Two common coaching mistakes

May 24, 2000
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The key process underlying the success of behavior-based coaching is interpersonal observation and feedback. After appropriate education and training, workers follow these steps:

1. A list of critical safe and at-risk behaviors is derived for particular work areas or for an entire work site;

2. Critical behaviors are defined precisely and operationally so all participants can observe them objectively and reliably;

3. A critical behavior checklist (CBC) is developed to record safe and at-risk behaviors;

4. Observers use the CBC to observe and evaluate the work practices of individuals or groups;

5. Observers share the results with the people they observe in one-to-one coaching sessions and at group meetings;

6. Participants periodically discuss successes and failures with their observation and feedback procedures to continually improve the process;

7. Participants develop intervention techniques to decrease resistance and increase long-term involvement in the process.

This is only a brief overview. I have obviously left out numerous details. But this basic framework allows even readers who have not participated in the process to understand what this article is about: two common mistakes that crop up in behavior-based coaching.

Personal experience:

Let me describe these mistakes by relating a personal experience. I recently met with a group of line workers who had been implementing a behavior-based coaching process for about a year. Reaching an all-time low in recordable injuries, management considered this program successful. In fact, part of my visit was to discuss a broader implementation plan. But these workers were not satisfied. Many one-on-one coaching sessions were constructive, but many were not. Some workers were quite negative about one-on-one observation and feedback. So while injuries were on the decline, several safety coaches were seemingly discouraged and "burning out" on the whole process.

During our discussion, I realized a basic reason for the increasing disinterest in observation and feedback: Too often the safety coaching sessions were more negative than positive.

This is a common mistake that can be made in coaching. For example, one individual explained that he recently approached a co-worker who was working without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and asked if he could conduct a behavioral observation. After receiving reluctant approval, he proceeded to fill out his checklist. Since it included many more checkmarks in the "at-risk" than "safe" columns, the feedback session with this employee was necessarily more negative than positive.

I suggested that the way to assure a positive feedback session would have been to ask the worker if you could return in about ten minutes to conduct a behavioral observation. This would have given the employee ample time to find the appropriate PPE and put it on for the observation. Then the evaluation would have more "safe" than "at-risk" checks, and the coaching session could be more positive than negative. This could increase the acceptability of the entire behavior-based coaching process.

The group's immediate reaction seemed to be confusion or outright disagreement. One employee remarked, "If we did our observations that way, we'd never get true data." This basic misconception about using a CBC is the second common mistake I see in behavior-based coaching:

Workers get so involved in completing their observation checklists, tallying results, and posting group percentages that they lose sight of the primary purpose of the process. I explained that coaching is not done to obtain "true" measures of safe versus at-risk behavior. In fact, results would only be acceptable as "true" by the scientific community if two observers independently observed the same work process and scored their checklists exactly the same for 85 percent or more of the categories.

The primary purpose for participating in a behavior-based coaching process is to support safe behavior, reduce at-risk behavior, and thus prevent injuries. Yet it's easy to get caught up in the numbers. I've seen observers continue to complete their CBC while the person they were observing continued to perform at-risk behavior. Of course, it is easier to check columns than step in to change behavior, especially if the one-on-one feedback is perceived as negative.

The most important information to track in behavior-based coaching is amount of participation. The number of CBC cards turned in is more diagnostic than the number of "safe" versus "at-risk" columns checked per card. To be sure, comparing the percentages of safe behaviors across CBC categories helps pinpoint problem areas. But degree of participation is far more predictive of outcome success (or injury reduction) than individual percentages of safe behavior.

It's essential that safety coaching is positive and nonthreatening. This builds confidence, group cohesion, and interpersonal trust -leading to increased participation. This is key to making a difference with behavior-based safety.

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