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Showing someone the ropes

To show someone the ropes is an expression we associate with someone experienced showing or teaching someone less experienced. The Oxford English Dictionary adds “to teach or explain to someone the customary ways of doing something.”

I realised the importance of this recently when I had to introduce a new family member to the “ropes” in a family holiday environment. Having holidayed at a particular venue several times, the new “team member” didn’t know how things worked, where things were and the rules of the facility. To make them feel more at home, a tour and some explanation were essential, and their demeanour changed visibly afterwards.

A similar situation presented itself in a volunteer setting. Although new team members were keen to assist with tasks, expecting them to figure it out on their own created considerable and visible stress. During my observation of them, it was clear to see they were watching what others did to see if they were doing things the right way. Having someone more experienced “show them the ropes” would have made them so much more comfortable and more effective sooner.

What do we learn? “People do what other people do” (Yiannas, Food safety=behavior, 2016) or my version “People are anxious to do what other people do to fit in as soon as possible – especially in new situations”.

This obviously has implications for food safety. We may have a great induction training programme, but this cannot cover all the task requirements for everyone. It is reasonable to expect that there will be some on-the-job training. And this is where we can teach the new incumbent our culture – the right culture or the wrong culture.

So, who does your on-the-job training? Have you thought about the selection of these “influencers” from a food safety culture perspective? They will play a pivotal role in the development of any new incumbent. They will pass on the right behaviours and attitudes, or they can do the exact opposite.

Our selection and evaluation of these informal trainers are critical. There are a few behavioural science principles we should consider here.

1.   Homophily

This means there is a tendency for humans beings to associate with others similar to themselves. Employees are likely to associate more with other employees in similar roles so how can we use this in a training context. Colleagues training each other may be more effective than a supervisor training a new person. Now that’s a thought!

2Who are your role models?

In a study done by Vos (Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 2009; 30:415-419), medical staff including physicians, nurses and medical students were surveyed about the importance of hand hygiene. Nurses and medical students expressed the importance of hand hygiene for preventing cross-infection among patients and themselves. All participants stated that personal beliefs about the efficacy of hand hygiene and examples and norms provided by senior hospital staff are of major importance for hand hygiene compliance.

Medical students explicitly mentioned that they copy the behaviour of their superiors, which often leads to non-compliance during clinical practice.

This study has several important lessons for us. The obvious one – LEAD BY EXAMPLE trumps every time but the fact that students COPY their role models is a significant factor in the outcome.

We can choose role models at shopfloor leave who can influence behaviour. We also need to ensure that superiors whether supervisors or managers are in fact “good” role models – but we know this, don’t we?