As a safety professional, it's vital that you can get your fellow workers in alignment with the company safety goals, so that everyone is working safely and productively.
One of the important skills for a safety professional, that I mention in the article, Seven Tips to Cultivating Your Personal Safety Brand, is that safety professionals need to the friendliest person in the building. They must get along with just about everyone in the organisation. They have to be a people person.
And the reason isn't to become every-one's friend (although, that's highly advisable, it's not always achievable). It's to build trust. Because the irony is that if you want to create a safe workplace, people have to trust you. People might not always like you, but they trust that you have their best interests at heart.
When people trust you, they will feel safe to speak up about safety issues, work that little bit harder and go to you when they want safety information. In other words, they will feel safe that you care about them and their health. And that your not just another member of management telling them what to do, in a veiled attempt to save costs or improve productivity.
Building trust is fundamental to leadership and an important component of encouraging employees to want to work safely. And it's been that way for millennia.
Back in the day when humans where roaming the African savannah, it was in our best interests to live in tribes. Becoming part of a tribe meant we could fall asleep soundly knowing that others were looking out for saber toothed tigers and snakes. And that we could eat if we were too sick to hunt because fellow tribespeople would help us out. We were able to trust that other people would look out for us and they could trust that we would look after them.
In the workplace, employees need to see and feel evidence that their workplaces are safe and that their fellow co-workers are looking out for them. More importantly, workers need to trust that their boss and their safety manager really care.
In the Workplace Culture Model for High Performing Companies, I recommend that there are three areas business leaders need to balance for a safe workplace: Unity, Compassionate Leadership and Communication.
Once these three inter-related factors are working in unison, you hit trust, the sweet spot. This is when people feel safe at work.
Workers look to senior leaders to see that safety is a priority and that they are safe from harm. They get this from clear communication that is transparent, authentic and has no trace of hypocrisy. They see it from a unified workplace where people work together and look out for each other. And they feel it from compassionate leaders who care about them. This in turn enables workers to feel safe to excel and take risks in their career, knowing they are protected from getting injured at work or from being bullied or harassed by colleagues (you can read more about improving your safety culture in this free report:Workplace Safety Culture).
Is your Communication Style Working Against you?
Every communication we make is an action, a cause set in motion. All communication has some kind of effect on ourselves and others.
That's why as a safety professional, your communication style is so important when keeping the safety of others in the workplace in check. Yet, so often safety professionals communicate in a way that works against building trust. It works against their credibility. In fact, many safety professionals unwittingly let people believe their safety doesn't matter.
The result is that when the safety practitioner turns up, everyone tunes out. The expectation is that the grumpy policeman or woman is about to demand compliance. While on a subconscious level, everyone knows that safety is all about the safety professional and how much they know, it's not about people and keeping them alive.
Some that this is done is:
- Making it about them - The secret to any good leader is that they never make their message about themselves. They don't use "I" in their speeches. A poor safety manager says "I need you to all reach our safety goals" or "I need you to do this new process that I developed this way." A great safety manager says "We need to reach this safety goal, together we can make it a reality, so that you go home safe to your family every night" or "This is how you do this process."
- Make people wrong - This is one area where I frequently see safety professionals make mistakes and sadly, some of them don't even understand why it's so damaging to their workplace and their reputation. Ask yourself, how do you let someone know that they've done the wrong safety process? Do you humiliate them in front of others? Do you tell them "You're doing it wrong! Do it this way like I told you?" As I say to trainees in my SELLSAFE Communication system course, communication is about feedback, not failure. Always focus on the solution, not the problem. If you're focusing on what people did wrong, it's your ego doing the talking. It's about you being right. When you do this, people will instantly turn off from your message and, you.
- Show no interest - Most safety professionals get this right, but there are always a few that would prefer to lock themselves into their sterile, cubicle and not get their shoes dirty. If you want people to trust you, you have to get out there and talk to them. Find out about their lives, their interests, their families. And don't talk about safety. Show that you care. I had a safety professional recently tell me he didn't do small talk and how irritated he'd get when people wanted to chat with him. He also wondered why his contract was ending prematurely.
- Lack of follow through - Humans are very good at quickly assessing whether a person means what they they say. This means if you tell people to not use their mobile phone while walking through the factory floor, but you do it once a week, no-one will believe you or take you seriously. It also means showing up for meetings on time and taking action on what you said you would. You can't expect people to take action, if you don't. I recently had 26 appointments with safety leaders around the world who said that on a scale of 1 to 10, they were a 10 for being committed to changing their safety results. 50% didn't show up. What do you think that says about their commitment to improving safety? How do you think they rate with their commitment for caring about others at their workforce?
Essentially, to be the best safety leader, employees need to trust that the decisions you make about their health and safety have been made in the best interests of the group. They want to know that you care.
When you miss an appointment or a phone call or don’t do what you said you would what you’re effectively saying is that your word isn’t important or inspiring enough to other people.
As a safety communicator, you need to believe that your word is important and that you can inspire others.
When you let people down like that, you’re also slowly eroding any trust they have with you.
You can think of trust as being similar to a trust account (taken from a concept in the brilliant book by Robin Sharma, The Saint, Surfer and CEO).
Think about every person within your organisation (and the same goes for your personal life) and that with every single person you have a trust accout. To be able to get your safety information moving throughout an organisation, you want to build trust accounts with every person with a positive credit. You put deposits in every time you follow through with a commitment, you show interest in them, provide help or give a compliment.
While you take a withdrawal from their trust account when you forget to return a phone call, fail to show up to a meeting, don't do what you said you would, criticise them or speak poorly about them behind their back.
It Comes Down to Trust
You might know safety compliance information better than anyone else in the world. But if you can't humanise it and make it relevant for others, so that they trust that you care about them, it doesn't matter. You'll never get your team mates to care about safety.
“People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care”― John C. Maxwell
Employees look to safety leaders to help them get through all the confusion of safety. At a high functioning workplace, where safety leaders are trusted, there is always a level at which employees trust the safety leader to provide the right advice and give good guidance. You can see this, when employees will go out of their way to visit the safety professional and provide feedback about a safety process or request more information.
A great safety leader knows that safety is not about how much they know and getting approval for their knowledge. It's also not about criticizing people in the workplace and then defending their approach with "Oh, can't they handle feedback?" A great safety leader knows that their role is all about people. It's all about caring enough to personalise safety information to make it meaningful. Essentially, it's about saving lives.
So safety leader, what can you improve with your communication style so that people know they can trust you because they know deep down you’re looking out for them?
Image Credit: Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotos