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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: When career paths take wrong turns

April 1, 2005
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A high-level safety and health professional (we’ll call him Herman for purposes of our instructive example — no offense to real Hermans, past, present, or future) has all the proper training and credentials for his role. He has the right work experience, and is fully competent in the technical aspects of his job. He’s enjoyed some success in previous individual contributor roles.

But now with his current level of responsibility, he has to work in close collaboration with others to get his job done. Unfortunately, management is largely ignoring him except around issues of compliance, and the safety initiatives he is responsible for seem to be effective only if he is physically there to push and audit them.

At some point Herman is demoted, reassigned, or even “promoted to get rid of him.” Or he is “outplaced” (not as benign as it sounds), or handed off to a consultant-coach like me to “do some couch time and get fixed.”

Herman is clearly in trouble — he is de-railing. But why?

“It’s the people skills, stupid.”

Many factors may contribute to such an unfortunate situation, but one thing jumps out at you when you look at the published data (of which there is plenty): de-railing managers or technical professionals rarely falter for lack of job knowledge or technical skill. Rather, they de-rail because they have not built a “bank of good will,” a network of supporting relationships, and an atmosphere of real collaboration and teamwork.

In other words, people don’t support them — to the point that they can’t get their job done, no matter how technically competent they are. That’s the common denominator. “It’s the people skills, stupid.”

As a psychologist I find it interesting that leaders in so many businesses place so much emphasis on “hard” technical skills over “soft skills.” They recruit on campus and hire young engineers (or other technically qualified folks), and when making personnel decisions commonly focus first and foremost on technical competency as the key criterion.

Similarly, they promote the best worker to supervisor. Yet if one steps back and looks at the most difficult problems managers and technical professionals have to deal with, they are overwhelmingly people issues, and rarely purely technical issues.

“We can teach you production.”

Here’s another path that can be followed: I have two former students who graduated with liberal arts degrees in industrial-organizational psychology. They were recruited as management trainees by a nationally prominent industrial firm that predominantly hires engineers.

They started out as shift supervisors in a manufacturing plant. They didn’t know enough about the production process to be “directing and controlling” their people (most of whom were at least twice their age). Of course, the seasoned line-workers knew their jobs anyway, and really didn’t need a 22-year-old “first lieutenant” fresh out of college to tell them what to do and how to do it.

Instead, my dynamic duo “only” knew a lot about communicating well with others, seeking and giving constructive feedback, building strong relationships, creating a positive working environment, and showing respect for the employees who come in and get it done every day. In short order, their crews wanted them to succeed.

Should anyone be surprised that both of these young men became stars in the company, on the fast-track? All without an engineering degree! Interestingly, once they were inside the system, their bosses acknowledged that “we can teach you production, but we have a harder time teaching you the people skills that make the difference.” Exactly. As a colleague of mine says, “the softer skills are harder.”

Solving Herman’s dilemma

I won’t make the solution to “Herman’s dilemma” sound as simple as the “one-minute manager,” but I am going to suggest that it’s not impossibly difficult either. I think the current widespread interest in so-called “Emotional Intelligence” (despite all the whistles and bells, and even smoke and mirrors that often accompany that concept) indicates that business leaders increasingly realize success in their organization depends as much on psychology as it does on physics. My experience in coaching at-risk managers and technical professionals like Herman (“technical skills = 10, people skills = 0”), before, during, or even after the wheels have come off, supports the following advice:

1) Accept that people skills are job skills. Focus intensely on building and maintaining supportive, mutually beneficial relationships. Work on developing solid people skills as much as you work on the technical skills of your job. All the research says that people know-how is every bit as important as technical know-how, plain and simple:

  • Express empathy and genuine concern for others.
  • Engage them in conversation, not just about work and the immediate task at hand.
  • Get to know the folks you work with and depend on.
  • Be clear and fair in your expectations of them (and vice versa).
  • Give constructive feedback. Seek and be open (non-defensively!) to feedback from them.
  • Make sure there is balance, or “equity,” in your relationships, that is, that the benefits flow both ways — do favors, as you seek favors.

More and more technical knowledge will not buy you as much good will with coworkers as better people skills will. Your relationships are the great multiplier of your effectiveness.

2) Pay particular attention to your communication skills. I think communication is the most potent of the “enabling skills” for managers and other professionals — it impacts so many of the other critical competencies. It’s hard to be a good team-builder, delegator, problem-solver, performance manager, etc., with a base of weak or negative communication skills. Assess your skills:

  • How do others perceive me as a communicator?
  • Do I respond quickly and cooperatively to requests?
  • Do I keep others informed of key information they need?
  • Are my oral and written communications clear, direct, and to the point?
  • Am I “easy to talk to”? How am I as a listener?
  • Do I allow others to speak, and not interrupt or talk over them?
  • When I disagree or take a different point of view, how do I come across? How are my body language, voice tone, eye contact, and other key markers of nonverbal communication? Do I look friendly and approachable?

3) Keep a rein on negative emotional reactions. Unexpected “meltdowns” or “tantrums” are truly poisonous to good working relationships. If this is an issue for you, work on the skills of staying neutral and objective, intercepting and slowing down your first impulse to react.

Focus on observable behavior, attack the problem and not the person, and always show personal and professional respect for the other person. Treat them as though they matter (they do). A lot of good relationship “credits” can be lost in a hurry with an “explosion.”

4) Be consistent. Not that you need to be a robot, but people find it easier in relationships when they know generally what to expect. Steadiness, evenness, stability, and a certain level of predictability are personal characteristics that others typically respect and appreciate.

5) Expect it to take time to get better at building/rebuilding positive working relationships. Building relationships is not like building a fence; it is more like growing a garden. Don’t expect it to happen overnight, but if you work at it as hard as you work on technical skills, it will happen gradually, over a period of time, as the natural growth cycle of relationships proceeds.

Many of the professionals I have coached in my consulting practice have gotten this counsel from me, as the foundation for a coaching process. If they had done these things in a preventive way, they could have stayed “off the couch” — and “on the rails.”

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