It’s long been a beef with safety and health pros that senior leaders, with the rare exception, just don’t get safety. Business bosses don’t study it in business school, and since safety is a cost center and not a profit generator, leadership spends little time studying safety issues. Health issues, with their more delayed consequences and debatable connection to worker lifestyle issues (smoking, obesity, alcohol and drug abuse) are even further off the executive radar screen.
To be sure, there are large multi-billion-dollar multinationals, family-owned businesses, and an array of operations in between that do get safety, track multiple leading and lagging indicators, run safety management systems, and fund health promotion initiatives.
But in general, most senior leaders of businesses narrowly equate safety with two things: OSHA and injury rates.
So for decades safety and health pros have been implored to speak management’s language when making safety presentations. Don’t use jargon. Don’t waste time. Align safety values with corporate values. Show how safety embellishes corporate image and branding and competitiveness.
But what if senior leaders don’t know how to hold a conversation?
Employees dread a difficult conversation with their boss more than getting a credit card bill, paying taxes, or having credit, according to a 2011 research study of more than 1,279 workers around the world conduct by Development Dimensions, International. The study is titled, “Lessons for Leaders from the People Who Matter.”
Leaders are failing badly in their day-to-day interactions with their employees, according to the research.
Nearly one-third (30%) of workers said that their boss doesn’t remain calm and constructive when discussing a problems.
Almost half (49%) said their manager only sometimes or never asks for their ideas about how to solve a problems.
45% said only sometimes or never will their manager give them sufficient feedback on their performance.
41% said in conversation their manager only sometimes or never asks questions to ensure he/she understands what you are saying.
More than one-third (36%), said only sometimes or never does their manager handle work conversations efficiently.
What’s missing at every level of leadership, according to Development Dimensions, is the ability to facilitate effective conversations. Senior leaders have not mastered these skills.
I can’t say I am surprised. In most of my conversations with top executives for more than 30 years, when I am talking to them I see their eyes scanning the room, they come off distracted, like they have a half-dozen problems on their mind, and I can almost hear the gears cranking in their heads as they mentally work on these other issues. It’s like talking to a chess grandmaster who is thinking six steps ahead of you. And all the while his face is stone blank.
A number of times I’ve conversed with execs who didn’t have many questions for me, unless I was tied to some screw-up, getting sued for something I wrote. Then I had their attention, because they could lose something – money in a lawsuit. If the conversation did not represent that kind of threat to the boss and the company, the questions I’d get most often sought to confirm what the boss already thought.
“Don’t you think X is a pain in the ass sales rep? I should fire him.”
“I really like working with X vendor. I’m thinking about acquiring them. What do you think?”
Most of all, when it comes to the art of conversation, I’ve found execs to excel in one particular area: a deft ability to put you on the defensive. It’s as though they’re saying, “I don’t want any subordinate feeling comfortable around me.” So I’d get asked about some staffer’s performance, with the lead-in being, “I’m not sure about this guy…” Or I’d be asked about expense reports, contacting a customer, the magazine’s ad revenue, my projections for future revenue. Etc, etc. The focus would be on my responsibilities and how I was managing them.
Mostly I’ve had one-way conversations with execs where I listen. Listen to their frustrations: “I just can’t get my arms around this problem.” “I feel impotent. We can’t get that revenue up.” “X salesman is going to get me fired!”
Or I would listen to boasts. “We’re really cooking with my other magazine. Revenues are through the roof.” “Back in the day I loved walking into a trade show knowing that I was publisher of the magazine. What a feeling!”
I’ve learned a couple of lessons conversing with senior leaders that are borne out in the Development Dimensions research:
● With the rare exception, don’t expect empathy, mindfulness, or emotional intelligence from a senior leaders in a conversation. They never got that in business school, and most have never had an executive coach.
● Don’t be distracted by the fact that the exec you are talking to is distracted, and listening to you with one ear. Stick to your objective for having the conversation. Don’t waver or back off.
● Don’t overburden execs who are already overburdened. Know what you want to say, rehearse it perhaps, and keep your talking points to a minimum. Use your empathy to read your exec and figure out his mood, his patience quotient, and how much time you have to make your point. Don’t hit your exec with five different points. There’s always next time. Prioritize your talking points and stockpile them for later.
● Don’t make an exec feel defensive, unless you are so angry about something it’s damn the torpedoes and you don’t care if you get fired.
● Don’t engage in small talk with top leaders unless you’re at a bar or lengthy dinner. Most leaders don’t do small talk, unless it’s gossip with other top leaders or they are at a civic or political fund-raising event.
It’s ironic that in safety circles in 2013, there exist more articles and workshops on leadership skills than I have ever seen before. Safety pros are lectured and prompted to improve their “soft skills” – active listening, careful probing, sensing and reading the other person’s state of mind, being mindful of the moment – is this a good time to bring up a touchy, sensitive subject? Get out from behind your desk, walk the shop floor, and show an interest in your people. Ask about their families and hobbies. Build trust and relationships. And be sure to empower your employees, engage them, motivate them, encourage them.
Yet only 40% of the workers polled by Development Dimensions reported that their boss never damaged their self-esteem. That leaves 60% saying their boss at least sometimes damages their self-esteem. Men are more than twice as likely as women to say their leader’s actions damage their self-esteem. Of course us males have our notorious male egos to protect, and we tend not to take slights likely.
It leaves me to wonder. If all the talk these days about organizational cultures is correct, we depend on the senior leaders of the organization to shape and sustain the culture through modeling, decision-making, and their values. It takes trust and relationship-building. Teamwork and motivation. But if many senior leaders don’t want to be bothered by talking with ordinary folks on the shop floor, because it makes them uncomfortable and they don’t really know how to do it, I doubt many strong and vibrant cultures actually exist—based on trust, respect and relationships -- despite all we read and hear about them today.