Berkshire Hathaway’s stock performance over the past 40 years may be an indicator of the effectiveness of his model.

Charlie’s model is a beautiful blend of psychological research, life experience, and wisdom of the ancients. His writing and speeches to universities are full of insightful nuggets that are applicable to day-to-day life. Charlie has identified several natural, human tendencies that lead to misjudgment. Select International, like Charlie, has an interest in why people make poor decisions. More specifically, we are interested in why hard-working, good employees make poor decisions that put themselves or coworkers at risk.

“Reason-Respecting” is on Charlie’s list of human tendencies. He illustrates this important tendency with an anecdote he frequently tells during public speeches. I quoted the anecdote at length (because it is so good).

“Carl Braun who created the CF Braun Engineering Company had another rule, from psychology, which, if you're interested in wisdom, ought to be part of your repertoire...

His rule for all the Braun Company's communications was called the five W's—you had to tell who was going to do what, where, when and why. And if you wrote a letter or directive in the Braun Company telling somebody to do something, and you didn't tell him why, you could get fired. In fact, you would get fired if you did it twice.

You might ask why that is so important? Well, again that's a rule of psychology. Just as you think better if you array knowledge on a bunch of models that are basically answers to the question, why, why, why, if you always tell people why, they'll understand it better, they'll consider it more important, and they'll be more likely to comply. Even if they don't understand your reason, they'll be more likely to comply.

So there's an iron rule that just as you want to start getting worldly wisdom by asking why, why, why, in communicating with other people about everything, you want to include why, why, why. Even if it's obvious, it's wise to stick in the why.”

Charlie Munger’s “Reason-Respecting” is all about the power of why. Humans love stories. Story-telling is the most powerful human communication method. It’s part of our DNA. Our greatest leaders, teachers, and communicators know this. They also know that good stories contain the why element. We must know why the hero takes his dangerous journey. Likewise, effective learning also contains the why element. The why ties facts together into a coherent, memorable story.

The why is critical to safety communication. Why brings meaning to an employee’s actions, otherwise why do it? Every safety communication must be a coherent story that contains the why element. Remember Braun’s keen insight. The why element in safety communication…

  • Increases employee understanding

  • Increases employee perception of importance

  • Increases employee compliance

The why is important for all employees, but there is one type of employee I had in mind while writing this blog - me. I mentioned above that I mostly follow rules. Select’s research demonstrates each person has a different level of respect for rules. Those employees that naturally view rules more as guidelines are much quicker to rationalize reasons to bend or break rules. If you don’t give these employees a why they will drive a mack truck-sized rationalization right through the safety rule.

There are many psychological studies that affirm the power of why. I read them but I don’t even need those studies for proof. I can feel the power of why when I look at the above DANGER sign on the right.

safety commitment

Tags:   employee safety, safe behavior

Brian Dishman

Brian Dishman is a Senior Consultant at Select International. He educates safety leaders on the internal factors that impact employee safety. Brian focuses on safety leadership, safety culture development, and the psychology of safety.

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