What have you done with your hands and fingers today? Perhaps you’ve made a really great coffee, taking care to judge exactly the right amount of coffee grounds and getting the water balance and temperature just right. That’s the first thing Andrew does every morning – his days don’t start unless a good strong coffee welcomes the sun coming up. For Darren, the first thing for him is putting his contact lenses in; it’s a delicate operation that requires a steady hand and a delicate touch.

Have you done the same? Or maybe used your smartphone or laptop with a touchscreen that requires one of those deft gestures or swipe features to access an application. We’ll bet that your fingers have been important to you already today.

Our senses

Our senses are amazing, aren’t they? That first sight of the sun rising in the morning, or glimpse of a loved one. From the taste of that first sip of coffee, to the sound of the ocean crashing, the amazing scents of an early spring or autumn morning, and the buzz we feel when we listen to our favourite song. But what about the sense of touch? It’s an often underrated sensation that we seem to take for granted. It’s just there, a fundamental part of our everyday lives as our hands and fingers get about their duties helping us move through the day.

So just imagine if the sense of touch wasn’t there for a while, or even not there at all. Many of us may have imagined – and even experienced briefly – what life might be like if we lost our sight, or our hearing – but what about losing our sense of touch? Or to not be able to touch anything ever again? We humans are remarkably resilient and adapt remarkably well to these loss situations over time if we become blind or deaf, but accident victims tell us that loss of the sense of touch is often much more challenging to overcome.

So, before we even start to talk about gloves, the wearing of them and of course the implications of not wearing them, we must first identify exactly why it might be important to us. We could identify here the implications of Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome, or a severed finger, and hey, even those cuts and grazes that will leave scar tissue that doesn’t quite have that same feel that it used to have.

The power of why

Often in safety, experts create a compelling reason for control measures. Risk assessment helps us decide what’s needed to keep hazards and risks under control, and the outcome is that leaders tell employees what needs to be done. Good leaders also explain how the controls should be used, but we’ve come to learn that truly great leaders approach things in a different way.

You may be familiar with the TED Talk, The Power of Why – How Great Leaders Inspire Action, by Simon Sinek. As one of the most watched and useful TED Talks of all time, if you haven’t seen it yet it’s a worthwhile 18 minutes of learning, and is a powerful message that can be applied to safety performance.

Sinek says that the great Martin Luther King used these principles of behavioural science to 60 encourage people to “want to show up for him in the mall in Washington for his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, when there were no tickets or even a website to check the date.” So, let’s see how we might apply these same principles to inspire people to actually want to wear their gloves. Because let’s face it, quite often people really don’t want to.

In safety, and in many areas of business, when we want someone to do something, we tend to ask or occasionally even tell them exactly what we would like them to do. We would normally follow that up with suggesting how they might perform that task, too, possibly even sending people on a training course so that they know exactly how they should do it. Then there can be no argument or suggestion that people don’t know what to do. The leader and the organisation have made things very clear for people to understand precisely what they should do and even how they should do it. Yet despite the signs advising of the rule, people still don’t wear their gloves. What’s happening?

There has to be a better way

The whole premise of “The Power of Why” is that we should start with a compelling reason why we believe it to be important to wear gloves. So, thinking about hand protection and PPE, one idea might be to vocalise what we believe is most important about hands, our fingers or our sense of touch. During our consulting work, when we ask employees what’s most important about their hands, people usually say things like “I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t have the use of my hands” or “I couldn’t use my smartphone too well without the sense of touch” we’ve even heard “I couldn’t drink my glass of Single Malt Scotch Whisky from my favourite wee glass.”

“The Power of Why, by Simon Sinek – one of the most watched and useful TED Talks of all time”

But when we keep asking them to tell us more, nudging them to think a bit more with questions like “No really, why are your hands so very important to you?” eventually we elicit a more emotional response like “I couldn’t hold hands with my partner” or “I couldn’t pick up and cuddle my children or grandchildren.” Now, finally, we have a compelling reason for why we should wear gloves!

Servant leadership

So, the next phase is to get the how, and again, this might be very different to how you’ve achieved this before. We suggest that you apply the principles of servant leadership here and really engage with those people who we want to wear gloves. This means actively involving them in the key decisions such as:

  • Which type of glove is best for which task – and why
  • Where they should be kept
  • How they should be maintained
  • How they should be carried when not being worn

And then the reasons the gloves will be used will naturally follow from here.

Theory of Self Determination

We propose – like Sinek does – that to truly engage people and build their risk literacy, we need to turn the traditional approach on its head. There’s lots of science that backs up this simple ‘reframe’ from What- How-Why to Why-How-What; for example, Self Determination Theory. This Theory helps us understand how things like motivation and discretionary effort can be unlocked and create a shift to intrinsic motivation and a ‘want to’ attitude.

According to Deci and Ryan, who developed the theory and related it to several areas of performance, Self Determination Theory suggests that there are three identifiable phases to motivation: purpose (or relatedness), autonomy, and mastery (sometimes referred to in the literature as competence). 62 If you think about how people learn to play guitar then you’ll start to understand how this works. They start off with a strong purpose, or reason why they want to play guitar; it might be to emulate someone that they admire or to be able to play a favourite riff or phrase of music.

They’ll then choose how they’ll learn, which is where autonomy comes into play. Will they take lessons, learn from a friend or a podcast, or will they try to teach themselves? And then of course the what (mastery) will naturally follow, they’ll want to get better each day and deliberate practice will become a daily habit or a ritual.

Creating high performance

Some of the most successful sports coaches around the world have used the principles of Self Determination Theory very effectively. They don’t autocratically direct their teams to do a specific act or to carry out a procedure. They tend to involve the group in deciding the best course of action in any given scenario, having first identified a compelling reason why this is important to the team’s success in the future. The team will become much more engaged and intrinsically motivated and they are much more likely to give their very best to the cause.

In fact, if you’ve ever become really really good at anything at all in life, you will probably be able to relate the concept of Self Determination Theory to identify how you might have got there. And it’s our guess that it probably wouldn’t have been that someone told you exactly what you had to do!

Rituals beat rules

Daily rituals or habits override any rules that might be in place for us and perhaps there is no better example of this than in the military or the emergency services. If you’ve ever noticed an “airborne soldier” (paratrooper), they tend to wear maroon coloured berets in most areas of the world. They will wear it in a very particular way, their cap badge precisely placed directly above their left eye and the cloth shaped in a clearly identifiable way sloping to the right.

There are no rules to this, it’s just become a ritual over time and to do anything different would be unthinkable. Fire crews and emergency medical technicians will tell you that they have similar rituals that can’t really be properly documented into manuals or tangible rules.

What can we learn from this with regard to the wearing of gloves? Well, we need to actively encourage the development of similar rituals for this, too. Once people have developed a habit, the wearing of gloves will become an automatic, subconscious activity just like the wearing of seat belts or not smoking in public places has become.

Cues and triggers

It can also help if we can find someone as a role model that people can associate themselves with. A company we worked with several years ago invited their local professional rugby team to their distribution site. These were huge guys who did lots of heavy lifting, push ups and chin ups. They talked about how they protected their hands whilst they were doing their training.

Why? Because they needed their hands to retain full sensitivity so that they could catch a rugby ball better on match day, they also told everyone that no matter how fit, how tough you might be or how great a V-Shaped back looks, “my woman won’t let me touch her if I got rough hands.” That message really resonated with the staff at the distribution site!

A few posters with pictures of the rugby team and some of their key phrases and people were now more effectively reminded and motivated to wear their gloves; the tough rugby players served as a strong and valid reminder of their reasons why.

So, let’s join hands together and think about a new way to respond to our risk assessments. Instead of telling people what to do and how, flip your approach to start with why. Not only will it help boost the chances of Self Determination Theory kicking in, but when you find a why that really resonates with your people you’ll realise that telling them what and how becomes unnecessary.

To find out what their why is – just ask them one question: why is safety important to you?