Safety leadership: I talk about safety all the time – but does anyone really hear me?

Editor’s Note: Creating a dialogue, keeping the focus, asking the right questions – achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2012 in Safety+Health, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to achieve world-class safety performance.

By Don Martin

Winston Churchill once remarked that the difference between leadership and management was communication. Safety leaders understand this principle well – they’ve learned how little great plans matter if you don’t effectively articulate the purpose first. Still, many leaders find safety communication to be difficult. Despite frequent discussions among leaders and their direct reports, we often see good messages get lost in translation – if heard at all. The result is frustration on both sides, as safety efforts seem to lack direction and opportunities to improve systems and reduce exposure go untapped.

So how do you get better at communication? For many of the leaders we work with, the solution starts with stepping back to consider why you communicate in the first place.

Communicating what matters

It’s 2 a.m. and no managers are around. What resonates in your employees’ minds as they make safety-critical decisions? It won’t be the summary of the latest safety report or a polished speech about the importance of individual responsibility. In our experience, what employees remember is what they have been told, implicitly or explicitly, about what really matters. This is the goal of communication for a safety leader: to instill a sense of mission in employees and create an environment where employees regularly deliver and seek safety-related information.

Several practices can help leaders develop a mission-oriented approach to communication:

  • Challenge your own point of view. What we believe shapes what – and how – we communicate. When leaders default to a tactical point of view (e.g., safety is just about reducing injuries), they necessarily narrow what they say. Many leaders with an unexamined point of view tend to focus on numbers, discrete efforts and other tasks – important topics, but seldom inspiring. Ask yourself what you really believe safety to be, how safety happens, and what it would mean both now and in the future.
  • Paint the big picture. Instilling a sense of mission means helping people understand what that mission is. Employees need to understand what safety means to us as an organization, not just how we’re performing against this year’s goal. See if you can describe the safety goal without referring to numbers, rates or regulation.
  • Give people the background. Safety communication involves discussion about tasks and tactics. Effective leaders use these discussions as opportunities to “connect the dots” back to the big picture. They help people understand the reason behind the practices; for example, explaining the background for a new rule, what it means and why it’s important to them.
  • Make exposures, not outcomes, the major theme. Actionable communication is effective communication. Although lagging indicators are the predominant topic in many organizations, they also are the least actionable. Engage people with your communications by emphasizing exposures. Present employees with challenges (We had a near miss; what could we do to prevent this?) and ideas (How could we redesign this to be safer in the future?) and ask for input.
  • Be transformational. How you communicate is just as important as what you communicate. Use optimistic language, challenge old ideas, coach others and be constructive in what you say. Most of all, always practice active and respectful listening.

Of all the practices that define successful safety leadership, the ability to communicate effectively is unique in its ability to give meaning to safety activities. Becoming a better communicator begins with understanding the purpose of your communication and, indeed, of safety itself.

Don Martin is a vice president with BST He is an accomplished executive coach who provides personal development and safety leadership training at every level.

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