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Safety: The Unspoken Expectation

Last month, in a meeting with a senior leader, I asked his impression of his organization approach to occupational safety. His response: “I believe it’s an unspoken expectation.” This comment summarized a belief that I think is prevalent in many organizations. Employees should just show up and be safe, its common sense! Of course, no one would ever put their hand in a moving conveyor, remove the guards without locking out, or start work without the proper PPE.

“Based on Gallup's work with companies worldwide, only about half of employees strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work.”[i] If only 50% of employees know what is expected of them for the work that they do, how much do you think they understand when one or more of the expectations is unspoken? 

Organizations focus tremendous effort on trying to establish expectations by providing ‘safety’ training, usually presented by someone other than their immediate supervisor. Then that supervisor sends that new employee off to learn the job at the direction of another employee. Sometimes with a “If you ever feel unsafe, just let me know.” From then on out, a monthly ‘safety meeting’ is unenthusiastically delivered on a regulatory topic that may or may not pertain to that employee’s immediate work environment. 

So, what is the expectation?

We produce outstanding safety results in the same manner that we produce outstanding results in other areas: productivity, quality, customer service, employee retention, etc. Safety results are performance-based, and those skills must be developed and positively reinforced to be consistently applied. According to The Ken Blanchard Organization, “Our willingness and ability to seize the moment and engage in timely, honest, and efficient performance-based discussion to influence each other’s behaviors can create measurable improvement in the results.”[ii] Safety is a result. Although some may read this and think peer-to-peer BBS observations meet this need, they do not. These timely, honest, and efficient performance-based discussion must be led by the direct organizational leader, as they are the only one that can clearly establish their expectations. A peer’s input might be nice to assist in the development of a competency, but only the direct organizational leader can provide both the direction and support to ensure alignment with the organizational expectations. 

Here are three quick keys for leaders to effectively establish spoken expectations about employee performance related to safety:

1.      Collaborative: First, both the leader and the direct report must speak and understand the same leadership language. With this common language, the leader can clearly convey the expectations in a collaborative manner. The collaboration creates a two-way street. When both parties agree on the expectations, the leader can then provide positive and negative feedback for that performance. And the direct report is then empowered to hold the leader accountable when the leader’s actions are consistent or inconsistent with those expectations. 

2.      Constructive: The safety conversation tends to be negative in nature. It is usually a bunch of rules, regulations, and policies supported by blame and punishment when something goes wrong. Rules do not motivate behavior when no one is watching. Constructive expectations connect the organizational values, the behavior, and the result in a positive way. Success is a balance of productivity, quality and safety. Our expectations should be spoken in those terms. 

3.      Consistent: Signs, slogans, and banners cannot replace the continuous reinforcement of expectations from the leader. In fact, many organizations attempt to use these superfluous safety signs to prop up a lack of clear leadership expectations and feedback. We have all seen this wall: 

Signs and slogans don't work

But we don’t see walls like this because these messages are already continuously reinforced.

It's the spoken expectations that get met.

For each situation where the leader addresses performance gaps related to safety, the same leader should be recognizing five situations where the employees are meeting expectations. It just takes skill, effort and intent.

Front-line leaders that provide collaborative, constructive, and consistent expectations create a culture of success and outstanding safety results. Senior leaders must ensure that their front-line leaders develop and implement these necessary skills.



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