Feeling confidence in your skills, automatically makes you better at doing your job and take pride in it. This is the logic behind safety-efficacy, which is defined as the employees’ confidence in their skills to work safely in the context of a specific workplace environment.

This is the second of two articles about safety-efficacy. The first article concluded that safety-efficacy has an influential effect and that it – when combined with a high safety standard – has the potential to enhance a company’s safety performance.

But the influential effect does not only flow from the employee and onto the colleagues/surroundings, as covered in the first article. The opposite is also in play: This article focuses on how the surrounding company culture influences the individuals’ safety-efficacy and it offers 3 suggestions to what companies can do to enhance its employees’ safety-efficacy.

The important relation between company and employees

Humans are social beings and we are formed by relationships and are always part of them. Therefore, many of us subconsciously try to become part of a group by adapting our behaviours and values to the group culture. The effect of this process is that the individual feels part of the group. The stronger the relationship between the group and the individual is, the more loyal the individual will be to the group and the more motivated they are to take good care of the group.

We subconsciously try to become part of a group by adapting our behaviours to the group culture

By and large the same kind of social mechanism exists in an employee-company relationship. If the relationship between employee and company is strong and positive, employees are more likely to adopt the company’s values and standards and make them their own. Because we subconsciously adapt to and are influenced by the surrounding company culture, it is fair to say that a company with a high and consistent safety standard is likely to have employees with increasing safety-efficacy. But, safety-efficacy can also have an unwanted effect. If you continuously tell yourself and are told by others that you are not good at working safely, or if you work in an environment that does not put safety high on the agenda, then your motivation for working safely drops and so does your safety performance.

Therefore, companies that nurture and manage their employees’ safety skills and behaviours are likely to maintain a high level of safety-efficacy. In the following section we have collected 3 suggestions that can help companies build employees’ safety-efficacy and consequently increase their safety performance.

Companies that nurture and manage their employee’s safety skills and behaviours are likely to maintain a high level of safety-efficacy

Sharing positive stories

The maritime industry is very skilled at finding errors. This is positive in the sense of correcting mistakes and errors in the effort to not repeat these. But a negative consequence is that it makes us focus only on the negative stories and when we do something wrong. This has a negative effect on the employees’ safety-efficacy as they unconsciously adapt to the narrative of the company they are part of: if the negative safety stories are predominant, they will appear as the norm to which the employees unconsciously adapt.

If, instead, the companies start focusing on the positive stories they can help building up the safety-efficacy of their employees. When the employees are exposed to positive stories about safety in their company, they will subconsciously begin to think more positively about the company and themselves. This is because the narrative about ourselves and our surroundings has a strong impact on the way we perceive our reality.

But the positive stories need to have a substantial content. Empty words and generic slogans like ‘Safety first’ won’t do the trick. The best effect is achieved when the positive stories are about recognizable situations on board and in the office where best practice safety behaviours are demonstrated. Hereby, the positive stories come to demonstrate “the way we work here”.  Also, prioritising safety and showing best practice safety behaviours become the norm which employees are likely to adopt. In this way, the positive stories influence employees to think of themselves as being good at safety and feel confident in their safety skills. And as concluded in the first article, employees with high safety-efficacy show a better safety performance e.g. take the lead on safety, feel comfortable speaking up, intervening in unsafe situations, being accountable, etc.

The narrative about ourselves and our surroundings has a strong impact on the way we perceive our reality

Even though it sounds easy, sharing and getting the positive stories to live in the company can be challenging: when people are used to focusing on finding errors, they don’t automatically start focusing on the positive stories. Here follows a couple of examples of how to embed this initiative in the company:

In all safety meetings on board, sharing of positive stories should be a fixed agenda point
Once a month, an email from the CEO/high ranking manager with a positive story should be shared across the company
Newsletters could contain a section with positive stories
During management meetings, positive stories should be an agenda point
Every time vessel and office talk on the phone, they could share positive stories from both sides
Sharing and getting the positive stories to live in the company can be challenging

Giving employees knowledge about the company

Recent research shows that employees having substantial knowledge about the company they work in demonstrate a higher level of safety behaviour in their work compared to colleagues without this knowledge.

To better understand the link between company-related information and employees’ safety behaviour we can look at it as a process of inclusion; when employees have substantial knowledge about the company they work in they are more likely to see themselves as an important part of the company. The sense of inclusion makes them become engaged in and feel more socially committed to the company.

The sense of inclusion makes them become engaged and feel more socially committed to the company

Employees having this sense of importance often have a high motivation for contributing to the company – especially, if they know how they can contribute. Therefore, it is important that management not only informs the employees about the company’s business status, but also do it in an understandable manner; how the business status affects the employees and how employees can contribute to the business. In this way, inclusion and active contribution are important ways to achieve a positive effect on employees’ safety-efficacy.

In addition to the positive stories shared in the company, it is recommended to also inform employees about company goals/objectives, current business status, main costumers, etc., as this information provides a relation between the company’s overall direction and own behaviour. And together with a high safety standard this has a positive effect on employees’ safety efficacy.

Concrete initiatives that can increase the employees’ knowledge about the company are:

Provide all employees (both on board and in the office) with information about the company, its goals and current business status, e.g. through meetings, newsletters, on board meetings
Tailor the information to each rank and function to ensure it is perceived as relevant, and to avoid information overload
When sharing information, include concrete inputs on how employees can act or contribute
Ensure that two-way feedback processes are in place between ship and shore, so employees have the opportunity to speak up and share their feedback

Empowering employees and seafarers

As a maritime consultancy company, we talk to a lot of office personnel and managers all around the world. In these talks, we sometimes see a tendency to a somewhat discouraging perception of the seafarers’ ability to manage safety: “They don’t understand that”, “If they are not told to do it, they will never do it”, “I don’t think they can handle that without being pushed”.

These examples indicate a negative and critical attitude in the maritime industry that many are unaware of. Unfortunately, we often meet this negative attitude: Vessels are controlled by the office staff via systems and procedures and responsibility is rarely delegated. The same tendency is also seen among ranks, where some superiors refrain from delegating responsibility to subordinate ranks which leads to a growing distrust and a negative working environment.

When office staff and superiors control, micro-manage and refrain from delegating responsibility, they signal a lack of confidence in the seafarers’ ability to manage safety. When seafarers directly and indirectly are met with negative attitudes and lack of confidence in their safety skills, they subconsciously start to adopt this attitude. In such environments, seafarers are rarely given the opportunity to show their ability to manage safety, hereby they miss the chance to show their safety abilities to themselves and their surroundings. Therefore, they continue to have a limited perception of their own ability to manage safety and the seafarers’ safety-efficacy is not built up, their safety performance remains on a low level and the working environment is poor.

We often see that vessels are controlled by the office staff via systems and procedures and responsibility is rarely delegated

However, there are ways to break this negative tendency, and here it is worth revisiting the Chief Officers’ quote presented in the first article:

“In the beginning they are reluctant to participate in this safety reporting activity because they lack self-confidence, but when they do it, they have a good experience and get confidence, and then it’s easier for them to voice out their opinions and ideas on other matters” (Chief Officer)

The quote shows that when seafarers are given the opportunity – and are encouraged to take it – they get the chance to build up own confidence in relation to their safety skills. As a result, they become more comfortable helping others, intervening in unsafe situations, suggesting new ways of doing, etc.

Companies gain a great benefit from empowered seafarers who believe in themselves and has a high safety-efficacy. Therefore, the value from trying to break the negative tendency is significant, for example by sharing positive stories as mentioned previously. Other ways to empower the seafarers and employees are:

Ensure regular dialogue between ship and shore
Take improvement initiatives based on feedback from seafarers
Trust that seafarers can manage safety, rather than assume they cannot and therefore do it for them
Dare to delegate responsibility to subordinates
Avoid micro-management
Apply leadership tools to build up an open and trusting culture

Safety-efficacy – a valuable employee focus

To sum up these two articles about safety-efficacy we can say that:

Safety-efficacy has an influential effect that has the potential to enhance a company’s safety standard.
The employees’ safety-efficacy can also be influenced by the surrounding company culture. A company with a high and consistent safety standard, are likely to have employees with an increased safety-efficacy as they subconsciously adapt to the company culture.
The safety-efficacy can also negatively influence a company’s safety culture and vice versa. Therefore, it is important to work on and nurture employees’ safety skills and safety-efficacy, for instance through sharing of positive stories, providing appropriate company information and empowering seafarers and employees.
What we have read:

Hald, Kim Sundtoft (2018): Social influence and safe behaviour in manufacturing.
Safety Sciencie 109 (2018) 1-11

Sussmann, M., Vecchio, R.P., (1982): A social influence interpretation of worker motivation.
Acad. Manage. Rev. 7 (2), 177-186

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Ida Krogh
Ida Krogh
Consultant
Copenhagen

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