Safety Leadership Coaching: Are We Coaching the Right Things?

Safety Leadership Coaching: Are We Coaching the Right Things? Call to Action!“Coaching safety.”  That’s a mouthful.  We often think we know what it entails without realizing what it is we’re trying to coach.  For instance, are we doing safety coaching  or safety leadership coaching?  There’s a difference.  Are we coaching safety performance or safety leadership performance?  Again, there’s a difference.  One has to do with reinforcing compliance; the other has to do with reinforcing safety culture.

We’ll get in to these differences as we move through this series.  But for now, there’s an even more fundamental issue to consider; namely, ensuring that what we are coaching is actually coachable. [password=”coach-right”]

5 Criteria for Coaching Safety Leadership, Performance and Behaviors

Introducing S.M.O.R.E.  S.M.O.R.E.  stands for:






Think of S.M.O.R.E. as a filter for safety leadership coaching, or even coaching safety performance and behaviors.  It’s the criteria we have to use to ensure that the improvement we have in mind is a good candidate for coaching.

Specific 50 things you must know about safety leadership

In order for something to be coachable it first has to be specific.  I can’t coach a fuzzy, nebulous abstract idea that isn’t well defined.  For instance,

“John, I’d like you to become a better team player”

John may have an idea of what a “better team player” looks like, but I might have a completely different idea than he does.  He may think it means to do the same thing he’s been doing, but just a lot more of it.  But I may simply mean I want him to arrive at the safety meetings on time.

So, at the end of the month when we have a follow-up meeting for safety leadership coaching, and I end up telling John I haven’t seen any improvements (he’s still arriving to the safety meetings late), John’s going to end up feeling pretty deflated and defeated because he’s been focusing a lot of energy on trying to build relationships with his team mates.

The fault was not John’s but mine.  I wasn’t specific enough in my coaching.


But coaching also has to be measurable.  I have to be able to count the number of times something is done (“John, I want you to conduct four safety observations per month instead of just two”)–or I have to be able to put some kind of quality rating on it (meets expectations, does not meet expectations, exceeds expectations).


Anything we coach must also be observable.  I can’t coach something I can’t see.  That means I can’t coach an attitude, because  I can’t see an attitude.  I can’t coach a motive, because  I can’t see a motive. Such activities are best left to licensed therapists.  The rest of us aren’t qualified in that area.

Well, then what can I coach?  I can coach the behaviors that lead me to believe there is a bad attitude or a bad motive.  So I have to drill down to specifics by asking myself: “What leads me to believe John has a bad attitude?”

In the case we just mentioned, John’s late arrival to the safety meetings might have led me to believe he has a bad attitude, or that he’s a bad team player. That’s exacerbated by the fact that when he does arrive, he quietly sits at the back of the table and doesn’t contribute anything to those meetings.

So, to coach that, I have to break it down to specific behaviors.

“John, I’ve noticed you are consistently arriving late to our safety meetings.  When you get there you sit at the back of the table and you don’t contribute anything to the discussion.  So, starting with tomorrow’s meeting, I’d like you to arrive five minutes early.  I’d like you to sit at the side of the table instead of the back.  And I want you to contribute two ideas to that meeting, and I want you to respond to the ideas of two of your peers.”

I’ve just given John about six new (and very specific) expectations I have for him in the safety meetings.  If he complies with them, then there’s no problem because he’s now exhibiting the behaviors I want to see.


In order for something to be coachable it also has to be repeatable.  If John always arrives to the safety meetings on time and always contribute to the discussion, but one day he arrives late and is quiet throughout, that’s not a good candidate for coaching.  Everyone has a bad day.  I’m going to let that one slide.

Of course if it becomes a repeated pattern for John, then it becomes coachable.


fctc-online-bannerFor something to be coachable it has to be based on expectations that I’ve already set and communicated.  Those expectations have to be well known and understood before I can coach infractions.  I also have to ensure I’ve provided any necessary training around those expectations and given them the tools to meet those expectations.  If I’ve done all that first, then it’s coachable if I see someone is not meeting those expectations.

Well, there you have it.  The coaching criteria in the form of S.M.O.R.E.  We’ll build on this criteria in our next issue when we look at some general guidelines for coaching safety leadership, safety performance, and safety behaviors.  But that’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. Be sure to view the associated video below to learn more about these tips. Until next time.


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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.