Don't Shoot The Messenger (Part 3)

March 5, 2004
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Dear Subscriber,

DON'T SHOOT THE MESSENGER (Part 3)

Last week we told you about a subscriber seeking ways to deliver an unflattering message to his boss without getting his head handed to him. Here's his story:

"Having just been promoted to a new position, I find myself both comforted and confused by trying to decide how to proceed to fix a safety culture that is cracked through and through. Corporate headquarters has the worst accident record and until recently, would not admit that their culture does not support a safety effort.

"The last thing I want is for the division president to go off half-cocked and come up with a list of quick fixes, but that's just what he did.

"Now I have to go out on a limb and tell him what we need to do, versus what he thinks we need to do — a task not easily accomplished. Any suggestions?"

STEP BACK

For starters, let's rewind the tape and break down what he has told us. Like a coach studying film of game situations, it's a way to step back and analyze. Put yourself in the subscriber's shoes:

1. You've just been promoted to a new job.

2. You have to fix a safety culture that is cracked.

3. Headquarters admits it is not doing the job supporting the safety effort.

4. Your division president has come up with a list of solutions.

5. You must tell him his ideas won't work.

6. You must explain what needs to be done, based on your knowledge, experience, etc.

We forwarded this set of circumstances to a group of ISHN advisers, professionals with decades of experience, for their comments. Here's what they said.

TONE IT DOWN

Before you go any further, certainly before you head into a meeting with your boss, try to exorcise your emotions.

Analyze the situation without the adjectives. That's what we did in the six points above. Drop your attachments. To feeling "comforted and confused." To feeling that the culture is cracked "through and through," and the boss has gone off "half-cocked."

FOCUS UP

Search for that silver lining. You can usually find it somewhere in the midst of a predicament. You're looking for a fact, a development, a thread of evidence that will give you some reason to believe there's a way out.

Yes, there it is: At least HQ admits a safety problem exists. You could be in a worse spot. You're not dealing with denial or apathy. You have agreement that a problem does exist, and needs to be corrected.

FOCUS IN

What you might be dealing with is the old knee-jerk reaction. Sounds like your boss wants to fix this problem fast.

Is that how he or she approaches any business issue? Since you've just recently been promoted to your new job, how much do you know about your boss?

Do some digging. Ask around. Get a feel for how your boss makes decisions. Understand his thinking about safety, his goals, his reference points. Why does he like the strategies he came up with? What's their appeal?

THINK IT THROUGH

Be clear in your own mind why you define his solutions as "quick fixes."

Can you back it up? Where is your research, perhaps benchmarking data, to substantiate your conviction? Don't go to the boss unarmed. Have a list of questions you're prepared to answer as he defends his ideas.

FIND THE FACTS

You have checked all your facts before explaining your position versus his, haven't you? Research that shows your ideas to be the real deal — you have it, right?

Nothing is worse than explaining why you think the boss's ideas are wrong and yours are right, and then discovering your homework has the holes of a sophomore all-nighter.

DON'T BLURT

Confrontations can make us do the damnedest things. When you sit down to talk, fight the urge to explode with all the reasons he's wrong in the first 30 seconds, you know, just to get it over with.

Probe a bit. Since you're new to your job, you might want to ask if it's OK to be candid. "May I be frank?" Signal you intentions. The reaction you get will help steer you through the rest of the conversation.

DON'T GET PERSONAL

Separate the boss from his list of fixes. Talk about his ideas, the outcomes he wants — not him. Don't open with, "Remember what you said last week?" Instead, try something along the lines of, "Can we review your goals for safety?" As Stephen Covey says, start with the end in mind. Especially if you already agree on the objective.

Then present you facts, evidence, research, why in your best judgment the outcomes he desires will not be achieved with the strategies on the table. Don't belabor your points.

A LITTLE SPIN WON'T HURT

Find something positive to say about the boss's ideas. "That has been tried a lot in safety, you're right." "That is one of the hot topics in the field, no doubt."

Then move on to the rest of the story. Yes, that strategy has been tried a lot, but research shows the results are not sustainable. Yes, it is a hot topic, but no one you've talked to has seen a successful long-term implementation.

INTEGRATE

Find pieces of your boss's solutions that you can work into your own. Give a little. You want to win him over to your thinking. Don't be greedy, you don't need a blow out victory. Make someone feel small and you've got a sore loser.

ALLOW FOR WIGGLE ROOM

Present a list of alternatives, options for your boss to choose from. Empower him, as the saying goes. Give him a sense of ownership. Don't be selfish. Be concise and fair about the pros and cons, costs and benefits, of your options. Include the outcomes that have been achieved for each, based on your research.

KNOW WHEN TO FOLD

Sales 101 — Know when to stop selling.

If the boss is sold on your ideas, pack up and prepare to implement.

If he doesn't hear a word you're saying, stop ramming your head against the wall. Call your favorite headhunter when you get back to your desk.

If he says he needs time to think about your presentation, give him the space. If you think he's receptive, get ready to roll out your plans. If you think he's procrastinating or calling around for your possible replacement, go home to calculate your options.

Are you facing a safety challenge on the job that you'd like help with? Email us with you story. We'll keep it anonymous, and query savvy professionals for advice that will help guide not only you, but surely other readers as well.

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

To keep receiving industry updates, renew your ISHN print edition subscription at www.renewforfree.com

For new subscriptions to ISHN, visit www.ishn.com and click on "Subscriptions" beneath the "Services" header on the home page.

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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.

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