High-Level Safety Persuasion

If promotional opportunities often detonate or fizzle, a practical strategic approach can increase your productivity.

PERSUASION is the name of the big game in organizations. Safety professionals' effectiveness can ultimately depend on their ability to persuade others. This can encompass influencing senior management to actively fund and support new initiatives, inducing mid-managers and supervisors to visibly lead safety, motivating line staff to look ahead to protect themselves and others, encouraging everyone to actively use safety methods, showing other departments how they might align with the safety message, eliciting approval from unions, helping resistant people to change--all with minimal pushback.

First and foremost, premier safety professionals are agents of change. Raising an organization to the highest level of safety entails getting and maintaining others' attention and motivating them to change. Many people are under continuous pressure to work harder and faster. They would prefer to continue doing the same things in the same ways they always have as much as they can. In contrast, a prime directive of high-level safety professionals is helping everyone think before they act, see potential hazards and future consequences, work as a team. Accomplishing this in these pressured times requires thinking and acting strategically and efficiently.

But the ability to induce others to consider and adopt new behaviors involves skills that have to be carefully cultivated. They are not "natural" to most people and usually don't magically appear along with accrual of technical knowledge. "May you live in interesting times" is a purported Chinese curse. Nowadays, most professionals seek to fulfill their mission within an "interesting" atmosphere: an era of tight funding and 360-degree competition for dollars. We are striving to get the attention of everyone from executives to mid-managers to line staff, within a climate of multiple distracters.

In these challenging times, not all communication opportunities are created equal. Highest-leverage persuasion points are group presentations or conferences where the safety initiative (and you) are on display, individual meetings with key staff, program introductions, and briefings to management. Too often, though, these opportunities to promote safety detonate or fizzle. But with a practical, strategic approach and strong skills, safety professionals can increase their persuasion productivity.

There are many methods and examples of persuasion and ways to boost organizational safety receptivity, behaviors, and culture. In this brief article, I will focus on overview principles you might use to heighten your persuasive powers whether communicating "up," "down," or "sideways."

Persuading Persuasiveness
Most safety professionals have more on their plates than they can readily accomplish. Why bother spending time attempting to influence others, especially when you're dealing with hard-headed managers, know-it-all union leaders, cynical supervisors, and who-cares employees?

Because these people, while perhaps difficult to reach, are the key to changing how people see and act. Working through them saves time and helps us accomplish our mission. And the good news is, experience shows it is possible to turn around even the most resistant, the overwhelmed, and the skeptical toward a safety life- and work-style.

Boosting your powers of persuasion will:

* Improve all of your safety communications
* Help you become a more effective leader of safety
* Elevate acceptance of safety, moving from "that's unrealistic" or "ho-hum" to "finally the company is giving me something I can really use"
* Enhance your reputation as a leader
* Save you time of not having to say the same things multiple times and setting up persuasion pyramids where others help create positive safety change
* Reduce frustration
* Engender more positive and pleasant interactions with everyone
* Accelerate acceptance of new ideas
* Gather support for new programs
* Provide luster to your career prospects.

Many safety professionals have privately admitted their "people skills" are only so-so, that they could never see themselves becoming a skilled motivator. Others have shown skepticism to the concept of persuasion, as if being influential is inherently at odds with being "professional."

I invite you to consider abandoning binary thinking. Life doesn't have to be either/or. It is possible to be scientifically cogent and also be skilled at communicating your knowledge in a way that induces attentional, attitudinal, and behavioral change. Information that isn't used is more than a waste of energy; it results in lost opportunities that might otherwise save lives and pain and productivity. It's like a spinning flywheel that is not engaged.

Some professionals seem to assume others act rationally. "If they only understood the potential impact of their actions, they would surely behave differently." This assumption goes against my experience working with organizations throughout the world and in all kinds of industries. What I've seen is that information in and of itself--even the best, most scientifically accurate types--doesn't necessarily induce change. If information caused change, hardly anyone would smoke, likely everyone would be in good shape, people would eat healthily and manage stress well, and they would take all reasonable safety precautions.

Contrarily, I suggest that people have an emotional component and pre-set attitudes and habits; that it is critical to sell them on programs and desired behaviors to adopt, not simply "inform them."

How you communicate, how you package your information can make the difference between your being ignored or mocked on one end or reaching and sparking change on the other.

Dee Hock, CEO Emeritus of Visa International, contended the mission of any leader is simple: "Lead yourself, lead your superiors, lead your peers, and free your people to do the same." The key to persuasion is to engage yourself and then others.

Have you seen the results of ineffective attempts at persuasion?

* Confusion, as people get mixed messages
* Intimidation, with people saying "I understand" when they don't because they feel they ought to
* False commitment and half-hearted promises to change their ways
* Unanswered objections or concerns that prevent whole-hearted alignment
* Rebelliousness, refusal, and resistance
* "Work to rule" (or, "I'll do exactly what you say in safety, to the letter of the law, to show you how unrealistic this is")
* Misunderstood priorities, which can lead to "putting the cart before the horse" or a person putting his life at risk to save a few seconds
* Low morale, resulting from feeling "set up" or that leaders don't care
* Negative view of safety
* Poor reputation of the safety professional
* Unresolved conflict
* Stony reactions
* Budget cuts
* Lack of buy-in to proposed programs or initiatives
* Loss of future influence opportunities
* Loss of job.

Two-way Communications for Persuasion
Communications can make or break a safety program. Communicating effectively makes safety exciting and interesting, heals minor problems before they loom larger, and elicits support for all safety efforts. It is the carrier wave for changing others? knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and values so they will act in a safe manner.

I suggest thinking of two types of persuasive communications:

1. Projective, where you actively attempt to change people's behavior, attitude, or skills, and
2. Receptive, when you are help reduce blockages to change, facilitate gathering of needed information, show interest in others' point of view, surface underlying problems, or support a problem-solving process.

In my experience, most people think of "persuasion" as solely a projective process. (I talk and others listen. I tell and they do.) This was perhaps more the case during command-and-control periods of history where an uneducated and trusting "lower class" bowed to their educated, forceful leaders. But we no longer live in an era of obedience. Higher levels of education and dissemination vehicles such as cable TV and the Internet have leveled the information fields.

For a variety of reasons, trust in authority appears to be plunging. This is neither positive nor negative, but a factor to acknowledge and work within. Fighting the ocean is a losing battle; wasting energy bemoaning "what's the matter with them?" or "who do they think they are?" or "why won't they listen--it's only for their own good?" leads to a disconnection that makes it even more difficult to align others to a safety course. But, for many, a purely "receptive" approach seems leaderless, haphazard, and arbitrary. It is unlikely to focus people towards a common safety mission.

Once again, "both" beats "either/or." Critical keys to strong persuasion include being able to do three things:

1) recognizing the times to be projective, and
2) identifying when it is better to be quiet and listen, and
3) actually being able to shift from second (talking, projecting) to neutral (receptivity) at will.

Projecting Without (Much) Pushback
Giving out information is critical in safety. After all, you can purchase the best PPE around and if people don't know it is available or how to use it, you have just wasted money and time. And as information, requirements/standards and expectations change, it's important to get these across to everyone. But how you communicate this can make all the difference in whether information is accepted or embraced on one hand or rejected or sabotaged on the other.

For example, if you work in an atmosphere where there is suspicion of authority, it is not strategic to play "the expert." ("I'm the safety professional with a degree and/or lots of experience, and I know and you don't.") This usually results in others lying in wait for you to make a mistake or for their just ignoring or resisting.

How you phrase things makes a significant difference. Better to say, "this is what I've found" or "in my experience" rather than "this is the right way" or "this is scientific fact." I remind myself that it matters less what I know than what others accept and do. And the tone of voice I use has to be consistent. "Suggesting" or "offering" in an authoritative tone of voice undoes my attempt at effective persuasion. The reality for me is, "the right way" and "scientific facts" change as new studies come out. As an example, I remember as a Boy Scout being taught that medical experts said to never loosen a tourniquet. A few years later, the direction was to loosen it every so often to prevent loss of that limb. But a few years afterward, medical experts were saying to never use a tourniquet. And dietary experts have significantly changed recommended eating guidelines several times over the course of the years.

On the safety front, I've seen backlash from workers who say, "You promised that there would always be two people doing this job and now you've cut back to one--this isn't safe!"

Plans a person or organization makes only reflect their current situation mentally extended into the future; there's no way any plan can account for all future crises, new inventions, changes in legislation, etc. When projecting, it's always best to honestly caveat your suggestions (e.g., "Based upon what we see know...," "As things currently stand...," etc.) In the same vein, even when you want to make a strong statement of commitment, it's still a good idea to reduce potential future pushback (and not appear to be a "liar") by changing definite statements such as "We will always have two people unloading all incoming trucks" to "We will do our utmost to make this as safe a job as possible for you. At this time, we want to have two people to unloading incoming trucks."

Projecting clear expectations, needed information, benchmark data, and more are all important. To get the most out of projective communications, you might keep in mind:

* Use words that are personal. "In my experience" or "What I've found" is less likely to be resisted than "This is the way it is."
* Offering, not pushing. Better to say "You might consider" rather than "You should," "you must," or "you have to." In fact, it's a good idea to reduce "shoulds" and "musts" to a minimum in all communications, face-to-face, phone, e-mail, or in other writings.
* Take time to make contact with the other person, prior to projecting ways you'd like her to consider changing. There are several ways to make initial contact, such as taking a few moments to ask about something of personal interest to the other person or group, matching her initial "pace," making strong eye contact, etc.
* Vary projective communications with receptivity. In other words, take time to stop talking and ask for questions every once in a while. Watch facial expressions and body reactions for signs of disagreement, lack of understanding, tuning out. A communications expert once said he watched a person's face for the quality of their reaction and their body, especially their hands, for the quantity of that reaction.
* Pass along what you do know, rather than keeping people in the dark until all plans are "settled."

While safety professionals need to impart information to people in their organizations, asking questions and listening attentively is equally important. Many safety professionals are trained in projective communications. In my experience, they see their role as leaders who impart their expert knowledge to others. Yet a small issue that is not addressed because employees or managers don't share it can cripple a safety effort.

When there are scents of change in the air, it's critical to take a projective stance, reduce disabling rumor stress by letting everyone know what is currently going on. For example, it's better to say "We are studying new procedures for doing these jobs," rather than to plan in a vacuum and then spring new procedures on workers seemingly out of the blue. Similarly, you'll boost credibility and worker morale--and reduce otherwise risky distractions--by letting people know "Management is considering restructuring. I wish I had more information to give you, but, as soon as I know, I'll let you know."

Boosting Your Reception
While many associate projective communications with being a strong leader, charismatic, and an influence agent, projection is not enough. It's critical for safety professionals to actively solicit information and do it in a way that puts people at ease. Having a safety suggestion box or open door policy is not enough.

You might take, for example, an employee who is seen not wearing required PPE. Many would default to immediately confront, pressure, or threaten the worker. However, if the employee is a "first timer," not someone who consistently is known to violate safety requirements, a more effective approach might be to ask, "I notice you're not wearing PPE that's required. This seems important to us because we?re concerned about your safety. Can you tell me why you, as well as some others around here, don't use this PPE? Are we missing something we should know?"

This approach probably would communicate concern for safety first, rather than disrespect--not only to the worker to but everyone else who directly witnesses this interaction or hears about it later.

There may be situations where there are good reasons people believe they cannot easily act in "safe" ways according to others' expectations. Change is more than having a strong will, just as "Just say no" is not an easy answer for many to prevent drug usage.

Receptive communications gives you information you need about the perspective of those who behaviors you would hope to see changed. Receptive communications are most useful for:

* eliciting objections
* gathering information you might not have considered
* helping people get concerns off their chest so they are in more of a position to consider a new way of acting
* getting buy-in
* defusing anger and other strong emotions that can otherwise get in the way of considering new ideas or procedures
* giving you feedback on your ideas and programs for change.

Selecting a receptive mode is useful for listening to and acknowledging criticisms and concerns. But these kinds of situations can potentially be explosive. How can you put the odds greatly in your favor of getting the benefits from receiving less-than-positive responses without throwing fuel on the fire and blemishing your credibility (especially in a situation of uneven trust or morale)?

* Prepare yourself in advance to not show defensiveness. Reacting with anger or justification ("We have rules we have to follow!" "I'm working my utmost to keep everyone safe and all anyone does is complain!") shuts down your receptivity--and it can send the message you really weren't interested in listening to what they really had to say. Next time, they probably won't tell you what they're really thinking. You might remind yourself that, for many people, letting their hair down requires their trusting you to a certain degree. This can be a good sign. Sometimes, not revealing their concerns is more dangerous than letting you know.
* Take along a paper and pen. As early as possible, tell those you're listening to that you would like to take notes so you don't miss anything they say. Tell them you'll share these notes with them if they'd like. By taking notes, you'll not only capture more information, it will give you something positive to do rather than get defensive, send a message you value what they say, and provide a valid reason for not making continuous eye contact if you become nervous or reactive.

Reading Other People
Develop your receptive ability to read others better. Practice in watching and listening will enable you to improve the quality of the feedback you receive and allow you to make adjustments in your communications midstream. For example:

* If you're "losing" them, re-explain last points and ask whether this is clear.
* If they're resistive, adjust your pace to match theirs or ask whether they see any problem/have any concern.
* If they look quizzical, ask whether they have questions.
* If they look bored, raise the energy level:
1) Be silent for a short time to get their attention, or
2) Ask them whether theres something on their mind, or
3) Enlist/show a prop or visual aid, or
4) Raise your own energy level--move around yourself, change your voice tone, volume, or speed, or
5) Get them moving, or
6) Suggest taking a break and get back to them later.

As others feel more listened to and their thoughts truly considered, they will be more likely to hear and consider what you have to say. In essence, this is the principle of "water seeking its own level." If you want others to listen to you, start by listening to them. If you want others to be influenced by you, you can take the lead by first showing you are open to being influenced by them.

We influence others all the time, not always consciously and not altogether positively. We persuade by:

* what we say
* what we hold back/don't say
* how we say it (tone of voice, nonverbal communication)
* what we do, even when we're not "on"/trying to persuade.

Our behavior broadcasts continuous messages. A good question I periodically ask myself is, "What am I saying with my actions? Am I living and working the way I would want others to? Am I practicing what I teach?" If this makes sense to you, I invite you to also consider this kind of self-monitoring.

The Power of Proximity in Persuasion
There are many ways to influence others, whether it be up, sideways, or down. In general, persuasion is governed by the Gravitational Law: The closer two objects are, the greater the pull they exert on each other. Translated into persuasion terms, this "inverse square" law suggests:

* face-to-face communications (one-on-one, group meetings) have the greatest potential for persuasion because they are the "closest" kind of communications
* next in line of power for persuasion are communications by voice/phone
* last in potential persuasion power are written communications (e-mail, letters, etc.)

Clearly, "closer" communications vehicles require more time investment. Sending an e-mail to a large group is certainly time efficient but has less potential for energizing change. But there are situations where efficiency is less important than making a strong difference. Writing a report to persuade management to raise a budget you--and others--will live with for at least a year won't be as effective as delivering it in person with a strong presentation. (And remember that a budget may set precedent for years to come, as well.)

In addition to fitting the right medium (voice, face-to-face, e-mail) to your objectives, there are others ways proximity can leverage your persuasion power. For example, in face-to-face communications, position yourself as close to those you wish to influence without overstepping what nonverbal communications experts dub the others' "working distance." Just slowly close the gulf between you and the other person, watching his eyes to be sure he doesn't tighten up should he feel his space "invaded." If he does tense, just back up half a step. This way you'll be as close as possible without creating a negative reaction that might shrink his receptivity. Similarly, in a group presentation, consider not standing behind a podium, which creates distance between you and the group. Instead, consider putting your notes on top of the podium and standing to its side.

The principle of proximity can also be used to boost persuasion with branch sites and with people in offices that are removed from you. Find ways to bridge the distance (e.g., a site visit, making other contact) prior to seeking to institute changes where others' buy-in is important.

Tom Peters' principle of "Management by Walking Around" is an example of the power of proximity. In general, closeness boosts persuasive power.

Strategically Selecting Influence
Generally, influencing senior managers--who have the greatest chance to set and change direction--offers the most leverage in creating organizational change. But don't put all of your influence eggs in one basket.

Dee Hock suggested these guidelines for managing time: Put 40 percent of your time into managing yourself--your ethics, character, principles, purpose, motivation, and conduct. Spend 30 percent of your time managing those with authority over you. Apply 15 percent of your time managing your peers. Use the remainder to induce those who "work for" you to understand and practice the theory.

In addressing different people within a company, it helps to match the message with the recipients and make sure it is communicated in a way that will interest them. Think in terms of offering "benefits." Much motivation is negative. ("Do this or else you will be written up"/"... we'll look bad"/"I'll be on your back," etc.) Focusing only negatively is limited and raises levels of pushback and conflict.

A more successful way to motivate people to take action is to draw them to it by offering benefits. Focus on "what's in it for them" to participate/take direction/do the project/lead a safety initiative, in addition to merely preventing something negative from happening (that they may not believe really will occur to them). You might also ask yourself, "What are they afraid might happen? What do they want to happen? How can I help them improve in what's important to them?" This type of thinking can lead to employing off-work motivators (family, improvement in their favorite activities, being more like favorite sports heroes, etc.). We've found this approach extremely successful in our work worldwide and all kinds of industries with even the most resistant cultures.

The art of persuasion is vast. But by adjusting your approach to fit others, employing projective and receptive communications as needed, and using the power of proximity and other principles, you can significantly raise your ability to persuade others to live and work safer and more effectively.

This article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

Download Center

  • Safety Metrics Guide

    Is your company leveraging its safety data and analytics to maintain a safe workplace? With so much data available, where do you start? This downloadable guide will give you insight on helpful key performance indicators (KPIs) you should track for your safety program.

  • Job Hazard Analysis Guide

    This guide includes details on how to conduct a thorough Job Hazard Analysis, and it's based directly on an OSHA publication for conducting JHAs. Learn how to identify potential hazards associated with each task of a job and set controls to mitigate hazard risks.

  • A Guide to Practicing “New Safety”

    Learn from safety professionals from around the world as they share their perspectives on various “new views” of safety, including Safety Differently, Safety-II, No Safety, Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), Resilience Engineering, and more in this helpful guide.

  • Lone Worker Safety Guide

    As organizations digitalize and remote operations become more commonplace, the number of lone workers is on the rise. These employees are at increased risk for unaddressed workplace accidents or emergencies. This guide was created to help employers better understand common lone worker risks and solutions for lone worker risk mitigation and incident prevention.

  • EHS Software Buyer's Guide

    Learn the keys to staying organized, staying sharp, and staying one step ahead on all things safety. This buyer’s guide is designed for you to use in your search for the safety management solution that best suits your company’s needs.

  • Vector Solutions

Featured Whitepaper

OH&S Digital Edition

  • OHS Magazine Digital Edition - June 2022

    June 2022


      Corporate Safety Culture Is Workplace Culture
      Keeping Workers Safe from Heat-Related Illnesses & Injuries
      Should Employers Consider Oral Fluid Drug Testing?
      Addressing Physical Differences
    View This Issue