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  • Writer's pictureMike Sedam

Steeling Paper - Bridging Communication Gaps: A Lesson from the United Steelworkers

I was driving into work this morning, I listened to the “Pre-Accident Investigations” podcast by Todd Conklin. In episode 134, Mr. Conklin interviews Mr. Mike Wright, the Director of Health, Safety, and Environment for the United Steelworkers. (Note: It is a great episode and covers concepts about the “New View” of safety where workers are considered the solution. I highly recommend the episode, and the entire podcast for that matter.)

Although a lot of ideas jumped out at me during the podcast, I decided to write this blogpost about a very interesting statement made by Mr. Wright. In essence, he said that when they merged with the paper industry, they were able to bring some safety processes into the paper industry from the rubber industry that had not yet been shared. I found this story very interesting because I believe that the greatest power in any industry is the people in that industry.

What makes us different from all other social animals is our ability to communicate with each other and pass emotions and experiences to other people. This has made us flexible and successful as a species. The ability to transfer learned information to others is very valuable. Obviously, if we can learn through the stories shared by others, we don’t have to learn by living through our own story (or nightmare).

The question arises as to how to pass information on between two seemingly different groups. I am neither a paper expert, a rubber expert, nor a steel expert. I use some wonderful items made from these products, but that is where my knowledge ends. In my limited mind, it does seem like steelworkers may be a different group than paper workers. They may use different equipment, speak different words, dress differently, work in different environment, and have different cultures. How then can we bridge gaps between different groups in order for everyone to benefit?

One of the most powerful tools to bridge gaps between different groups is the use of a superordinate goal. This is a goal that can transcend the needs of either group. It is something people can get behind and work toward. For example, a steel worker may do their job differently than a worker in the paper industry. This does not mean they can’t both work toward the common goal of sharing safety information that they both benefit from. The steel worker may get there differently than the paper worker, but they can both get there.

One reason the union was so valuable to improving safety of workers across different industries was because they could effectively be used as a third party. When an outside party introduces a superordinate goal, some of the blockades that normally exist between two groups can be removed. The union introduced a goal of protecting workers and reducing injury, something both groups can support, and was able to use processes from the rubber industry that helped the paper industry protect workers and reduce injury. In doing so, they removed silos in communication between the two groups.

In your own companies and industries, superordinate goals are one of the tools that can be used to bridge gaps between groups.

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