Boost trust for better safety

September 1, 2005
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Do you have trouble reaching workers about the importance of safety? Are you perplexed, frustrated, even angry about lack of improvements?

In this article, I want to give you some good news — a sincere focus on building trust can lead to significant safety returns.

But first, what exactly does trust look like?

Trust, like attitudes and other internal states, can’t be directly measured. But it does indeed have a “face” you can pick out in your workplace. These signs point to a healthy level of trust:

  • People give others the benefit of the doubt and are open-minded to new procedures, rather than assuming negative intent by default.

  • Internal information provided is accurate and timely.

  • Everyone knows there is genuine concern for worker and contractor safety.

  • Leadership is consistent and dependable.

  • Focus is on being responsive to concerns of workers and customers.

  • Leaders share organization goals with workers and seek alignment.

  • There is a high degree of participation in fact-finding and decision-making.

  • Leaders thoughtfully admit missteps early and request others’ help.

    So how do you create, or refine, these building blocks for better trust? Here are 35 things you can do:

    Take a reality check

    1 — Acknowledge workers’ concerns and objections to past or current changes.

    2 — Accept that others entertain fears and concerns for proposed improvements.

    3 — Recognize that mixed messages are sent out (safety vs. productivity, etc). This might include inconsistencies in policies and procedures, inconsistent safety expectations of contractors who work alongside employees, promotion decisions that don’t make sense, and more.

    4 — Be honest: You personally have mixed perspective/reactions to any organizational change.

    5 — Accept that you only invite and reinforce change in others — you can’t force it.

    6 — Realize that others have natural levels of risk tolerance, which might often be different than yours.

    Reach out & trust someone

    7 — Consider measuring levels of trust. This can be done either through careful interviews or through standardized measures such as Rotter’s Interpersonal Trust Scale.

    8 — Watch where employees push back and resist changes and safety policies.

    9 — Solicit your strongest resisters and hear them out in a positive manner. Don’t shoot the messenger.

    10 — Find and reduce — to whatever degree possible — mechanical measures of distrust such as phone, computer or company vehicle surveillance. Where these watchdog systems must remain, explain their purpose to everyone in neutral language that makes it clear you know most people are doing a positive job. You might convey other reasons for keeping these monitors (insurance requirement, expectations of your clients, etc).

    11 — Reduce pro-forma behavior (such as “rubber stamp training”) that goes through the motions with little real results.

    12 — Stop any semblance of the blame game when dealing with accident investigations or with “accident repeaters.” This witch hunt-and-warfare approach won’t generate honest data or give you wholehearted positive change, especially when people go back to jobs where the eye of management is not fully on them.

    Provide some perspective

    13 — Let your employees know that things have changed everywhere, not just in your company. Competitive forces have required all companies to make changes in their safety expectations (leaner staffing, longer hours) to remain profitable and able to provide meaningful work.

    14 — Help workers focus on areas where they have control of their own personal safety.

    15 — Offer up a range of benefits for any proposed change. Don’t settle for a do-it-or-else motivational approach.

    16 — Temper your promises. To avoid setting unrealistic expectations that might backfire, use honest words like, “Assuming things stay the same as they are now...” “Given our current situation, we expect...”, “As long as this operation remains profitable, we will endeavor to...”

    17 — Avoid charged, loaded words when talking with employees, ones like “accountable” (isn’t everyone accountable for safety?), “fault”, “accident repeater” (which implies your organization has no influence behind patterns of accident repetition).

    18 — Phrase communications to be as personal as possible. Better to talk about a worker’s personal safety than their safety record.

    19 — Focus on benefits of safety at home as well as at work. Show how to apply safety methods off work as well. Consider providing relatively inexpensive PPE for employees to take home and use off work. I’ve seen companies do the opposite — policing employees from stealing eye protection for at-risk, off-the-job activities. Not exactly a message of trust.

    20 — Remind employees: “You’re developing personal safety skills that you can transfer anywhere you go.”

    Take involvement to a higher level

    21 — Make it easy for everyone to participate, in a variety of ways.

    22 — Enliven and activate safety committees — with a budget, training, high expectations of their role to improve safety.

    23 — Deputize and train other workers to become peer instructors and change agents.

    24 — Train workers in mixed groups so they rub elbows and better understand the concerns of those outside their workgroup.

    25 — Recruit allies — up, sideways, down the line in your organization. From senior managers to professionals in others departments, show you value their mission. Look for ways to align their objectives with yours in safety.

    26 — Find ways to involve vendors and customers.

    27 — Where appropriate, delegate honestly with the knowledge that others will do a task differently than you would (possibly providing a fresh slant).

    28 — Make job #1 developing each organizational member to become a higher level of safety leader of his/her own life.

    29 — Ask for advice, don’t just give it.

    30 — Aggressively look to give credit to others.

    Practice persistent patience

    31 —There are no quick fixes. Trust problems usually don’t develop overnight and won’t be resolved in a day. At the very best, effective communication can open the doors of receptivity, allowing you an opportunity to prove in action what you’ve said in words.

    32 — Weave a trust theme into all communications and initiatives. This doesn’t have to — and often it’s better not to — be overt. Start by asking yourself, prior to instituting any change, “How would implementing this affect worker trust?”

    33 — Insist and ensure that all safety training is practical, involving and enjoyable.

    34 — Develop and monitor trust “mileposts” — leading indicators toward heightened receptivity.

    35 — Boost your own credibility and trustworthiness. Show trust in others —be willing to be more vulnerable (within limits).

    Bottom line: By building your own leadership skills in the area of trust, you can help your company climb toward higher level safety performance and culture.

    SIDEBAR: Leaders look in the mirror

    Seven questions to spur thoughts on developing trust for safety in your organization:

    1. Am I “reliable” and “valid”?

    2. Do I have a strong connection/give others the benefit of the doubt?

    3. Do I communicate personal concern?

    4. Am I dedicated to change (in myself, too)?

    5. Am I courageous? Trust others?

    6. Do I build leaders?

    7. Do I spread enthusiasm & hope?

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