Relationship development is an important contributor to a vibrant safety culture.

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Relationships: The Foundation of High-Performance Safety Cultures

What many don't realize is that discretionary effort is only created through the use of positive reinforcement.

Have you ever noticed how supervisors who have good relationships with their crews tend to have safer crews? In fact, good relationships tend to be associated with all kinds of good performance. Why would this be so? What do relationships have to do with safety?

The link is discretionary effort. Discretionary effort is that effort that employees can give at work but don't have to. It is when they go above the basic requirements, and it rarely occurs in the context of poor employee-management relationships. Many people think of safety as a compliance issue -- getting people to comply with safety rules, regulations, and procedures. However, if you want to go beyond compliance and create a high-performance safety culture, discretionary effort is a requirement. Truly exceptional safety requires that people don't just follow procedures, comply with OSHA standards, and wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Exceptional safety happens when people look for and report hazards, give peers feedback on safe and at-risk behavior, and, most difficult of all, admit when they have made mistakes so lessons can be learned. You don't get this kind of engagement in safety when employees dislike, distrust, and (most importantly) fear their boss.

What many don't realize is that discretionary effort is only created through the use of positive reinforcement. Research shows that when people are recognized for what they do well around safety and when reporting problems and concerns is met with reinforcing consequences (such as joint problem solving and problem resolution), employees will be more engaged in safety. Unfortunately, positive reinforcement is disabled by poor relationships. Not only are people less willing to use positive reinforcement within the context of a poor relationship, but when they do, that reinforcement is less effective. If you tell someone he's done a good job, but he dislikes you and therefore don’t value your opinion, your attempts at reinforcement are less likely to be effective. Because most safety management systems are not set up to encourage enough positive reinforcement, many well-intended leaders end up having poor relationships with their direct reports. It’s also important to point out that safety has historically been managed largely through negative reinforcement. People are told what the safety procedures, rules and expectations are and then, if they violate any of the procedures, rules or expectations they experience negative consequences varying from negative feedback to discipline. More importantly, when they follow the procedures, rules and expectations—that is, when they do things right—they rarely experience positive consequences. This “exception management” approach to safety is destructive of relationships.

A lack of trust is another contributor to poor relationships. Many things go into trust, but behaviorally speaking, trust comes down to doing what you say you will do. So how might otherwise trustworthy leaders create a lack of trust with their direct reports around safety? One way is when employees report hazards and leaders fail to remediate them. Trust is undermined when this happens repeatedly. When employees report hazards or other barriers to safety, it is essential that leaders follow through. That follow-through cannot always be immediate remediation of the hazard, of course, but some kind of follow-through is essential. Letting people know what the plan is for remediation, giving them an estimated date of completion or simply being very clear the hazard cannot be remediated are all acceptable forms of follow-up.

Another important way that trust is undermined is through discipline after incidents. Most accidents and incidents are the result of a combination of root causes. While front-line workers often are the ones who engage in the final at-risk behavior, typically multiple upstream at-risk behaviors on the part of management, engineers and executives contribute as well. A simple example is a front-line employee who fails to put on gloves when handling chemicals and experiences a burn. On the surface it is reasonable to blame the worker if he has been trained and clear expectations have been set that gloves must be used. What we may learn, however, is that the employee has very large hands and only medium-sized gloves are provided, despite his repeated requests for a larger size. In such cases, when the blame is assigned only to the person at the point of the accident, it is, quite simply, unjust. A system that seems unjust leads to the erosion of trust and respect and erodes the willingness of front-line employees to be more engaged. Adding behavioral root cause analyses to incident investigations helps avoid unjust uses of discipline.

Having a good relationship doesn't mean being nice all the time or being soft on safety. Good relationships at work include accountability and constructive feedback. So how does a boss develop a good relationship with direct reports? Listed below are some behaviors that consistently contribute to positive workplace relationships.

1. Set clear expectations.

  • Use pinpointed (actionable words) to ensure clarity of expectations, avoid assumptions and ask recipient(s) to state an understanding of the expectations.

2. Listen.

  • Use active listening skills such as maintaining eye contact, using appropriate facial expressions, paraphrasing and asking questions to demonstrate understanding. Avoid looking at or using computers and smart phones when others are talking to you.

3. Acknowledge good work, not just mistakes/problems.

  • Track the nature of your interactions. Good leaders maintain a higher ratio of positive to constructive comments/discussions.

4. Avoid blame -- seek understanding.

  • People's behavior makes sense to them, even if it doesn't make sense to you. Find out what antecedents and consequences were in place that led to undesired behavior.

5. Follow through on commitments.

  • Consistent follow-through is essential for building trust and respect. Use whatever memory devices you need to be sure to do what you say you will do.

6. Remove roadblocks.

  • The number one job of management is to make direct reports successful. Analyze what gets in their way and do what you can to remove obstacles.

7. Treat direct reports like people, not just employees.

  • Make a point to greet direct reports at the start of the shift, show an interest in their lives outside of work and demonstrate concern and consideration.

Organizations that understand the value of good relationships and hold their managers and supervisors accountable for the behaviors associated with good relationships reap the benefits in safety and beyond. When employees are listened to, recognized for the good things they do and treated like valued members of the team, they will give their discretionary effort toward making your organization more successful and safe.

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