Starting a Safety Conversation

EHS Today - February 2021
By: Terry L. Mathis
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Over the past decades, I have only worked with a handful of organizations with excellent safety communication. Even when leaders have good intentions to communicate safety, they tend to fall short of their own expectations. Often this is because intentions are all they have. Good communication starts with a clear strategy of what needs to be communicated and exact tactics of how that is to be accomplished.

The root cause of most communication failures I encounter lies in setting the strategic goals. Leaders tell me their workers are uninformed and that their goal is to keep them more informed. Usually in another conversation, leaders ask me to help get their workers more engaged in safety. I find that these goals can be combined. The overall strategic goal should be worker engagement, and the primary tactic for accomplishing that goal should be communication. But communication needs to be more than simply disseminating information. What needs to happen is not a flow, but an exchange. That means everyone needs to be invited into a conversation about safety.

The way to invite people into a conversation is not by making statements, but by asking questions. Communication experts often cite three qualities of effective communication: it should be clear, non-threatening, and two-way. Conversations facilitate all three of these qualities better than sent messages. If the original message is not clear, a conversation can seek clarification. A sent message can be perceived as a command or dictate even if it is not intended as such. Conversations allow perceived threats to be defused. When messages are sent, there is no easy way to determine if it was received. In conversations, the receipt of information can be determined by body language or by follow-up questioning if necessary.

Deming told us that people support what they help create. Being involved in the conversation gives everyone a chance to help create the basic ideas upon which actions may be based. Leaders who ask questions are perceived to be more open to ideas and collaborative than leaders who speak without listening in return. Getting input from others is not just good communication, it is a sign of respect. Additionally, others often have knowledge about specifics that leaders do not, but would help them make better and more practical decisions. I recently talked to organizational leaders who were boastful and proud of the improvements they had made to one department at their site. When I spoke with workers from that department, they told me that leaders had not asked them about the improvements and many of them had created more problems than they solved. The net result was millions of dollars spent that complicated work and de-motivated the workforce. All of this is easily avoided by a simple conversation.

A common barrier to effective flow of information is the subordinate who does not want to be the bearer of bad news to the boss. To address this, many organizations require leaders to have what is commonly called "skip-level meetings." These are meetings in which the boss skips the direct reports and has a meeting with the next lower level in the organization. These meetings are only effective if they foster a conversation. If the boss simply lectures the attendees with the same directives given to direct reports, no new insights are gained. Savvy bosses have the right questions to bring out the information that may be withheld and create an atmosphere of trust that removes the threat that may make attendees feel uncomfortable sharing information and ideas openly.

Some organizational leaders tell me they are already good at asking questions and getting input from others. However, I often find that their questions are all about tactics and not strategy. The leader decides on a goal and direction and simply asks others to fill in the blanks on how that might be accomplished in their departments or regions. Contributing to tactics creates a level of ownership and engagement but contributing to the rationale behind the decisions takes engagement and ownership to a whole new level. Deciding what to do gets hands and feet moving. Deciding why to do it gets hearts and minds involved and connected to the organization with strong bonds.

The most effective safety strategies are the ones to which all key leaders have contributed, and the best way to get such contributions is through asking questions. Some questions I often recommend include "Why do we want to be more excellent in safety?" "How would the organization benefit from better safety?" and "How can we keep safety and production from competing with each other for priority?" Those who contribute to such conversations feel a deeper ownership and pride in the performance that results from the strategy.

Most organizations are attempting some form of audits or behavioral observations as a part of their safety activities. One of the goals of such processes is to increase employee engagement. However, the most difficult part of such audits or observations is giving feedback on what was observed and getting information from the workers being observed that can help improve safety. Observer training should include strategy for fostering a conversation between the observer and the person/people being observed. Observers need a list of potential questions to ask at the end of an observation to foster good safety communication. Truly good questions will spawn conversations among employees even after and between observations, and those discussions will flow over to safety meetings and pre-job planning sessions.

Plato and Aristotle were two of the most famous philosophers of the Golden Age in Greece. Aristotle proposed all the answers, and his thinking has been superseded many times over by advancements in thinking and technology. Plato asked the deep questions underlying our life decisions. His questions remain pertinent today. He told us the unexamined life is not worth living. The unquestioned safety strategies might equally not be worth pursuing. Start a conversation and talk about it!

Terry Mathis, Founder and retired CEO of ProAct Safety, has served as a consultant and advisor for top organizations the world over. A respected strategist and thought leader in the industry, Terry has authored five books, numerous articles and blogs, and is known for his dynamic and engaging presentations. EHS Today has named him one of the '50 People Who Most Influenced EHS' four consecutive times. Business leaders and safety professionals seek Terry's practical insight and unique ability to introduce new perspectives that lead to real change. Terry can be reached at or 800-395-1347.

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