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Susan Boyle and your safety culture

November 20, 2012
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It’s easy to write people off by their appearance. Maybe it’s someone who doesn’t dress or speak like you. Maybe they have different interests than you, your co-workers, or your friends. Or as one of my business acquaintances often states, “they’re just special!”

These “special kinds of people” have a lot to do with making your culture for safety a very special one. And your safety culture needs to take a better look at these special individuals if you want to turn your followers into everyday leaders, and your culture into a community, a family.

In my 30 years of safety work, I realized a long time ago that organizations that have outstanding safety cultures have built an exceptional community or family environment where people really care about each other. It's not just about the culture - it's about much more!

So Much Talent

Remember Susan Boyle from America’s Got Talent? Yes, she’s the amazing mezzo-soprano whoblew everyone away with her television performance in 2009.  When she took the stage, we saw that she was dressed a bit frumpy and didn’t fit the part. She was somewhat unkempt and looked down upon by just about the entire viewing audience. But we soon witnessed an amazing voice that brought people to their feet for a standing ovation that seemed to last forever! Ms. Boyle was incredible and continues to impress!  In fact, her first week album sales were the best the USA had seen in more than 10 years! Her voice helped her to gain immediate respect. 

Things aren’t much different at work or home. There are individuals around us who we don’t give a chance because of their appearance or because there’s something different about them. Some of these people remain quiet and seldom contribute in ways we would like for them to contribute to safety. 

But why? 

Have we ostracized them or embarrassed them? Are they simply quiet and shy? Or have we not sought out more effective ways to get them involved in our culture for safety? 

Well, there are various reasons why they haven’t stepped up to be more involved in helping us improve our safety culture. But one thing is certain – many times, these quiet followers are leaders with special talents who are just waiting to happen! They simply need a little push and some support. And it starts by not judging them and giving them a little respect.   

I Know from Experience

Over the past 30 years, I’ve worked with many special people who have helped me produce incredible safety outcomes! Some of these individuals were different, special, and avoided by others. 

Sometimes we avoid those who are different because their presence makes us a little uncomfortable. You see, we are more comfortable with those who are most like us. There is a psychological attraction to individuals who validate our similarities and values. Special people don’t always help to validate us in those ways. 

Earlier in my career, I often avoided these kinds of individuals because of the way they looked, acted, or spoke. Maybe they made me a little uncomfortable and it was easier to go along with everyone else and just avoid them.  But it’s a process that we all have to work on. For a start, the next time you’re in a coffee shop, evaluate who you attempt to avoid or spend time with – likely it’s those who validate you in some particular way. And as you also know, with maturity and experience, most people really aren’t so different and don’t need to be avoided.

Signs and Signals for Change

If you’re trying to work on more engagement, creating greater on-the-floor or in-the-field leadership, or want to build a greater sense of community, there will have to be visible signs of change. These signs are visible actions that signal a new start and direction. And these signals help to show respect for the worker at an individual level, on their turf, where change really needs to happen. Here’s a few simple ways that you and your leaders can start to make change happen at a grass roots level:

1. Be in a place and position to greet people before, after, or during a shift. The same can be said for safety related meetings. Offer them your hand so you can greet them or wish them a great day and a safe one too! These small gestures will also give you time to talk about a new direction or path forward.

2. Learn the names of your workers, especially those quiet followers who can become some of your more effective leaders. Knowing everyone’s name can seem daunting but you have to start somewhere.  Hearing one’s own name means a great deal to each worker. And just don’t learn a name – get to know something unique about them.

3. Walk through your operations regularly and be willing to simply listen to issues, some of which may or may not be safety-related. Listening is a powerful skill that should never be overlooked. You will be amazed at how much a few minutes can do for getting more engagement from others, especially those who have not been very involved in the past. 

Each of these small but significant acts shows that you want to establish a positive relationship with everyone. It can also signal an entirely different start from the way other leaders have acted in the past. And when you and other organizational leaders focus on building relationships with everyone through safety, especially with those who are quietly special, open communications and engagement with these workers will follow. In addition, other co-workers who may have excluded these future contributors will also become more open and accepting in time. 

Thanksgiving is nearly here and it’s time to step out in new ways that signal a new path to safety excellence for everyone. Everyone including those with special talents who seem to be different and may be less fortunate than others – those who need to be a part of your community for safety, if you want to make it a truly special one! 

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