POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: Where the rubber meets the road
With all due respect to the CEO (especially if any are reading this), I personally nominate the first-line supervisor. As a practical matter, the supervisor is a critical lever in the organization, and maybe the critical one in terms of daily impact on organizational effectiveness.
Hereâ€™s a potent example: Since the 1970s, many organizations have started major culture-change efforts to build a so-called â€œHigh Performance Organization.â€ The goal: get away from narrowly focused jobs, top-down management control of work, insensitivity to customer needs and a lack of focus on quality â€” to build a flexible, nimble, market-oriented, team-based organizational system. As an organizational development consultant Iâ€™ve assisted with several of these initiatives. Some yield excellent, even spectacular results. But many times they do not.
One of the most visible reasons is dropping the ball with supervisors â€” failing to adequately inform and involve them in the change process. After all, what a supervisor commits to as important, and through action and deed weaves into the fabric of daily work, the team tends to focus on and do.
Finding the leverThink about your own efforts at constructive change in your organization. Many safety and health pros Iâ€™ve worked with lament that unless theyâ€™re personally there to push and pull, things donâ€™t get done. Where is the best lever that could multiply the safety and health proâ€™s effectiveness? Hint: re-read the above paragraphs.
So how best to coach supervisors so they drive the safety message to their folks? Here are some thoughts, based on my experience:
1) Supervisors must be on the list of critical relationships to build and nurture. Attend to the care and feeding of these critical relationships. Remember, what supervisors are personally committed to can happen; what they are uncommitted to (or actively against) probably wonâ€™t.
2) Keep supervisors actively in the know. Itâ€™s a common mistake to assume supervisors are â€œmanagementâ€ and know whatâ€™s going on. Not always so, sad to say. Do what you can to personally ensure supervisors are fully engaged in critical safety initiatives, that they understand your motives and goals, and support them. Take time to position supervisors to drive your initiatives in your absence.
3) Coach the coach. Increasingly, the role of the supervisor is characterized as â€œcoach and facilitatorâ€ rather than â€œwork boss.â€ All well and good, but only a portion of supervisors are â€œnaturalâ€ teachers.
You might build a good working relationship with a supervisor who is fully informed and engaged in your safety effort, but isnâ€™t skillful at â€œpassing it onâ€ to his folks. In this case, one of the most practical coaching models is the â€œTell-Show-Do-Feedbackâ€ system:
4) Help with the â€œsoft skills.â€ Focus your coaching not only on â€œsafety content,â€ but also on presentation skills essential for a supervisor to lead a safety meeting, and to convey information clearly and persuasively. Help supervisors get more comfortable with their â€œplatform skillsâ€ â€” even for less structured meetings and â€œtailgateâ€ talks â€” and youâ€™ll strengthen their ability to reach employees on safety as well as on other critical workplace issues.
5) As they step up, you can step back. When a supervisor is able and willing to coach employees in safe work behavior, lead effective safety meetings, and in general drive safety to the next level in his/her area, you can step back. Youâ€™ve developed a critical high-impact resource, and delegated effectively. Now you have a persuasive emissary to carry your message. Step out, but not completely away. Itâ€™s important to be there as an ongoing teaching resource and support to your supervisors â€” to be a coach.