How to Build and Lead a Sustainable Safety Culture (Part 4)

Communicating a Safety Culture

Think for a minute about one person at work with whom you have a difficult time communicating. This could be a team member, a boss, or someone in a different department in the organization. But it should be someone you tend to clash with over ideas or ways to approach the same problem or issue.  No matter how hard you try you just can’t seem to figure out why they say the things they do, why they think the way they do, and why they tend to behave the way they do?

Now ask yourself honestly; if your goal is to effect a safety culture change and a change in the way we think about and what we believe about safety, how effective will you be in that if you can’t understand or connect with people of that type? If you don’t get them, chances are pretty good they don’t get you either. And that has implications for their ability, or willingness, to receive and embrace your message.

In our last video I mentioned five areas that we recommend including in any safety-leadership training. They are:

  1. Safety as a culture and a way of life
  2. Communicating safety as a culture
  3. Leading safety as a culture
  4. Coaching safety engagements
  5. Developing best practices for leading a safety culture

We covered the first of these in our last video in the series, so let’s pick up where we left off. How do we best communicate safety as a culture? It is axiomatic that if the people don’t get us or they don’t get our message, then they’re not likely to act upon the things we’re communicating.

This is something that we addressed in a past video blog, but let me sum it up by saying that communication hasn’t taken place just because I’ve delivered the message, and generally it doesn’t take place until my audience has received and understood my message.

But in our case, our goal is even harder to reach, because we need to get them not only to understand our message intellectually but to embrace it as their own. That means we need to find a way to understand how and why they tend to think and speak and respond and behave the way they do, and then adjust our communication–and our style and approach–to theirs, so that we’re providing the greatest opportunity for them to catch what it is we’re saying.

So how do we facilitate that kind of understanding? Well, using an assessment tool or a styles-inventory tool to understand things like personality types, temperament types and thinking styles is a good starting point. Some popular instruments include Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the DISC profile, and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. Most of these are pretty good instruments that complement each other and can be mapped to each other.

The one we use in our program is the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, and the reason we’ve chosen that one over, say, Meyers-Briggs is because the Keirsey Sorter focuses on communication and behavior—both of which are coachable and therefore useful for our purposes in driving a safety culture.

Using this tool we find there are four main Temperament categories: Artisan, Guardian, Rational and Idealist. These can broken down into four subcategories per temperament, but we won’t go into that much granularity here.

Some people are concrete communicators. That means they like to talk about things that are external to them; things that in front of them and that they can point to; things they can sense—things they can see, taste, touch, hear, and smell. These are news, weather and sports type of people.

Other people are abstract communicators. That means they like to talk about things that are internal; things that are in their head or heart; ideas, plans, concepts, systems, feelings, thoughts, emotions, aspirations and dreams.

These two groups can be further divided by a behavioral preference.
Some people are inclined to do what works in any given situation (they are utilitarian). They don’t mind following the rules if those rules make sense. But they’re quick to abandon them if they don’t make sense, or they are inefficient, or they stand in the way of the goal. Other people are inclined to do what’s right in terms of rules, laws, policies, and regulations; or in terms of people, ethics and conscience (they are collaborative).

This leaves us with four primary temperament categories. And each of these has its own unique way of communication and behaving.

Artisans speak of what is and they do what works (concrete/utilitarian). That is, they tend to speak concretely and matter-of-factly, and they generally like to take the shortest route possible to the payoff. These are free spirits who just want to do things they way they want to do them. And because of that they don’t have much use for rules—unless of course those rules happen to be their own!

Guardians also speak of what is; but they like to do what’s right (concrete/collaborative). That is, they also speak concretely and matter-of-factly, but they are quick to follow, uphold and even defend existing rules and policies. These are traditional-minded, standard bearers of establishment, community and authority. They value security, stability, organization and predictability, and are natural overseers of people and policies.

Rationals speak of what’s possible; but like the Artisan, they like to do what works (they are abstract/utilitarian). These are systems-oriented, scientific thinkers who like planning, strategizing and long-term goals. They are natural critical thinkers who are always looking for ways to improve a process. They don’t mind following rules as long as those rules make sense. They value efficiency, achievement and knowledge.

Finally, Idealists speak of what’s possible; but like the Guardian, they like to do what’s right (they are abstract/collaborative). These are nurturing, people-oriented individuals who speak about feelings, relationships, aspirations and dreams, and who enjoy helping other people reach their full potential. They do what’s right for people, not policy. Their sense of right conforms not to regulations but to codes ethics and conscience.

Now how does all of this play into better communication? Well, obviously someone who prefers abstract communication and values people as individual is not going to be moved by a message that focuses on numbers and statistics. And someone who prefers to do what works is not going to be very motivated to stay safe by your appeal to policies and regulations. So your safety communication has to do one of two things: It either has to be tailor-made to each audience (which would be a monumental task); or it has to include elements that resonate with both communication styles (concrete and abstract) and both behavioral styles (utilitarian and collaborative).

There are many other dimensions to this, including the differences between expressive and reserved people, and between directing and informing people. But that’s about as much detail as we can get into with these short video blogs. However, this should be sufficient to illustrate the need to include a piece on better communication, and just what that might look like.

That’s all the time we have for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. But be sure to catch us next week when we’ll continue with the third of these five areas that need to be covered in the safety-leadership training. Until then, be sure all your safety initiatives are built-in, not bolted on.

(Click here for the job aid mentioned in the video)

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About the Author

Eric Svendsen
Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.