I hated hearing those words, shouted toward me from a big burly guy named, Hog Jaws! That’s right, Hog Jaws! That was my construction foreman’s name on a summer job at a mine prep plant near Wheeling, West Virginia.
Hog Jaws wasn’t very likeable, but I guess he got the job done. Most workers avoided him and talked badly behind his back. I wasn’t fond of the guy either. And after two months on that job, he never bothered to learn my name, and I still heard, “hey you!” Maybe I was in good company, I believe I once read that the great Babe Ruth seldom learned his teammates names, and simply referred to many of them as Fred.
Most all of us have been around a boss or supervisor who isn’t very likeable or open to feedback. He or she is often avoided, and people may even fear approaching that boss with a safety-related concern or idea for improvement. And even if he or she says they have an open-door policy — it’s not very open. Workers who perceive their bosses as open believe their leader really listens to their ideas and acts upon them when appropriate — or at the very least, gives their ideas a fair shake.
Weighing the price
By their nature, some workers are simply more confident and vocal. They speak up with little hesitation and provide ideas for safety-related improvement. This is especially true when they feel there’s an important safety concern that that could lead to a serious injury or loss.
Leader and group acceptance also seem to keep these workers speaking up and being heard. Largely, that worker is valued by leaders and doesn’t feel threatened when sharing his thoughts.
In contrast, other workers often weigh their opinions and options before sharing ideas with supervisors, analyzing whether they will be scowled at, growled at, or penalized in some way. These workers typically weigh the personal cost before considering speaking up.
Will my perceived worth to the organization be diminished in some way? Will my peers think I’m trying to kiss-up and no longer accept me?
And yet, other workers may not be invested in the organization — they’re simply not sticking around. It’s not uncommon for these employees to remain silent and disengaged.
Employee-driven communications should be encouraged and plays an essential part in eliminating serious injuries and making greater ongoing strides in safety improvement. It also helps to build a culture of openness for safety where everyone feels they have a voice and contributes to ongoing safety improvements — a very real part of engagement!
Leaders are the key
Good leaders who embrace their roles in improving safety performance exhibit behaviors that encourage employee openness in communications, and in that way, live out a personal vision for safety. These leaders also understand if there is a vision to be shared and embraced, they must create greater dialogue by encouraging all workers to speak up and be heard.
Leaders and workers help keep the door to communications open. Training both leaders and followers to better understand the importance of being heard is essential. Leaders must discern individual behavioral cues that serve as an antecedent to greater or lesser forms of worker-related communications. Shouting, name calling, frowning and crossing arms often serve as cues and barriers to productive conversations. A leader’s consequent behaviors of encouragement help to keep the door open, ensuring that perceived worker problems and precursors are reported, early and often. In turn, workers must learn, when and how, to say what needs to be said.
Create the climate
It’s up to leaders to create the right climate for ongoing communications so that good ideas will be shared, listened to, and acted upon. Less vocal employees need to have peer advocates who can be trusted to disclose important information for them. In many organizations, important worker voices are either drowned-out or silenced when the price for speaking up is perceived as costlier than the potential gains — certainly an unhealthy situation.
Perception surveys and sensing sessions add structure to regular forms of communications and provide workers with an important means of exchange, particularly when the door needs to be pushed open. Having data from which to make decisions further encourages openness and potential changes in communication strategies and tactics.
In construction, and within many other industries, far too many Hog Jaws still exist, mostly to the detriment of their respective organizations, and the personal safety of those they supervise. I don’t believe my Hog Jaws was a bad guy, he just didn’t realize there was a better way.
It’s not just big egos that silence employees’ much needed upward communications for safety, but I do like what Robert Schuller once stated, “Big egos have little ears.”
Hey you. Don’t you think it’s time to help your leaders create greater dialogue, so the door to important safety communications remains fully open?
Detert, J.R. & Burris E.R. 2007. Leadership behavior and employee voice: Is the door really open? Academy of Management Journal, 50, no 4: 869-884.