Leading Culture Change Around Safety

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Written By: Brendan P. Keegan, Chairman, CEO & President

Just like any other company program, a fleet safety program requires buy-in and cultural support in order to be effective. Many companies have policies on the books, but often there is a disconnect between what is on paper and how people act day-to-day.  

Ultimately, a safety program is just as much about culture reinforcement as it is about driver performance data and accident rates. The question becomes how does a company create culture where a safety policy doesn’t just sit on a shelf, but is lived and breathed every day at each level of the organization? 

Lead by Example 

Whoever is the champion of a fleet safety program at an organization, whether it is the head of HR, the COO, the safety manager, or a combination of stakeholders, they must be on board with it themselves. When leading any kind of cultural change, it’s important for executives to, as the old saying goes, “eat their own dog food” – in other words, they have to lead by example. If they have company cars, they also should be enrolled in the safety program and be held to the same standards as required of the drivers. We have all had the experience where a leader rolls out a new policy or a change and says, “This is great for the company,” but then they do not follow the policy or embrace those changes themselves. In that situation, a program tends not to be as successful and lasting change does not take hold. 

Get the Right Buy-In 

Any safety program will have multiple key stakeholders that will need to be involved. Involving the head of human resources is vital because their department must support any incentives or consequences that are in the design of the program. Leaders of a company’s various business segments will also need to be on board, because if they are not aligned with making safety a priority, it makes a fleet manager’s job extremely difficult. Drivers will sense what is important to their division’s boss and will respond to that.  

To gain buy in from business leaders, you can discuss what dollars you’re putting into the program and what you expect to get back. Remember, you’re doing these programs because there is a financial reward – ultimately safer drivers can result in reduced liability and a reduction in maintenance issues associated with aggressive driving behaviors, and your total cost of ownership will be reduced. However, you may also present it as a brand issue to gain buy-in. If drivers are getting into accidents in branded trucks or speeding through local neighborhoods, that is detracting from your brand equity.  

It is also key to clearly discuss measuring the program – how you will measure results, frequency of measurement, the accuracy of that measurement, and the incentive and consequences you set for performance.  

Build A Driver Community 

There is a fine line between having a program that has executive support and one that is executive driven. It is important to make sure a safety program is not executive driven to the point where drivers’ main reaction is, We have to do it because she said we have to.” You want the groups impacted the most by the safety changes to have a role in the change. Think about how you can build a driver community.  

For example, at Merchants we have an employee-driven committee focused on innovation, and I purposefully do not attend all the meetings nor make all the decisons. This is so the committee becomes a space that is truly for employee ideas and so the message of innovation can come directly from them. Similarly, as you develop a safety program you may discover there are ways you can involve a driver committee or representatives so they are invested in the program as well.  

Intrinsic Motivation is Powerful 

In safety programs we often see extrinsic motivators – these are rewards like additional pay for a safe driving record or gift cards, and the use of gamification. But it is important to consider intrinsic motivation, or what can motivate drivers to get something out of the program for themselves. It can be hard to find intrinsic motivation triggers, because it involves digging deep. It becomes more than the company just telling drivers what to do and what not to do. 

At a previous company where I was CEO, we had a significant distracted driving problem and our accident rate was very high. This was ten years ago, when cell phones were newer. We were less aware of the dangers of distracted driving, and Bluetooth in cars was not widely available. Drivers were still distracted and using their phones, even though we had policies about not being on your phone and pulling over when you had to take a call. We had also done many trainings around these policies.  

I came up with thidea to give drivers a copy of the Will Smith movie Seven PoundsA main plot point of the movie is that Will Smith’s character gets into a car accident that kills his wife because he texted while driving. I asked every driver to watch the movie, and each DVD had a note on it that said, “Don’t do it for us – do it for yourselves and your families.” It was a unique and untraditional idea, but the response was powerful. Many said they would never text and drive again, and we saw a significant drop in accidents.  

A more traditional route to intrinsic motivation could be something like personal scorecards. When a driver sees their score of the month, then they may be driven to maintain that score or improve it the next month. You might also have a tally of “safe miles driven” that resets after an incident, so it inspires people to keep their streak going as it gets larger. 

Change Comes with Consistency 

Any culture change takes time, and safety is no exception. The key is consistency and commitment to your vision. With culture reinforcement, safety won’t just be a policy – it will become part of your drivers core professional values – and this will be the true indication of success. 

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