Some of you sports trivia fans may recall an all-pro NFL defensive tackle from the 1970s, Joe Ehrmann, who played most of his career with the Baltimore Colts. After his playing days, Ehrmann became an ordained minister. Today, he preaches to a 4,000-member congregation and volunteers as a high school football coach in Baltimore.
Last week, Ehrmann, 56, white-haired and still carrying an imposing six-foot, 260-pound frame, spoke at a community forum in Bryn Mawr, Pa., in the suburbs west of Philadelphia. What the plain-spoken, "Most Important Coach in America," according to Parade Magazine, had to say about building community and coaching resonates with what many safety and health pros are doing today with their own people and organizational cultures.
TEARING DOWN WALLSWith ESPN cameras rolling in the background to capture Ehrmann's talk for a future show, the reverend/assistant coach for defense began by raising a challenge familiar to anyone trying to build a safety culture: "How do we come together?" he asked. How do you pull together a team, a community?
How do you get people to transcend themselves, asked Ehrmann, echoing Dr. Scott Geller's decades-long call for workers to actively care - to go beyond the call of duty - for one another's safety on the job.
Ehrmann and safety and health pros share the same coaching objective: get individuals to think beyond themselves, to connect to the goals and values of the team, the community and/or the culture.
To do so, coaches in sports and business confront the same disruptive attitude: What's in it for me?
To break through, Ehrmann attacks traditional values held by individuals and teams he finds dysfunctional. A similar line of attack might help build safety teamwork.
Ehrmann rejects the notion you must dominate and control to succeed in sports, or life for that matter. Think about it in terms of safety. Tradition holds you use rules, enforcement, discipline and policing to, in effect, dominate and control behaviors and attitudes in the workplace. OSHA certainly has made use of these tactics over the years.
Another target for Ehrmann is the macho code of conduct - the bane of many a safety pro trying to get employees to wear PPE or stop the short-cuts and risk-taking.
It's a formidable stereotype to shed: Men don't cry. Suck it up. Don't be a sissy. Don't show emotion.
The workplace translation: Real men don't "do safety." They don't talk about it, don't worry about. That's the safety man's job.
WINNING HEARTS AND MINDSEhrmann's coaching philosophy for winning over hearts and minds draws on concepts any safety and health pro can use on the job:
Confront what's old and in the way - Pull together a group of workers and question their existing beliefs about job safety. How important is it? Who's responsible for it? How did attitudes about safety get this way?
Express yourself - As a coach, Ehrmann puts a lot of energy into getting individuals to open up. Before every practice, the team sits for ten-minute talk-it-out sessions, centered around the theme of the week. You can see how this can be easily adapted to theme-centered safety meetings, whether they are daily tailgate talks or weekly or monthly classroom sessions. What's important is to pick a theme, and then probe and listen, don't lecture.
Provide protection - You have to make it safe for people, especially the macho men, to open up. If they don't want to talk, fine. In team meetings Ehrmann will have his players put their heads down on their desks at one point. They answer potentially embarrassing questions by raising their hands. "Who's feeling nervous about playing this undefeated team Friday?" he might ask. No player knows how anyone else answers. Safety coaches need the same kind of honest feedback.
Emphasize empathy - "What's missing in this society today more than anything is empathy," Ehrmann told his Bryn Mawr audience this week. He described what happened when a player got injured during practice on a team he once played on. "The coach would say, 'Move it down ten yards and let's go!'."
Too many workplaces today still have that reaction to an accident. Don't stand there. Move on.
Ehrmann goes for the opposite: "Let's just stop right now," he tells his team when a man goes down. Empathy, he says, is getting people to stop and think.
Emphasize opportunity - On the playing field or in the workplace, everyone will have the chance to build positive relationships and make a positive contribution, believes Ehrmann. To be a dependable co-worker. To do something that promotes safety, even in a small way. To make a difference.
"Here's what I know about life from sitting on the deathbed with many men and women," Ehrmann says. "When you look back, what matters is the relationships you had, and a feeling that you made the world a little better place because you were there."
Polls show many employees aren't interested in relationships on the job, or doing any more than what's needed to collect a paycheck. But you'll build your safety culture by probing; finding those who do care; getting them to open up and stop and think; and encouraging them along the way to make a difference for safety's sake.
Which leads to Ehrmann's last coaching lesson:
Don't diminish 'em - Ehrmann says his high school team's success, with multiple undefeated seasons, is strictly a by-product of the way players are treated. It's the old catching people doing something right and letting them know about it. "As a coach you can speak life into people, or you can diminish them," he says. "All we do all day is walk up to guys and affirm them. Build their estimation of themselves. Coaches must teach by building up, not tearing down."
What's your employees' estimation of safety on the job?
You might want to check out the book, "Season of Life," by Jeffrey Marx (Simon and Schuster, 2003), to learn more about Ehrmann's coaching philosophy, and how you can apply it to workplace safety teams and cultures.