Case study: Transformative learning

Why do managers decide to make safety a priority? A severe incident or the lure of a bonus may be a motivator, but what causes them to change their perspective on safety?

To find out, Bruce Dodge, former researcher with the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education and manager of education and research at the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia, examined an organization’s safety improvement from the perspective of transformative learning.

According to Jack Mez­irow, who developed the theory of transformative learning, all people have assumptions, beliefs and expectations that form a frame of reference, which then shapes their actions. Transformative learning is the process of changing the frame of reference that was previously taken for granted.

Dodge looked at a senior living facility in Canada that had a near 50 percent reduction in lost-time injuries and 82 percent reduction in costs over a four-year period. He found that the improvement began with what Mezirow called a “disorienting dilemma” – an encounter that caused managers to question and ultimately change their frame of reference.

An operational review and third-party presentation had revealed safety performance was poor. That was a shock to managers who thought they were doing well with safety, especially after moving to a new facility where they assumed injuries would decrease. However, injury rates had, in fact, increased.

Dodge said managers looked critically at the program content, process and underlying premise of their safety efforts “and found that many of their assumptions about what was going on in the organization were not correct.”

That led to a different perspective. The CEO met with employees to tell them about the situation and hear their views. “In that process, they identified the corporate priority for safety, and they then consulted with front-line workers as to how they could improve their safety performance, then began to roll out programs that reflected that, precipitating a change to workers’ frames of reference,” Dodge said.

Leaders hired a safety director and made safety an operational priority that reflected their values. Out of the transformed frame of reference came a new sense of commitment, better training and manager accountability. According to Dodge, a fundamental change in how people thought about safety occurred, which led to dramatically different actions related to safety.

As a senior leader told Dodge, “We knew we had to make a cultural change.”

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