Recently, I was talking to the Managing Director of a large recruiting firm for safety professionals in the Asia Pacific region about the importance of communication skills.
It was very clear that safety leaders are just expected to be experts in the technical aspects of safety, but it's the ability to communicate about safety that sets apart the great safety leaders from the mediocre. There's a growing demand for sophisticated safety professionals who can influence and engage on safety. And you know what that means - dollars. If you want to earn great money in safety, then you have to improve your communication skills.
But what are communication skills? So many safety professionals think it's all about writing in a way that would make their school teacher proud of them. This means being grammatically correct, no spelling mistakes and using lots of big words. After all, that's how you get an "A" at school or in academia.
In fact, I had a safety professional on a Linkedin group debate with me about how good he was at communication by throwing the word "loquacious" into his defense. What he didn't realise was that he was just confirming what I already knew (ie: he couldn't influence his way out of a paper bag, oh, and no-one would want to work with an ego like that, so zero points for turning off the workplace).
But guess what? Focusing on the technical aspects of your writing makes you boring! Yes, boring. It means you've omitted the most important part of writing in business. And that is being able to coach, influence and engage.
You're not going to influence anyone with a massive document that goes for 10 pages that could have been written in one. As Winston Churchill rightfully said: "This document, by its very length, defends itself from being read."
To be a great leader, you have to be a great communicator. And by that I don't mean a big talker. Or in the words of my boring, outspoken social media friend, "loquacious". In fact, that's quite the opposite of what a good communicator needs to be on safety.
So what makes a great safety communicator? One of the most important things is to consider is that words are extremely powerful. Words can be walls or they can be bridges. As a safety communicator, you need to be constantly building bridges. Constantly working on letting people know they can trust you.
This is so important because if you inadvertently use words the wrong way, people will turn off from you and your message. Your safety communication will be blocked from flowing throughout the organisation.
You will never accomplish an excellent safety culture, if people don't like or trust you. And the only way to build trust is to carefully choose your words and do what you say you will do. Remember, actions speak louder than words.
8 Effective Communication Skills
There are certain communication skills you need to develop to be a great safety leader, they are:
- Ego Be-Gone - A former chairman I used to work with would always say before our business meetings, "Leave your egos at the door, gentleman." He had a terrific point, but sadly, it lost points for ignoring that there was a woman in the room (me!). Of course, apologies and merriment always ensued. However, if you want to be a good communicator it's time to talk from the audience's point of you. Remove "I" and start talking about "we" and "you". You must always show that you respect everyone, no matter what level they are at. You must treat everyone equally from the cleaner right through to the customer. Being a leader is not about you being right, better than others or the centre of attention.
- Tailor your information - Great communicators know how to word what they saying so that it appeals to their audience. This means you have to know what people are feeling and thinking. The only way to do this is to have regular chats with employees at all levels. You've got to have your fingers on the pulse. It also means you know how to uncover their beliefs that could be holding back safety (we teach this in the SELLSAFE Communication system). You need to think about information that's relevant to your audience and not what you want to talk about. The former chairman I mentioned loved to talk about shares because he was near retirement, while everyone else wanted to talk about business strategies. Let's just say he might have forgotten to leave his ego at the door on those occasions.
- Listen - It seems pretty obvious, but leaders need to be willing to listen, do what they say they will do and care about others. The beautiful thing is that once your workforce know that you care about their health and safety, like really care and not just lip service, then they will do everything they can to support you in your mission. They will trust you. But you need to be willing to listen to what they say (and not criticise it) and show that you have integrity. But if your ego gets in the way, then you start working against what you're trying to achieve.
- Avoid attacking - Sometimes people wrongly believe that because they are the leader they need to belt people around the head a bit. You know, publicly humiliate them and let them know they're doing a bad job. Sometimes they like to couch it in terms like "I thought you could handle feedback. We need people around here, that want to improve!" No, that's just asserting your authority and quite frankly, it makes everyone hate you. Yes, hate you. If you need to let someone know they need to lift their game, do it with empathy and behind closed doors. Effective communication is about feedback, not failure. And it's not about you. I was once in the officer of a director of safety who was showing me the view of the factory from his window. He noticed a safety manager walking on a pedestrian path, while talking on a mobile phone. He was almost gleeful in his attack on the safety manager. In his eyes, it showed that the safety manager was bad, while the safety director (himself) was better. Again, this kind of thinking turns people off you.
- Open to feedback - If you are communicating correctly, people will update you with how new safety processes are progressing or ask you questions out of safety meeting time. Communication is really a three way process. You send out information, people receive it and then they give you feedback. If that third step isn't happening, then you need to work on it.
- Simplicity - It seems obvious, but learning how to be specific and to the point is the mark of a great communicator. Learn not to waffle. Getting people's attention is one of the first essential steps in changing behaviour, but if you talk too much you'll lose people's attention and the opportunity for change. In the book, Transform your Safety Communication, there is a dedicated chapter to creating simple safety messages that will help if you're unskilled in this area. You can get a free chapter here.
- Open to learning - The word "idiot" is a Greek word that actually means someone who is unable to learn from others. It's a mistake to think that because you're the leader, you know what you need to know about communication. Yet, how you communicate needs to keep changing because of different work goals, new employees and technology. Social media has dramatically changed how we communicate. Yet, how many people have recently changed their communication style?
- Coach - Great communicators are always teaching. They know training doesn't occur during dedicated training sessions, but look for day to day opportunities to coach others on improvement. When they see an employee working unsafely, they work with them to improve, using outcome based language rather than criticism.
- Know how to ask for budget - A common complaint I hear from executives is that safety managers, engineers and supervisors are unable to present confidently about safety. On the other hand, safety managers complain to me about how hard it is to secure budget for safety. Safety managers need to be able to sell safety in the right way that will actually influence the leadership team rather than repel them. This means being able to put together a business case that hits all the right buttons. You can find out more in our training program - Requesting Budget - How to Sell Safety to the CEO and Executive Team.
Being an effective communicator is a lifelong process that constantly needs tweaking and updating. And being a great communicator has a massive effect on your life - both work and personal.
Recently, I was coaching a safety professional who was about to lose his job and marriage. His inability to coach, influence and engage on safety was about to cost him both his career and relationship.
He was angry at employees and contractors not listening to him and the more they ignored him, the angrier he got. He ended up creating a relatively large workforce of employees who thought he was a joke. Over time, I trained him on how to build bridges, not walls. He had to change. And change fast. Thankfully, for now, his contract has been extended.
Luckily for him, he knew his poor communication skills were costing him dearly.
Great communicators are flexible and know how to change their message when they sense resistance or lack of interest.
What do you need to do to have effective communication skills?