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The Productivity Impulse: Frontline Leadership Development

June 1, 2017
Someone recently told me that people were more interested in “getting the job done” than they were in “getting the job done safely.”

Someone recently told me that people were more interested in “getting the job done” than they were in “getting the job done safely.”  That struck me as completely understandable. 

At the end of the work day no one literally waves a checkered flag as each crew pulls into the yard, specifically because they pulled in injury free.  We think about it of course, but, if we’re honest, it is not our predominant thought at that moment.  Rather, what each of us feels most profoundly is a sense of productive accomplishment.  Except for rare days, all of us are mostly focused on removing one more task from the “let's harden and renew the grid” list.  Many writers have explained that a “productivity mindset” is core to the human condition.  It is better for us to know and harness this innate drive than for it is for us to deny it.

Kierkegaard explained it best when he said, “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”  As humans, we think in the future, we anticipate, we plan and we produce because most of us want to make a societal contribution. Whether we realize it or not, this gives our lives meaning. And the satisfaction we derive from completing a difficult task is greater than working safely, particularly if we had recently been accident free. Working safely quickly becomes taken for granted. Often, a subconscious drive for productivity will dull our focus on safety.  

I was reminded of this phenomenon when walking through my home just today and reading on two boxes, “Proudly Made in the USA,” not “Safely and Proudly Made in the USA.” 

Now before you get nervous and think that I’m getting too abstract, please think for a moment about other truly high performing organizations. For example, NASA flight control, Championship winning NBA teams, and the SEALS and other Special Operations groups. Each of these organizations understand and then either harness or mitigate subconscious drives and motivations to achieve the best possible performance. It is reported that the SEALS believe that “we don’t rise to the occasion, rather we sink to our level of training.”

As I stated in an earlier article, we have all mastered the easier answers related to safety. We have learned the hard way and then benchmarked, presented, and shared with each other in a variety of venues. Like the successful organizations just mentioned, we now need to dig a layer deeper into how our subconscious mind works and equip our frontline leaders with new awareness and new tools to improve safety. Examining, understanding and mitigating subconscious drives may be the final step in a long and necessary preparation sequence for frontline leaders.

Our Bias for Productivity

How does neuroscience explain our bias for productivity? Dopamine. According to psychologist Jean Wiecha, when we accomplish a goal we are rewarded with a “ding, ding, ding” jackpot feeling. We even receive a spike of dopamine after making our bed in the morning. In psychological terms this is experienced as a strong sense of contentment and satisfaction.

Being aware of this phenomenon is half of the battle. Sharing and preparing frontline leaders to realize that they will from time to time feel the pull to be productive - even to the extent that they cut corners, drive fast and engage in other risky behaviors - in the service of accomplishing important company or organization work. They will have to learn to mitigate that pull by including safety as a critical criterion for goal achievement. A bias for goal achievement is helpful personally and economically but must be honored and leveraged to achieve long term safety results.

Understanding the impulse to be productive is now clearer thanks to an increased understanding of how humans think and act when viewed and tested through a lens of social psychology, neuroscience, decision science and other fields of study.  As we learn more from these relatively new domains we become more aware of which aspects of ourselves can be changed and which aspects are innate and hardwired. We’ll continue to report on the application of neuroscience principles to the electric utility industry in the months ahead.

Other areas to be covered in the future include recognizing the criticality of context or situation when it comes to our behavior, including why ultimately leadership competencies are only a small part of the leadership development solution.  We’ll also see how neuroscience has uncovered new perspectives on how we often mentally bury the real reasons behind some of our behavior. This will include how we can learn to uncover powerful moments of insight when we ask ourselves ‘why’ five times following an unplanned result. This drilling down will often reveal a personal reason that is not flattering, but always instructive. We’ll also address the critical role that crew cohesion and alignment play in improving safety and understand how easy it is to exclude the very voices that will help us remain safe.

Last issue we asked for brief descriptions of the “hard won” learning moments you have experienced while driving a line truck. Thank you for sending those in! This issue we’re asking for your hard-won learning moments from grounding underground equipment prior to work.  Again, please send them directly to me at  [email protected].

Focused on Safety,

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