A new year is upon us, and I think it’s time to do a little reflecting. Not on what we might have done wrong or left undone, but rather reflecting on what we DO out there: how we manage things, how we manage ourselves, and how we manage other people.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot said about what we do in our EHS efforts – that either it’s not enough, or it’s too much, or it’s misguided. Perhaps some of that is true, but mostly, I think what we do and why we do it is misunderstood.
The misunderstanding comes from many levels within an organization. It can been difficult for people to fully appreciate what we do and why we do it. I think a lot of those feelings are similar to what happens when we get stopped by a cop on the road. From the officer’s perspective, he is saving us from crashing into something or someone on the road. The ticket he issues is secondary to him, or at least it is in most cases. He is genuinely concerned about our safety out there, and he feels good when he stops what he knows is unsafe behavior.
But our perspective is quite different. We resent the fact that we were stopped, and we certainly resent the ticket we receive. So the cop becomes the bad guy, and we remain the victim in the scenario. Can you see the similarity between this situation and our work in EHS? Can you perhaps identify a little better with the cop now?
A Positive Reality
No matter our good intentions in the safety world, others may perceive our efforts as something negative. In order for us to succeed we must recognize this, come to grips with it, and turn it around in order to change the negative perception into a positive reality.
As safety and EHS leaders, what we do is try to identify, prevent or stop unsafe and at-risk conditions and behavior. Often, we use applicable regulations or company rules to back up our calls and validate our actions. These regulations or rules become the perceived driver of WHY we do what we do, rather than the fact that we actually care what happens to people. That reality gets lost in translation. And when it does, the worker feels like he is not being managed well, and certainly feels like the victim in the transaction.
So how do we manage ourselves and our actions when the situation becomes negative, or even hostile? Let me share a personal story with you. I spent 22 years in the Marine Corps. Even after spending another 25 years in industry I STILL look like a Marine. You know the look. No neck, a kind of lived-in face, short legs, broad shoulders with thick hands, etc. So when I approach people, they sometimes expect the worst – and prepare for it. Even when I’m on my best behavior, people may still react in a negative way to what I have to say.
This reaction confused me to no end for many years until one day my dear wife said, “Go look into a mirror, really look at yourself – and I mean every feature of your face and body – and then come back and tell me what you saw.” So I did and I was shocked. I did not see this good-looking young man I used to be (at least in MY mind), but rather a used-up old bulldog staring back at me. Now, I’ve always thought bulldogs are cute, and I’ve even had several over the years, but THIS bulldog was not cute. As a matter of fact, he looked kind of mean.
So now I try hard to smile when I talk to people, and lower my voice, and ask questions rather than make statements, and take my share of the responsibility for a worker’s actions. I try to have the courage to ask for input and ways to make things better and safer out there. Most of all, I give a worker my unconditional support when he needs help or has a question. I try to leave him with the understanding that I really do care about him, and that I’m there for him.
Establishing Mutual Trust
This is only the beginning of a totally different way of looking at what I do – what we all do, and how we do it. When we want to help others improve their safety awareness or performance, we must first establish mutual trust. Easy to say, not so easy to accomplish. But here are some suggestions to establish that trust:
- Focus on the behaviors, not the person.
- Actively listen.
- Reinforce the positives you see.
- Tie behaviors to personal safety.
- Give your commitment and pledge.
- Get their commitment and pledge.
- Always remember – your workers deserve good leadership.
Once the trust has been earned, it needs to be re-earned every day. Not by what we say, but by what we do. It takes courage to create the strength to take personal action to do what is right. It takes character to be willing to accept responsibility and ownership regarding things that happen to us. Finally, it takes caring to work through the egos, the power trips and the anger that sometimes surface with people we deal with. But you know what? They are worth it.
I hope you know that what you do DOES make a difference, in small ways, and also in very large ways that affect people’s lives. And when you’re having one of those days when you wonder why you do what you do, remember that it’s all worth it. Believe me, my friend – it is.