Regardless of the amount of safety training offered or the standard operating procedures put in place, there are forces beyond a manager’s influence determining whether or not employees will administer proper decision making at a grain elevator. Most of these negligent choices will have little effect on the overall business yet others may have fatal consequences. The question is: How do managers evaluate, address and sway an employee’s behavior one way or another? A research assistant with Iowa State University’s Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering seeks to address this problem with her doctoral research.
Gretchen Mosher’s interest in decision making in the workplace stems from her professional and academic experiences. She spent her early career working with employees on “risky topics” in food safety. Her pursuits in academia led her to study education as a graduate student, and work toward her Ph.D. in industrial and agricultural technology under Dr. Charlie Hurburgh.
Inspired by a course in agricultural safety, Mosher decided to focus her dissertation on the correlation between the people component of safety and quality management system (QMS) adoption, and dig into the processes employees engage in to make positive decisions in an agricultural environment.
“I realized the study of decision making involved many of the motivation pieces also found in education theory,” she explains. “Employees are told why they should act safely, but understanding why they make their final decision choice — that’s what I want to explore.”
The connection between quality and safety presented an obvious — yet under studied — focus for her research. Mosher points to Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety & Health Program’s National Grain Entrapment Database noting that grain quality plays a major role in engulfment and entrapments incidents.
“If you have good grain, you don’t see people getting into the grain bin,” she says. “Preserving the quality of the grain automatically makes the environment safer for employees.”
Even those employees who have received safety training; who have been made familiar with OSHA standards; and who know how to properly perform their jobs willfully choose to make negative decisions, but why?
On a psychological level, Mosher cites Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory describing what motivates people to go beyond the scope of basic needs and strive for constant betterment. Safety is identified as one of the physiological foundations of this construct.
“When you look at how employees perceive their marching orders, if [managers] are not taking care of their basic safety needs — the need to feel safe and secure — surely the employee is not going to pursue any of the higher-level organizational quality goals which are then irrelevant if they don’t feel safe,” she says.
For example, if management stressed safety as the organization’s No. 1 priority; however, during demanding circumstances, a supervisor’s message turns to “we need to meet this deadline no matter what,” it contradicts and defeats prior precedent.
“In these specific cases, productivity appears to be the priority, and employees feel less safe,” she explains, compromising the employee’s perception of management’s consistency and in turn their level of trustworthiness.
The role of trust
Trust, Mosher found, is one of the key elements motivating employees to adopt safety and quality procedures.
“Management may not realize the extent of how much of a role perception plays in how they’re viewed by employees,” she says. “A manager may feel like they are — trustworthy, but it doesn’t matter how trustworthy they think they are, it’s how the employees feel about them.”
Managerial trust is defined by several characteristics, including consistency, credibility and communication, resulting in better performance, cooperation and added initiative from employees. The process of building trust, studies have found, is a slow process.