The Anatomy of Safety Change
Updated: Jan 30
Analyzing the anatomy of change drives us to look at how our body and brain react to any change. Therefore, understanding what triggers we can use to minimize someone's resistance to change is essential.
From a safety perspective, when we talk about 'anatomy,' we focus on the human brain and how we use that. Some people don't use their brains, and that's why they get hurt. But, when you're trying to make a positive change or do something different than it's always been done - how do you convince people to change? What is the rationale that we should use?
Change is a rational thing; it needs to be; otherwise, why is it being done in the first place? However, conveying the rationale behind the change is often complicated, and good and bad ways exist.
If we consider our own lives, change happens everywhere. The world we live in changes, our levels of maturity change, our jobs change, and equipment and technology change. Change is a natural part of life. But change can also be scary, tricking our brains into rejecting even 'rational' change. Often the known change is thought about more irrationally than unknown change - it's the brain's natural defense. The brain is interested in maintaining the status quo - "if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it."
In safety and considering the 'anatomy' of change, we look at the human brain from two perspectives. The prefrontal lobe is the first to consider. This part of the brain is where all the rational thinking is done. It's the place where problems are solved. Suppose you're faced with a problem that you've yet to encounter. In that case, the prefrontal lobe is where the information is delivered and processed, and it generally starts processing logically and rationally. In theory, your brain would begin asking itself, based on the information provided, what the hazards are, how you could hurt yourself, and what's the problem about. to process the information necessary; the prefrontal lobe is using the energy from your blood at approximately the same rate as your major muscle groups use it.
To reduce the energy it is using, the brain does something exciting. As new tasks become routine, as we become more and more familiar, the prefrontal lobe starts to get a little lazy and passes information processing to the basal ganglia. This part of the brain is at the base of the brain and is known to be where habits are formed and processed.
This is the part of the brain where we do our rational thinking. This is where we reason. This is where we problem-solve, and we do a lot of other things. Anytime you do a task you've never done, you ought to use your prefrontal lobe. You ought to think about it rationally. You ought to ask yourself, "How could I get hurt? Where are the dangers in this, and what's it all about?" Tasks that become more routine, that we've already discovered where the dangers are, we can do these tasks differently with a different part of our brain. That part of the brain is called the basal ganglia. It's the very base part of the brain and the part where we do things habitually.
We now see 'conscious thought' and 'subconscious thought' (sometimes known as 'unconscious thought'). For things that we know well and often do, you don't have to think about it - your brain uses the basal ganglia to do it. Maybe you'll need to make minor adjustments, but for the most part, it's on autopilot. Think walking, opening doors, hitting a nail.
Considering the workplace and our drive to ensure safety is at the forefront of people's minds, how do you keep people 'rationally' thinking about safety? Actively considering the hazards and potential problems? The brain anatomy is trying actively to stop this.
The brain recognizes that it cannot use so much energy - so using the basal ganglia is simply energy conservation. The prefrontal lobe recognizes that burning itself out isn't good; what if it was to require an energy boost to save itself (to fix a complex problem quickly)? This is 'rational.'
If we then decide to make a change, either our prefrontal lobe will kick in and rationally work through the change (using lots of energy), or we'll automatically respond (from the basal ganglia) to assume this isn't 'normal' or habitual, and we'll reject the change. Both of these things are rational for the brain.
The amygdala is that little part of the brain that triggers the survival response. Generally, it's considered 'irrational,' but it's a fundamental instinct that humans have developed over time to respond to immediate threats. For example, suppose we believe something will kill us (think a tiger on the loose in your front yard). In that case, the amygdala does something about it, it sends adrenalin to the body to give a short energy boost, and we go into flight or fight mode. Will we run from the danger, or will we fight the threat? This is synonymous with change; if we believe that the change threatens us, the amygdala will kick off.
Interestingly, the amygdala also responds to social (including in the workplace) fears in the exact way it responds to physical fears. So even if our physical life isn't being treated, maybe it's our ideas, our norms, or our status quo - the amygdala recognizes the threat and responds. And to those being 'threatened,' the response physically is the same - it'll make us want to fight or run away.
The trick is safety is trying to get people to think. Change happens easier if they are thinking, even if they're using energy; it's logical and rational.
So what are the natural triggers of resistance to change?
Fear: If you see the change as a challenge to your way of thinking, to your status quo.
Overload: If you can't see that the change is worth the effort if you're already working hard and stressed and unable to handle more 'effort.'
Confusion: Despite the change being 'rational' to some, if you can't see the rationality, you'll assume it's going to be complicated or that the change will impact you negatively.
Conflict: If you consider the change to your job, the organization, or the way things are usually done, and you see it conflicts with any of those, you're not going to be receptive to the change.
So the question becomes, how does the safety professional reduce the barriers to change and increase the chances that the workforce will accept change?
First, you need to consider the three parts of the brain discussed: the prefrontal lobe, the basal ganglia, and the amygdala.
We know that at least one of those brain parts will initially be triggered. The prefrontal lobe will be thinking, 'yeah, I guess that makes sense, "I'm sure we can find a way to manage this change. The basal ganglia are thinking, 'wait up, this isn't what I'm used to, or we'll get the amygdala saying, 'hell no, fight this or run away from it.
A good idea for the safety professional, then, is to front-end load and make extra efforts to engage the rational part of the brain. This is done through engagement and ensuring that people are aware of the change, are involved in the ideas to change, and can provide input and suggestions on how to make the change work. Asking, "How could we do this better" is a good start. That ownership and the understanding that it's new but not necessarily scary keeps the brain from triggering a negative response. People don't feel they're being forced to do something against their will, or that'll cause fear, overall confusion, or conflict.
How people are engaged is also essential. For example, suppose the safety professional seems to be engaging for the sake of talking or telling or showing disrespect or rudeness. In that case, that'll engage those negative triggers and a level of angst that isn't helpful. It turns out that being told to 'just do it, dummy' isn't an effective technique to facilitate long-term and sustainable change properly.
Another gap that safety professionals must recognize is that 'supervisors' aren't always good coaches or mentors; they cannot effectively train their staff, which is particularly important when something changes. By training supervisors to teach and helping them to cascade change effectively, we can minimize the impact that change will have and the likelihood of adverse reactions in the shop floor staff.
Change is never easy, but understanding the basics of how the 'anatomy' impacts their willingness to accept change can significantly improve the organization's efforts towards better safety performance.