Training class is into its third day and we have broken into teams to begin identifying all the safe practices and conditions required within each team’s assigned work area. One group is having difficulty determining the safest way to perform a particular function. After several minutes of deliberation, the quietest person in the group suddenly delivers the simplest solution to what everyone considered a complex problem. When queried why he hadn’t offered this suggestion before, he replied, “No one asked me!”

Solutions for many issues can be realized through collaboration. It is the primary element in what is called “participative management.” “Empowerment” and “team problem solving” are popular buzzwords in the business world, yet we violate most of the principles outlined for achieving these concepts. Some managers feel their personal recognition and chance for promotion will be diluted by engaging others in making decisions. Participative management has still not arrived in many work environments, but it can happen and the benefits are multiple.

We want employees to take charge when it comes to safety. However, often we extinct this practice by: not providing the opportunity to contribute; not reinforcing, or totally ignoring, suggestions or questions; making decisions regarding employees’ work without any consultation; and failing to recognize the knowledge, skills and creativeness of employees.

True leadership

Failing to engage employees in the safety process indicates a breakdown in leadership. Leadership is more than directing the workforce and enforcing rules and regulations. To achieve true leadership and success in the safety process, learn the following LEADERSHIP practices.

Listen to what they have to say. Listening motivates and is far more important to good leadership than realized. If employees believe they are being genuinely listened to, respect and trust can be generated. By not listening to the ones who have to get the work done, managers and supervisors discourage ingenuity, motivation to take responsibility and active participation in solving problems. Employees feel better about the job they do if value is placed on what they have to say.

Engage employees in decision-making. To achieve support from employees regarding decisions or changes impacting their work, they must be actively engaged in the process. No one knows better than the front-line employees what works best and what doesn’t work. They’re the ones operating the machines, observing/moving/storing product, moving about the facility day in and day out. Managers and supervisors often make the assumption that they know all they need to know about their facility in order to make decisions and changes. One of the most important tools, especially in safety, is employee intellect and experience.

Ask for input. Questions are possibly one of the most powerful tools of a good leader. By not asking questions, one assumes they know all the answers. Not all workers have the personality style to step forward with suggestions or potential problems. When asked, however, many will offer more than expected. This is especially true if they are convinced that their input is truly needed and wanted. Most people have something to contribute and will when sincerely asked.

In the workplace, limitations are too often placed on peoples’ knowledge. Some managers and supervisors fall into the trap of thinking of employees as only a means of getting the work done and not contributors in determining how it gets done. Employees are often involved in outside-of-work activities that carry all the skills of problem-solving, leading groups and technical and organizational skills.

Deliver on commitments and promises. There are few things that have a greater impact on people than a “broken promise,” especially if it is habitual. Keeping your word is associated with integrity. Broken promises generate resentment and lack of trust. While it is understandable that some commitments cannot be kept, it is important that the circumstances and reasons be fully understood. When trying to gain support and participation from employees, managers and supervisors can get carried away with great intentions and make unrealistic promises. If a manager has no intention of following through and makes a promise merely to get something done, the damage to employee-management relations is extensive.

Example set. “Do as I say, not as I do” rarely instills confidence and willingness to participate. Employees tend to do things because their bosses do it or say to do it. The authority of the “boss” will often override what the employee knows to be right and wrong. By setting the example — walking the talk — managers and supervisors can encourage employees to do the same.

Recognize and reinforce. When employees participate in a process, leaders need to recognize and reinforce this involvement. People do more of what brings good consequences. It is human nature for people to feel good when their efforts are recognized. Employees will contribute well beyond what is expected of them if their work is acknowledged and positively reinforced.

When receiving input from employees, be careful not to immediately dismiss it, even if at first glance it seems inconsequential. It is not inconsequential to the person delivering it.

Share information. Good leaders encourage strong communication systems between all employees at all levels in all directions. The level of participation in any process is proportionate to the level of communication between all levels of employees. Sharing information with employees can foster reciprocal sharing. Participative communication draws the line between mere management and good leadership. People feel connected when they are in the communication loop.

Human element always remembered. Performance depends highly on the human element, perhaps more than the technical element. Corporations concentrate heavily on the technical/systems aspects of their business. In many companies, management feels most comfortable in a structured, logical environment with technical and administrative tasks topping the list in importance. Yet human dynamics play such an important role in any successful process. A good leader will motivate, recognize and involve employees.

Interface - walk around and talk. Learning about the people who work in a facility can reap many benefits. By merely taking the time to periodically walk around the facility and visit with employees, you may find that there is a lot of untapped knowledge and skill out there that can help your company. It is difficult for employees to receive directives from a rarely seen “boss.” Employees need to feel that managers are accessible before they will get involved beyond their basic work requirements.

Provide support and resources. Employees cannot complete any project without management support and resources. Resources can be anything from administrative support to providing time to meet to discuss things. Leaders make sure that when they want something done by the workforce, the means to accomplish it are in place.