Nurturing your safety heroes

Some people have a “talent,” you might say, for contributing to your safety processes. How do you find and support that talent in order to sustain your safety efforts? It’s not easy, especially given some popular management myths that I believe can be detrimental.

The title of a 1999 Simon & Schuster book by Buckingham and Coffman sums up what needs to be done: “First, Break All The Rules.” The conclusions of these authors are quite consistent with other books on leadership, and with the leadership gurus I’ve heard at day-long workshops, including Tom Peters, Stephen Covey, and Ken Blanchard.

Still, you probably won’t agree that all ten of these common beliefs are truly myths. But I hope you’ll at least begin to think about how they can limit your ability to nurture safety heroes.

Myth: People can perform any job if they persist and try hard enough.

Reality: It sounds good, but few of us can become the professional athlete, entertainer, or movie star we’d like to be. Environmental, physical, and psychological factors limit our potential and narrow the range of things we can do with our lives. By the time we reach employment age, there is a finite range of jobs we can perform effectively.

This shouldn’t lead to despair. We should attempt to become the best we can within our limitations. We can learn new tasks and expand our possibilities, but there is a limit. It’s very important to recognize and understand our limitations, as well as to realize our special interests and skills.

Myth: Brainpower, experience, and desire make the difference.

Reality: Talent is the key to success, not brainpower, motivation, or desire. These factors contribute to an individual’s interests and abilities. But talent is the ultimate observable factor determining whether a particular task is done well.

Behavioral observations are an example of a tool that helps you assess a person’s special interests and skills, which together define talent. Then you need to match those talents with tasks or functions.

Myth: Varied experiences make an employee more valuable.

Reality: Experience is valuable only if it reinforces one’s talent for performing a particular job. In most work situations, individuals continue to improve when they focus on a particular task and receive objective, behavior-based feedback.

Myth: Help workers become more “well-rounded.”

Reality: Help people find out what job assignments (or safety assignments) they like to do and are good at doing. Then offer the training, experiences, and feedback to hone their skills in these areas so they become a more valuable employee (and safety contributor).

Myth: Identify workers’ weaknesses and fix them.

Reality: Few managers or supervisors have the talent and time to “fix” an employee’s weaknesses. They can provide objective feedback, of course, to support desired (safe) behavior and correct undesired (at-risk) behavior. But in a broader sense, it’s far more cost-effective to identify people’s strengths and give them the kind of jobs that benefit from their talents and enable them to flourish.

Myth: Spend more time with your least productive workers.

Reality: Attempting to fix people’s weaknesses takes time, and the more weaknesses people have, the more time it will take. In many, if not most, workplaces today, resources and managerial support are limited. It’s far more cost-effective to concentrate on keeping talented personnel working at optimal levels than helping those less talented improve their effectiveness. Your talented and productive employees contribute more to your success, and they need supportive feedback and recognition.

Myth: Don’t play favorites.

Reality: You should play favorites. You need to spend more time with your more talented employees.

Myth: Reward excellence through promotions.

Reality: After finding the best talent for a job and enabling that talent to flourish and improve, you need to keep that talent on the job — not see it leave for another position.

For this to happen, though, recognition and promotion need to occur within the same job assignment. It must be possible for an employee to be promoted to a higher status level by doing the same job, rather than leaving for another. How much of a paradigm shift would this be for your company? Can your culture develop heroes at every role?

Myth: There’s one best way to perform every job.

Reality: This stifles creativity and the ability to keep talents (safety and otherwise) thriving on the same job. Sustaining talent on a job requires workers to feel like heroes. They need to believe they are contributing individually and creatively. This is unlikely if they feel they’re only following someone else’s protocol.

Allow and expect your employees to find better ways to perform a job safely. That’s how you achieve continuous improvement.

Myth: Follow the Golden Rule — Treat others as you want to be treated.

Reality: Should you really treat people the way you want to be treated? What kind of job recognition do you want — public or private? What do you respond to more — an emphasis on competition or cooperation? What incentive works for you — cash, dinner for two, tickets to a football game? Or are you insulted by incentive offers?

I hope I’ve made my point. We are all unique, and have different needs, desires, and interests. It’s simply not wise nor valid to assume everyone else wants to be treated as you do.

It’s safe to make some generalizations: Few people like criticism and most people enjoy genuine praise. But exactly how to give praise, feedback, directions, or advice depends on the individual. Don’t assume what others like or dislike. Listen empathetically and observe carefully to find out how to treat employees.

Sidebar: How to be a safety talent scout

Pay attention

It’s not easy to find safety talent. Perhaps you’re looking for someone to be on a committee, run meetings, or lead a team. Survey instruments are often unreliable. Interviews are brief and not representative. It’s critical to carefully observe ongoing behavior and actively listen to ongoing conversations. Then you might be able to discover employees’ competencies that will help your safety program in different areas.

Play up strengths

Help people find out what safety assignments they like to do and are good at doing. Then provide training, experiences, and feedback to hone their skills.

Offer support

When you find the right individual for a particular safety job, look for ways to keep that person committed and positive. Don’t be too quick to promote them to another role. Make them feel like a hero for their contributions, and give your heroes more personal control, status, and other forms of recognition. When people feel good about what they do for safety, they’re more likely to continue doing it.


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