Have you ever felt pressured to take shortcuts to achieve a goal? Has this ever led to a bad safety outcome?
Metagnosis Consultant, Lisa Seppala, looks at hidden competing commitments and how they may be preventing safe outcomes in the work environment.
Years ago, I was working on the balcony at home. We live on the 17th floor of a condo tower. There was a piece of left-over curl sheen ribbon hanging down from the neighbour’s balcony above. It was an eyesore and distracting. With the intent of pulling the ribbon down, I grabbed a ladder and placed it near the balcony railing. I was about to step onto it when a shiver ran down my spine and I thought “WHAT AM I DOING?”, and stepped away from the ladder. I pride myself on modeling safe behaviour, so why try such a stunt?
Recently I re-read “The Real Reason People Won’t Change”(Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Change Management, 2011, 119), where the authors write about the “hidden competing commitment”, that goal deep within that conflicts with stated commitments.
When I look at my behaviour through the Kegan and Lahey lens and apply their multi-step approach to uncovering competing commitments, I can see what was driving me to make a bad decision.
Why didn’t I just knock on the neighbour’s door and ask to have the ribbon removed?
It was my day off. I had a very long to-do list. I was dishevelled and dressed in my grubby chore clothes. I wasn’t motivated to engage in public. And, I knew it would take time because of language barriers with the neighbours. Looking deeper, productivity and a professional image are key aspects of my persona. Even deeper, I have a strong need to be in control of my time and priorities.
Cleaning up, changing clothes and having a halting conversation with the neighbours would have taken time out of my packed day. I hadn’t planned for that and I didn’t want to change my plans. Applying the Kegan and Lahey set of tiered questions helped me discover the competing commitment that could have cost me my life.
Thankfully, instincts and training kicked in. By pausing and thinking I found another way to accomplish my goal. I simply placed a note under the neighbour’s door with a diagram illustrating the issue and the next day the ribbon was gone.
So….what does this story have to do with the work environment?
In the workplace, even though the stated commitment is something that everyone has signed off on, there are often hidden competing commitments (conflicting priorities) that can impede goal achievement, including on the safety front. These exist in our employees and can exist in an organization as a whole. For example, production and financial goals can sometimes trump safety goals.
As a leader, do you try to understand what motivates your employees on a personal level? Do you understand the conflicting priorities they, or you, may be dealing with? Are they self-imposed or imposed upon them by the organization? Do you know how to create a culture where people feel they can hit ‘pause’ so they can consider safer ways to accomplish their tasks? Even if your company states that employees can refuse unsafe work, does your organizational culture support it or is there a competing commitment to ‘get it done’?
Lisa Seppala is an implementation consultant with True North Implementation, working in partnership with Metagnosis Consulting. Lisa helps organizations stay the course with safety strategy, systems, programs and culture change. She also provides coaching and advice for organization leaders and project managers.