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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: Where the rubber meets the road

June 1, 2005
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Who influences productivity, quality, safety, motivation, and morale as much as — or more — than anyone else?

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.

Here’s a potent example: Since the 1970s, many organizations have started major culture-change efforts to build a so-called “High Performance Organization.” 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 — to build a flexible, nimble, market-oriented, team-based organizational system. As an organizational development consultant I’ve assisted with several of these initiatives. Some yield excellent, even spectacular results. But many times they do not.

Why?

One of the most visible reasons is dropping the ball with supervisors — 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 lever

Think about your own efforts at constructive change in your organization. Many safety and health pros I’ve worked with lament that unless they’re personally there to push and pull, things don’t get done. Where is the best lever that could multiply the safety and health pro’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 won’t.

2) Keep supervisors actively in the know. It’s a common mistake to assume supervisors are “management” and know what’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 “coach and facilitator” rather than “work boss.” All well and good, but only a portion of supervisors are “natural” teachers.

You might build a good working relationship with a supervisor who is fully informed and engaged in your safety effort, but isn’t skillful at “passing it on” to his folks. In this case, one of the most practical coaching models is the “Tell-Show-Do-Feedback” system:

  • Begin a coaching interaction with some explanation, some “telling.” Give background. What is the knowledge or skill to be transferred to the learner? Why is it important?

  • In the Show step, demonstrate, illustrate, work out an example, and in general let the learner see how it is done.

  • Then have the learner Do, that is, try it out under observation. If there are hazards or risks, have the learner explain what he/she is going to do, instead of or before taking any action.

  • Feedback, both positive and corrective, should be given continually during the coaching interaction. Ask and answer questions.

    4) Help with the “soft skills.” Focus your coaching not only on “safety content,” 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 “platform skills” — even for less structured meetings and “tailgate” talks — and you’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. You’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. It’s important to be there as an ongoing teaching resource and support to your supervisors — to be a coach.

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