Making a Difference: How To Communicate About Using Masks for COVID
HOW TO COMMUNICATE ABOUT USING MASKS for COVID, based on my professional experience.
“Save grandma. Wear a mask”
“Help your neighbor, please wear a mask”
“Be a team player, wear a mask”
• Identify what is important to them (not you)
• Tell them why it is important
• Always be positive
• Be patient, changing human behavior is hard and takes time
• Decide that you want to be effective in your communication, stay on point. Less is more, unless they ask for information.
• Negative criticism doesn’t work. Ever. It makes the person resent the change that is desired.
• Scolding doesn’t work. See above.
• Blaming some third party doesn’t work.
• Politicizing the behavior doesn’t work, and it makes a person doubt the message.
• Indulging in what makes you feel better rather than what is effective.
Above, I wrote, “based on my professional experience”. Part of that experience is in the world of employee safety, where connecting with the employee to have them adopt improved safe behaviors is the number one most important thing in keeping them safe at work. I have done this across the US, from the West Coast, to the Midwest, Texas, and the South. I have setup programs in Mexico, South America, and Eastern Europe. Trying to understand the employees’ culture and what motivates them is the single most important thing in trying to improve our collective safety culture. And I have seen amazing progress over time. Adapting the message occurs country to country, region to region, and sometimes plant to plant, and even department to department. It takes time, but it’s worth it.
I have spent hours, days, weeks, and months over a number of years learning how to better connect with the workers in our plants to improve their safety, which is where the DOs and DON’Ts come from. In our Mexico plants, family is the most important thing and the best way to connect with workers. We worked diligently on reducing injuries to hands, which is the most frequent type of injury in our kind of work. We invested large quantities of time, effort, and money over the course of 18 months, but we were still having high rates of hand injuries. Then we invited their families to work on a weekend and showed wives, husbands, daughters, and sons around the Plant. The children made finger paint hand prints on posters and wrote notes to their parents. “I’m waiting for you at home!” “Can we play when you get home tonight?” and, “I miss you Papa,” were some of the notes. We put those posters near the entrances to the Plant and on walls throughout the Plant. Six months later the rate of injuries was less than half of what it was before we invited the families onsite.
In Poland our workers want to do their work the same way, all the time. Their consistency and pride in their work is very high. We were having difficulty with our workers improving how they handled cranes carrying large, heavy pieces of metal. The downside of doing work the same way, all the time is that change is difficult because they already know “the right way to do it”. We had a few serious injuries over a period of time and change was still not occurring even though we upgraded equipment, procedures, and training. One day I was out in the plant with the manager of all operations and we came across someone being right under a large, heavy load, only for a moment, but we both saw it. And he saw me. He could tell that I was horrified by what I saw and truly concerned for the worker. That clearly communicated to him that they were not doing the work “the right way”. We had a meeting with all of the managers towards the end of the day to discuss several items; one of which was how to move large, heavy pieces of steel with a crane. My comment to the group was, “You do such a great job with your manufacturing process and keeping employees safe that I am surprised that we keep putting people at risk when we are moving large, heavy pieces of metal.” We again identified the few, relatively simple changes that needed to be made. The next day I walked through the plant and I could see the difference already. I visited the plant again two months later and everything they were doing with moving heavy pieces of metal was spot on perfection.
In the US at one of our plants in the south we were having difficulty consistently performing all of the tasks needed to safely perform work in what are referred to as “confined spaces”, areas that are enclosed or have constricted access that may have dangerous exposures to workers, like low oxygen levels or toxic fumes. There is a safe way of performing work in these areas, but it requires everyone involved in the procedure to be trained and do their job the right way every time. There were intermittent problems in implementing the procedure even though we trained and re-trained and bought new equipment. Then I changed the training so we described the process like a football play and appealed to the team working together. Everyone on the team had a role and the only way to win and beat the risks was for everyone to execute their blocking duties, so the QB and the running back could complete the play inside the confined space. Our workers were nodding in agreement during the training and would high five each other when they finished their work. The behaviors changed and the problem was solved.
One quick note on negative feedback. It can only work if you have authority over someone and even then its effect is short-lived. We bought a plant in Eastern Europe where workers were not wearing hard hats nor safety glasses. After we bought the plant we identified that needed to change. The problem is the management at that plant only used negative reinforcement, yelling at the employees or somehow punishing them if they were caught not wearing the equipment. I would have us pause before entering a new part of the plant, then step into the area and pause again. I could see the ripple effect over about the length of a football field of people moving to the back of their work stations to quickly grab their hard hats and put them on. If it was not such a serious subject, the scene would have been comical. I would circle back later and not re-enter the area, but observe the situation from an obscure location. Many of the workers had taken their hardhats or safety glasses off since the supervisor was no longer in the area. We were eventually able to change the management style and now the workers wear their equipment without prompting. Negative feedback just doesn’t work. People resent the behavior they are admonished to take, rather than internalizing and adopting the behavior.
The DOs and DON’Ts I list are empirical rather than theoretical. The rules were developed because they work, not because I think they ought to work or because I read somewhere that they should work. For COVID, the same DOs and DON’Ts hold true. The message needs to change to account for the person’s age, where they live, what their family situation is, and their politics. The “why” should be something they care about and relate to. Please stay on message, connect with why wearing a mask is important to that person, be willing to explain why, be persistent, and be patient. And, please, please, please avoid the “DON’Ts “. It takes 10 “DOs” to overcome 1 “DON’T”. And that is not an exaggeration, trust me (I know from experience).