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All About You: The safety pro and the ‘butterfly effect’

All About You by Richard Hawk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

A butterfly flaps its wings, creating a small current that weeks later will change weather conditions many miles away – enough to alter the path of a hurricane.

You’ve probably heard of this phenomenon. As entertainment, it has been the theme of science-fiction books and movies. Scientists differ in opinion about the “butterfly effect,” but I like the concept and it has inspired me at times to do my best even when I’m speaking to a small, tired audience.

As safety professionals, our efforts can go unappreciated because it’s difficult to directly tie what we do to a specific outcome. (Unlike a carpenter, who can point to a cabinet and say “I made that!”) You can’t honestly say that “because I conducted this training or inspected a piece of equipment, Tom Roberts in the electrical department didn’t get hurt this year.”

Injuries may have been avoided because of your actions, but you can’t prove it in a defined way. Yet when someone gets hurt or equipment is broken, you are called on to figure out how it happened and how to prevent it from occurring again. When you deal mostly with problems and don’t see specific positive results from your efforts, it’s easy to become discouraged. That’s when understanding and thinking about the “butterfly effect” can be a big help.

Your social impact

One brief interaction with a person may change several people’s lives – perhaps dramatically. I know that sounds grandiose, but it’s true. For example, if you compliment a mechanic on how clean she keeps her work area, it could lift her spirits for the rest of the day. That, in turn, could make her more upbeat in her interactions with other people, which will start a positive chain reaction. This could affect dozens of people – including family members when employees arrive home in a better mood than usual – all from your encouraging words!

You also can be mean or disrespectful to someone and create a broad negative effect. Either way, your actions are more powerful than you may realize. It’s just that you don’t usually get to see the big picture of your impact.

I know it’s unusual, but I keep finger puppets with me and give them out during my travels. I don’t get anything in return but a smile or a laugh. That’s OK, because I know giving out puppets has made a positive difference in hundreds of lives. Plus, it’s fun! You don’t have to give out finger puppets, but you can keep the butterfly effect in mind and realize that if you make efforts to brighten someone’s day, it matters.

You never know how much you will inspire someone

My fourth-grade science teacher, Mr. Roberto, used to tell long stories/jokes with incredibly dumb punch lines every Friday afternoon if the class did well that week.

I don’t remember how good of a science teacher Mr. Roberto was, but I do know that his jokes inspired me to want to do something similar as a career. Although I don’t usually tell jokes during my talks, I do tell stories, and I know Mr. Roberto would be surprised to learn how much his jokes inspired me to pursue a career as a professional speaker. (I still remember – and can tell – two of his longer jokes!)

Like Mr. Roberto, you may never know how much you will inspire someone by your words and actions. Keeping that in mind can help you do your best even when you can’t tell if your efforts are making a difference.

Praise yourself

A butterfly can’t admire itself, but you can acknowledge your own efforts. When you give yourself a mental pat on the back, nobody will think less of you – but you will think better about yourself. If you finish inspecting all the fire extinguishers at your site or complete some other “thankless” task, praise yourself. You deserve it! Your work is like the wind from a butterfly’s wings: Although it may not be visible, it makes a big difference.

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Richard Hawk helps companies around the world create more vibrant safety cultures by showing them how to make safety fun. As a professional speaker, author and musician, he also inspires employees to focus better and enlightens safety leaders about ways to increase their influence. To learn more about Richard, visit

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