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Another rule? How about some engagement?

Typically, many highly regulated industries focus on rules, compliance and enforcement. In many circumstances this is essential, but often it can breed a culture of resentment, withdrawal and disengagement. Often the application of rules fails to put the human at the centre, and therefore fails to effectively enable rule following.

Let me share a person story about how rule enforcement can be counterproductive…

I used to own a bomb of a car, imagine the Flintstones ride with a sometimes-working engine. And yes, we did have to push start it down the road on occasion (not embarrassing at all!). Unbeknownst to me, it was also the kind of car where you put your foot down on the accelerator and would stall, and that is exactly what happened when I pulled out to cross a freeway in the country with cars travelling at 110km/h.

Completely side-swiped, and taken down, thankfully I walked out of there… imagine Vin Diezel in Fast and the Furious after his car tumbles down the speedway. The ambulance came, and while they were taking glass out of my eye, a Police Officer walked up to me and handed me an insanely expensive fine for “Refusing to Give way”. Obviously, I was not aware of the fault in my vehicle, and I certainly was not motivated to stop my car in the middle of oncoming traffic!

Rules have a place, but in most instances, it is how rules and guidelines are communicated and applied that matters most. We know from psychology research that when individuals are self-motivated and receive positive reinforcement, they are more likely to take meaningful action.

Also, when rules are distilled down to a few simple principles, then making decisions and choices becomes a lot easier than keeping track of an endless labyrinth of rules. The Road Safety Act in 1986 had 103 rules across 159 pages, and now the latest version (no. 217; October 2022) has 191 rules across 832 pages.

In contrast, an organisation I used to work with used key principles that were encouraged as part of a positive safety culture. They lived and breathed the safety principles ‘the standard you walk by is the standard you accept’ and ‘everyone gets home to their family safely’. This was the catalyst for holding others accountable for unsafe behaviours and provided meaning behind the safety rules. There was no need to draft 100 rules for what not to do. The key principles set an outcome that we all supported and we trusted staff to do the rest.

It was amazing how effective this approach was, and there was an engaging narrative and stories that leaders would share about why this was so important. What made it powerful was that it was simple and focused on what matters most.

We can easily get carried away with the rule book, and it appears our society and organisations have become more and more rule-oriented. This is reflected in the sheer number of procedures that most companies have stacked up in their systems. Some might argue this is because we are becoming increasingly sophisticated and so more rules help manage the complexity of our daily lives, and some might suggest it is because we are more legalized in our approach than ever before.

From a psychological perspective, one might wonder how on earth people remember all these rules, whether they are all essential, and how they might be best applied in meaningful and engaging ways.

Different industries are excellent at designing their systems to engage the user and we can learn a lot from them, such as the game industry. My nephew likes to play Minecraft, he could talk for hours on end about it. The game is full of rules and guidelines, but he loves it! According to Self-Determination Theory, all of us have psychological needs, that when fulfilled improve our satisfaction, wellbeing, engagement and performance. These include the need to feel competent and capable in our jobs, the ability to make decisions and have autonomy, and lastly the need for connection and positive interpersonal relationships. These are all known principles that improve employee engagement (Wiedemann, 2016).

Organisations can apply these principles in the design and communication of health and safety rules and messages. For example, by introducing opportunities for consultation on important matters, having an ideas suggestion box, developing a gamified safety management system, or introducing a safety tool that makes application of rules simpler. Approaches such as these can connect peers together, increase competence, and provide a sense of control and autonomy.

As part of project Wide Awake we will be identifying where there might be opportunities to better support truck driver engagement, because without engagement in safety initiatives, then change is impossible. The approach we are taking involves journey mapping the day in the life of a truck driver, and conducting ride alongs to validate and explore issues and opportunities. We will keep you posted on our progress and findings! Stay tuned.

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