Active Listening is Hard Work

active listeningHarry couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  It was shift change. Rob was leaving the locker room and headed toward the operating floor. His colorful athletic shoes were in stark contrast to the soiled and well-worn boots of the other guys around him.

Rob gave a slight nod of his head as he approached Harry, one of the shift supervisors.

“Hey, Harry.  Did the machine run well on first shift?  I sure hope I’m not walking into a mess in there.  After last week, I was hoping for a routine day at work.”

Harry wasn’t in the mood for small talk.  He just pointed down at Rob’s shoes and asked abruptly, “Speaking of walking, what are you thinking?  You know everyone is required to wear steel-toed shoes.  No exceptions!”

“Oh, those,” Rob countered, a little taken aback by Harry’s tone. “Let me explain…”

Harry interrupted him.  “No explanation needed.  It’s black and white.  Either you are wearing the right shoes or not.  And those are definitely NOT work shoes!”

“I know that,” Rob responded, the volume of his voice rising to match Harry’s. “I was just going to…”

Harry raised his hand and stopped Rob again.  “Look, you’re not going anywhere near the operating floor with those on your feet.  So either borrow a pair of shoes – or go home and get some proper foot protection – ‘cause you are not working today unless you have them.”

Rob crossed his arms and glared at Harry.  “Can you take one minute and listen?”

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Control or Caring? What is your motive for a safety conversation?

Most organizations that seek to achieve safety excellence realize that this performance level can only be attained with strong leadership.  When it comes to safety, there are two prevalent leadership philosophies. There is a stark contrast between the resulting safety cultures. We can better understand the differences by realizing that each is grounded in very different motives.  One approach emphasizes control, while the other starts with caring.

Control = Compliance

Some managers define “strong leadership” as carrying a big stick.  These managers believe that any time there is an injury or near miss, their principal responsibility is to hold people accountable.  In practice, this means that the primary reason they have any safety conversation is to exert more control.

These managers believe that if people would simply comply with the policies, rules, and procedures, then no one would get hurt.  Armed with this reasoning, they strive for greater control by criticizing actions that are inconsistent with established policies.  Safety conversations center on correcting errant behaviors through counseling or discipline.

Culture of ComplianceThis safety philosophy leads to a Culture of Compliance.

The graphic shown here demonstrates the actions which lead to this kind of safety culture, which is summarized in the following statement:

If the reason (Why) you have any safety conversation is to exert control, the approach will be to criticize (How) and seek compliance through correction (What).

A Culture of Compliance results in a false sense of improved safety performance, because many incidents are driven underground.  The official safety numbers may look good. However, the number of unreported near misses and unrecorded minor injuries are indicative of an insidious safety culture. Because the causes are never acknowledged and addressed, they accumulate until a significant event occurs. Continue reading