Don't just stand there!

December 1, 2007
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David Sarkus (right) with his dad.


When I was a young boy, my favorite sport was baseball. I lived, ate and breathed baseball — I couldn’t get enough of it. In fact, in my early teens, the Cincinnati Reds scouted me for a brief time and I wanted to be a professional baseball player. In time, I dropped baseball to focus on football, which paid for my education at West Virginia University.

As a teenager, one summer evening, we were playing a cross-town baseball rival and I was catching. It was a close game and my father was in the stands watching. Well, he wasn’t just watching — he was “really engaged.”

Dad was hollering a bit, like some of the other fans, but was especially bothered since he thought the opposing coach was influencing the umpire’s calls. Suddenly, there was a very bad call at home plate and Dad got involved. He jumped the fence, ran onto the field, and squared-off at the opposing coach and umpire. Ahhhhhh, I was so embarrassed!

Was Dad correct in his evaluation of the play? You bet. Was he right about running onto the field? Nope. And boy did he hear it when we got home — after I told Mom. At school the next day, my classmates who played in the game razzed me to no end. It was a long week!

Just showing up — and then some
This story still brings a smile to my face. Most everyone liked Dad — he got involved in life, with his mind, his emotions, and his actions. Dad didn’t hold back.

That’s what engagement is about when it comes to safety. (Editor’s note: For another perspective on engagement, see Dr. John Kello’s Culture Column on page 22 in this issue.) When you have a culture where people believe they can make a difference and get connected to each other — watch out! They’ll get involved and take action! Improving safety performance is not about sitting on the sidelines and watching — it’s about getting involved like Dad. Well, not quite like Dad!

I did a safety culture survey for a client about ten years ago. They’re a world-class organization and wanted to use the survey process to get more engagement. They recognized the need to see where they were at that time, to establish a plan of action, and to gain more engagement. Afterward, they got great results!

Engaged employees aren’t merely observers but involved participants who put their hearts and souls in their work. They’re happier and more productive, too!

Drawing ’em in
Here’s my short list that can help you get more engagement. It comes from my survey work:

1 Regular communications: People need to know what’s going on in their organizations. Without knowing, how and where can individuals become better engaged? Workers need to have time to talk to each other, their supervisors, and their senior leaders. And at times, leaders will have to passionately communicate the need to continually improve safety performance.

2 Supervisory support: When supervisors aren’t appropriately involved in various safety processes, their workers become cynical and disengaged. When supervisors are involved, well liked, and show caring-leadership, you’ll also find better safety performance and a more engaged workforce — I see it all of the time and challenge you to prove me wrong.

3 People input: Workers want to provide input, both strategically and tactically. Climate surveys and focus groups are one of the most efficient means of strategic input. It’s also an excellent way to get your leaders more engaged. Upward feedback and focused 360° reviews are a great tactical way to evaluate managers and supervisors — to create increased organizational safety alignment at their level.

4 Follow-up and follow-through: Listening and doing are different things, but listening requires action. And if action isn’t taken, the “reasons why” need to be examined and communicated. But listening and input will eventually require some action so issues, concerns and processes can be improved, closed-out or resolved.

5 Senior leadership support: Your leaders need to be visibly involved with safety. For your organization, that may include walk-throughs, observations, or more involvement in key meetings. Senior leaders may also require one-on-one coaching to establish and maintain the direction of your safety culture. Their support comes in the form of knowledge, input, time and resources.

So where are you?
In the ’70’s TV show, Fantasy Island, the two co-stars, Tattoo and Mr. Roarke were always recognized in the opening scene, on the beach, looking up to the sky. While looking upward, Tattoo would excitedly shout, “Look baas, the plane, the plane!” In reality, he wasn’t saying “the plane, the plane.” He was saying “the plan, the plan!” That’s why they messed up everyone’s fantasy — it wasn’t a lesson in contentment — they never found that much-needed plan.

World-class results and world-class engagement don’t just happen — you need to assess, engage, strategize and execute your safety plan.

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