It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while a client company contacts me with the intent of having me come in to “fix” their front-line employees by making them more aware of their role in a safety culture, but with no thought of including their leadership in that “fix.”
But that’s not how it works. Front-line employees are not the only ones who should be leading a safety culture in the organization. It has to be a concerted effort at every level.
In our last few articles (see here, here and here) we focused on safety-leadership activities menus for front-line employees, and discussed a variety of things employees at that level can do to lead a safety culture. It’s now time to turn our attention to their supervisors. If employees are expected to engage in new activities to lead a safety culture, it follows that their supervisors will have new activities of their own.
Communicate the Culture
First and foremost, the role of the supervisor is to communicate and reinforce–continually–the safety-leadership expectations for their direct reports. And not just as a conduit. They must communicate it as though it’s their own idea. Notice the differences between the following statements from a supervisor to his/her direct reports:
“Guys, I don’t like this any more than you do, but this is what they want us to do, so let’s just get it done.”
“Folks, I want to remind all of us that this is our work area. We own what happens here, so it makes sense for each of us to lead the safety culture in our area.”
The first statement communicates that not even the supervisor has embraced and internalized the message, so it’s not likely the direct reports will. The second statement communicates not only that the supervisor has embraced the message, but genuinely wants everyone else to as well. The willingness of employees to adopt a new practice is in direct proportion to the level of commitment to that practice they observe in their leaders.
The second role of the supervisor is to ensure the employee-level activities menu is being carried out. If a disproportionate number of employees want to focus on the same activity, it’s the supervisor’s role to decide on best fits and to persuade some of those employees to pursue other activities that are not currently being executed.
One way of doing this in a fair way is to set some expectations about how many people should be performing an activity, or how frequently you’d like to see an activity performed, and make this clear when you first introduce the menu. Ask them to own it and figure how who on the team is best suited for each activity. But keep it flexible and not hard-coded. Just because someone may not be comfortable performing one of the activities at first does not mean they won’t be later. Let it evolve in an organic way, and let them make adjustments as needed.
Also, no employee should be performing just one activity. Set a minimum limit (say two activities per week) and allow them to take it from there. Those activities don’t have to be the same ones each week. Let them pick and choose which activities they want to start with, and let them experiment with others as they desire.
Observe, Coach and Build
Once the activities menu is in full swing it’s the supervisor’s role to observe those activities as often as possible, to recognize successes, and to coach employees on how well they are performing those activities. For instance, say an employee is leading a safety meeting or a toolbox talk. In that case the supervisor should be there to observe levels of engagement and interaction during that meeting, and then meet with that employee afterwards to talk through what went well and what might need to be improved.
In the same vein, supervisors should be ready, willing and able to develop their employees in those safety-leadership activities. Front-line employees generally don’t mind stepping up and trying something new, as long as you provide the training they need to do it well. They just don’t want to fail at it. Work with each employee on how to perform their selected activities in better ways. By developing them in these areas you’re also building a sense of confidence in them that spills over into other parts of their job.
We’ll look at the activities menu for upper management in our next article. But that’s all for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. Until next time.