Don't Shoot The Messenger

February 20, 2004
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Dear Subscriber,

DON'T SHOOT THE MESSENGER

Among your many roles in the safety arena — coach, technical maven, auditor, investigator, record keeper, systems analyst — you're often a messenger. Delivering news of accidents and accidents waiting to happen, complaints and violations, penalties and new federal laws and policies. Usually not the stuff the boss wants to hear.

How do you pull it off? In the next three issues of ISHN's e-newsletter, we offer lessons in the delicate nature of safety diplomacy.

GETTING THE CALL

Some diplomatic missions simply aren't worth taking on. Let's start by looking at how you can get sucked into an assignment that has "Warning! Career Hazard!" written all over it. Events unfold something like this:

"We really need you here. You've got the skills and experience to help us."

You hear the siren's call. It's an opportunity to make a positive difference. To be that "change agent" so heralded these days. Still, you have reservations. At the interview, you lay out all the reasons you might not be right for the job. "I've got a reputation for speaking my mind. I'm known as something of a maverick."

"We know all that and it doesn't matter."

Full of energy and plans, you take the position. But early on you learn something is missing in the chemistry between you and your boss. Maybe your wife was right — you and the chief really are different.

You become unsettled, uncertain, frustrated. Every meeting seems to follow a script — and you're not one of the scriptwriters. There's an "in crowd", and you're not in it. You have doubts if the job is right for you.

You see omens. In a meeting, the boss mentions something about your truth-teller's rep and your "cult following." He's not smiling and no one is laughing. He comes up with a new nickname for you. "Is that a good thing?" you ask one of his advisers. "Probably not," you're told.

You ask the boss if he's satisfied with the way things are going. He seems surprised, says there's no problem.

Three weeks later you get a phone call from the boss's right-hand man. Changes are being made, and you're one of them. Hello unemployment.

What happened?

Hopefully you haven't been down this road. Maybe you know a safety manager who has. Or a neighbor, relative or friend. Typical management politics, right?

This story happens to be former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's. Right down to the doubting wife and boss's nicknames. President Bush first dubbed him Pablo, then the Big O. It's all laid out in the book, "The Price of Loyalty," published this winter.

In part one of our series on "Don't Shoot the Messenger," we'll take lessons from O'Neill's predicament in Washington and apply them to organizational traps that might trip you up at some point along your safety and health career.

A KINDRED SPIRIT

Imagine Paul O'Neill as a safety guy in CEO's pinstripes. Impossible? He acted as the top gun in safety for the 13 years he ran Alcoa, Inc. What other CEO would go to a Harvard Business School symposium to lecture on how workplace safety embodies corporate values and leadership? And just like a safety and health pro, he makes the case with passion and conviction. To drive his point home, he threatened to fire any Alcoa accountant who tried to show him how safety translated to bottom line benefits.

O'Neill, like many safety and health pros, was something of a philosopher roaming corporate corridors. And his happened to be the familiar behavior-based model. Give employees knowledge, tools and support (antecedents); treat them with dignity and respect (behavior); recognize their contributions (consequences).

O'Neill saw himself as a reformer, one who would undertake intensely personal campaigns, missions. Sound familiar?

He took pride in being a maverick, a corporate contrarian — an image many safety pros will smile at. After all, safety is not the career ladder of choice for your usual corporate climbers and conformists.

O'Neill also shares the safety pro's love of process, facts and data, performance measures, transparency, and plant walk-arounds. At Alcoa, he worked out of a cubicle and gave employees his home phone number to call if their managers didn't fix safety problems.

What happens when this sort of contrarian accepts a staff position in an intensely political environment? Been there, lived that, you say?

O'Neill saw his place in Washington as an honest broker — a role many safety pros envision for themselves in the business world.

Your chances of success as a maverick in a staff position hinge on a host of variables. Some you control, some you don't. Let's see how three factors — chemistry, communication and culture — affected the outcome of O'Neill's two years as Treasury Secretary.

CHEMISTRY

O'Neill's methods and philosophy put him on the same page as many safety and health professionals, but it was as though he and his boss, President Bush, weren't even reading from the same book, if they were even in the same library.

The Treasury Secretary liked to mix it up, hash out differences in meetings among advisers. His boss preferred following a tight script. No conflict. Before many meetings, cabinet secretaries were told when to speak, about what, and for how long, according to "The Price of Loyalty."

O'Neill liked to probe, ask questions. What are the costs, the benefits, the goals, the best case, the worst case? Hard-eyed analysis, he called it. But his boss asked few questions, seeming content to sit back and listen. O'Neill wanted to engage, his boss seemed disengaged.

His boss was opaque, hard to read. O'Neill sought transparency. At Alcoa, he had execs post their weekly schedules. Most interoffice memos were available to any employee.

There were differences in how the two men treated people. At Alcoa, O'Neill sized up CEOs of possible acquisitions by observing how they interacted with the receptionist, the secretary, bottom-rung employees. To him it was a sign of how a boss valued the people around him. His own boss, he was somewhat surprised to discover, was often cold-eyed and brusque with subordinates.

Most importantly, perhaps, the two men had ominously conflicting definitions of loyalty. For O'Neill, it meant telling the boss what you really think and feel, your best estimate of the truth, instead of what he or she wanted to hear. His boss demanded loyalty to the individual no matter what, in O'Neill's eyes.

NEXT WEEK

How communication, culture, and your own calculations affect outcomes — your chances for success in delivering safety messages your bosses often don't understand, or don't want to hear.

Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at djsafe@bellatlantic.net, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

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    WE NEED YOU!

    Are you a safety and health pro or a manufacturer or provider of occupational safety and health products or services who enjoys writing?

    Shakespeare need not apply, but ISHN is looking for authors to publish short articles (1,000 words) in our monthly issues.

    Topics include: safety success stories, close calls and personal experiences, training tips, use of software, engineering controls (machine guards, lockout-tagout), gas detection and air monitoring, confined space safety, personal protective equipment, and OSHA compliance issues.

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