Over the years, I’ve met hundreds of amazing people working in road safety in government agencies, private companies, and nonprofits. I’ve also repeatedly seen the profound frustration of capable, motivated, smart, creative people who want to do the right thing and improve “the system.” But, their progressive thinking and strategy sometimes get repeatedly thwarted by obstacles.
It usually starts with something like this:
“It costs too much. There’s no budget.”
“It’s not in my job description.”
“We’ve always done it that way. With 30 years of experience, we know what we’re doing.”
“Our organisation isn’t ready for this change.”
“Nothing bad has happened yet.”
Of course, companies need processes, policies, procedures, and approvals to function efficiently and ensure consistent practices and culture, sometimes across many layers of management, employees, and circumstances. And there’s only so much money to go around. But, sometimes, safety best practices can get lost and mired in the Obstacle Mindset—or never even have a chance.
Why do these problems arise?
- An agency or organisation isn’t clear on (or never questioned) what its objectives or needs should be or how to articulate a strong business case. It may fail to ask the right questions and therefore goes on to build a sub-optimal program, vision, and culture based on erroneous assumptions.
- A company adopts a safety policy only to cover liability issues, not employee welfare. After all, safety—and the thinking and action behind it—is only as good as company policy.
- Excessive bureaucracy and regulation can interfere with safety best-practice—as in too many stakeholders, signoffs, and complicated coordination, with never enough time and attention to deal with it all.
- Companies spend money to patch up the most urgent, immediate crises to the exclusion of also developing long-term, systemic cultural changes that address the root causes of those crises.
- No one wants to take responsibility because the situation is too daunting, everyone is busy, or management is under endless pressure to cut costs.
- There is a disconnect between the aspirational versus the financial (“Training is the company’s foundation and safety is important, but it costs too much to do A, B, and C”).
- Decision paralysis is always lurking, so nothing ever gets decided on, and everything is perpetually shelved.
- Good leadership & stable org structures don’t last long enough to foster continuity and follow-through. An awful lot of projects, therefore, kick off with great momentum only to see that dwindle when key personnel move on or the organisation is restructured.
Now what? How do we overturn this Obstacle Mindset?
- Define the problem properly. Financial liability is a huge issue, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Road safety is often driven by dollar amounts and the priorities we assign to those dollars—medical costs, property damage, lost productivity, and insurance payouts. But quality of life and overall work satisfaction should also be priorities, which means the attitudes, skills, culture, and choices that get us there. After all, what improves driver safety often significantly improves stress, decision-making, judgment, and habits in other areas of our professional and personal lives.
Here’s an example: Find and address the root causes of the safety violations, not just the symptoms. For instance, why are your employees using their smartphones while driving? Because they’re in a hurry, afraid they’re not going to make their meetings or quotas if they don’t take that call or answer that text? Or is it a habit? Instead of just penalizing them, change the company culture that encourages hurrying and urgency over safety and better time management—and positively reward employees accordingly.
- Adopt two parallel approaches: short-term and long-term action. But make sure neither is ignored for the other and that they are both in place at the same. A company may be facing a crisis or symptom that urgently needs to be addressed now (employees speeding or texting while driving); this warrants immediate policy change (monitoring, warnings, penalties). But make sure to have a longer-term plan in place to work on those root causes over time.
- You don’t need to fix everything at once. But you do need to get started. Implementing a better safety workplace culture is hard and easy to put off, but starting with smaller, more incremental steps will be met with less resistance and more buy-in. Consider starting a smallscale pilot of a new driver safety solution in a suitable testbed as a stepping stone to a full global roll-out.
- People have resisted change since there were humans on the planet. Instead of fighting resistance to change, first, accept it. Then figure out why and start building solutions from there. Organisations sometimes need to meet people where they’re at rather than the other way around. Offer practical, positive solutions and strategically work to identify key decision-makers, win their buy-in, and integrate them into the process.
- Get outside your bubble by being—and staying—curious. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Reach out to others to find out how they solved the same issues you face. Investigate, research (especially similar situations outside your country), inquire, and read, read, read. Don’t be afraid to think creatively and across multiple disciplines, like psychology, social sciences, and behavioural research.