Getting Your Safety Message Past the Tribe Mentality at Work

Written by: Sierra Morris

In the earliest days of our long genetic history, humanity lived in small tribes to increase its chances of survival. Humanity is, by nature, a social species. While humans may have many self-centered instinctual drives, humanity to this day retains the instinctual desire to belong to and protect tribes of varying sizes and inclusiveness (Wilson).

In the age of supermarkets and department stores, this tribal nature has undeniably undergone a shift; tribes these days no longer consist of primitive hunters and gathers. “Tribes” today occur on many different levels – football team fan bases, church groups, political affiliations, and, of course, the tribes within the workplace.

getting safety messages through to employees

An individual’s “tribe” within the workplace may be as large as the entire company itself or as small as “2nd shift welders.” A common and widely applicable source of tribal tension in the workplace, however, comes in the form of “management” and “the managed.”

This post discusses the tribe mentality that can exist in the workplace, and how to get past it in order to improve your safety program.

Get Employees to Buy Into Safety

But, what is the significance of tribal behavior in the workplace? Why does that sort of thing even matter?

Tribal instincts affect the workplace in a multitude of ways. First, safety culture is born and cultivated by the individual tribal groups within the workplace. “Culture” of any sort is just the agreed-upon values held by the tribe as a whole; it’s a very powerful thing, as most members of a tribe will feel pressured to uphold and embody the group’s cultural values.

But unless you have a very small workplace where everyone from the night guard to the president of the company belongs to the same social group, you will inevitably have varying safety cultures within the workforce.

It is very important for safety management to understand that their tribal safety culture (very pro-safety) may not necessarily be the same as the safety culture in other workforce tribal groups. It is also very important that safety management understand that this human instinct to form tribes makes improving the safety culture of the entire workforce rather difficult; an outsider attempting to shape the culture of another tribal group faces many unique challenges.

Get employees to buy into safety

Why? Because humans are fiercely protective of their tribes, and incredibly wary of outsiders – people outside of their group are instinctually perceived as “less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, and less competent” (Wilson).

Because of this, some workplaces may be plagued by an unmistakable “us vs them” element between “management” and “the managed.” “The tendency to form groups, and then to favor in-group members, has the earmarks of instinct” (Wilson).

How to Infiltrate Other Workplace Tribes

As a potential outsider, safety management will have to present themselves – and their pro-safety message – as trustworthy, competent, and fair. Outsiders must, in a way, seem to be part of the tribe for their message to be received and absorbed into the culture. This is where many safety professionals go wrong – they assume their instructions and encouragement regarding safe work procedures will be taken up by their audience simply because they are in a position of authority; unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Become Relatable

Politicians do this sort of thing all the time; often when visiting a state while campaigning, politicians will open with some special anecdote about the state, or how much they love the state they’re visiting. Politicians also like to talk about their ancestry, often striving to highlight their humbler origins to seem empathetic to the lower and middle class – the largest economic “tribes” in the United States.

be responsive to safety concerns

These are all a ploy to infiltrate tribes to which they do not naturally belong, using classical rhetoric (more specifically, ethos.) Of course, people in the same workplace likely live in the same state, and management is probably better off not trying to relate to their workforce through income woes. But there are many ways management can seem relatable to their general audience – learn your people, know what they care about, know what issues they have in common, and relate to them.

Use the Ethos Means of Persuasion

“Ethos” is a means of persuasion in classical rhetoric; ethos focuses on making the speaker seem credible and trustworthy (Rapp). According to Aristotle and his rhetorical model, a speaker must seem practically intelligent, virtuous and moral, and well-meaning toward his or her audience (Rapp). Given that safety management may be coming from the outside of a workforce tribe to push program agendas, safe work procedures, and policies, taking Aristotle’s methodology into account might be helpful.

If your company’s safety management team does not seem knowledgeable, just, and well-meaning, you may have difficulty getting your workforce to “buy in” to safety. Make sure that hot button issues such as accountability and employees-first attitudes are given extra attention.

Sincerity is Key

Part of displaying good will and positive intentions toward “the managed” should be sincerity. Disingenuousness is one of the quickest turn-offs when it comes to appearing well-meaning. All too often, safety management teams will push cheesy slogans or emotionally-laden messages onto the workforce, in an attempt to emotionally manipulate employees into cooperation.

The problem is, most people can see through these tactics, and recognize the attempt to manipulate them with catchy sayings and emotion-heavy messages. Overusing emotional appeals, corny safety slogans, intellectually demeaning reward systems, etc. can come off as condescending or disingenuous.

how to get your safety messages through

Again: avoid pathos-heavy agendas, slogans, training tactics, rewards, etc. at all costs. The best and most ethos-friendly approach for relations between safety management and the workforce in general is, honestly, “keeping it real.”

So, What’s the Point?

Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, subtle divides exist within the workplace. It’s human nature to band together into tight-knit social groups, some of which at work may exclude management-level personnel (and their agendas and messages along with them).

It’s important to understand these potential barriers and the ways to overcome them. If your safety management team is having a hard time communicating with the workforce, consider these tribal walls may exist, and they must be broken down in order for real progress and effective communication to take place.

Works Cited

Rapp, Christof. “Aristotle’s Rhetoric.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. May 02, 2002. Accessed November 09, 2017.

Wilson, E. O. “Biologist E.O. Wilson on Why Humans, Like Ants, Need a Tribe.” American Renaissance. April 05, 2012. Accessed November 09, 2017.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sierra Morris resides in Fort Polk, LA
with her husband and two dogs. Still relatively new to the OSH world,
Morris seeks to make sense of occupational safety and health
issues through a lens of behavioral and social psychology.

sierra morris

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