In the Beginning …
What you don’t know can actually be helpful. All of us have had experiences with a know-it-all. Typically they do not know it all, and we would prefer not to be around them if we can help it. One of the worst mistakes we can make as safety leaders is to try to fake it when we do not know an answer. The workers you are dealing with will either sense right away that you are flying blind or they will find out soon enough. It only takes one or two such instances for word to get around that you cannot be trusted. Avoid this at all costs. If you don’t know, say so, and then promise to find out and report back with the right answer. And when you make that promise, keep it.
My first job as a safety professional was in a coal-fired power plant. I had been working in the electric utility industry for many years, building and maintaining power lines, but had never set foot inside a power plant. The folks who worked in the plant were well aware of that fact and many of them expected me to fall flat on my face (and maybe some of them even hoped for it). I knew that if I went into that plant with the attitude that I was the final word on their safety, I would be doomed. During my first week on the job we called an all-plant meeting to introduce me to everyone. There was some obvious skepticism. When it was my turn to talk to the employees, I told them in no uncertain terms that I was a complete novice when it came to how they did what they did. I was not, however, a novice to safety or physical work and, if they would be patient with me for a while and put up with all the questions I was going to ask them, we could create a great safety system together. They were not all convinced, but the initial tension was relieved. As they saw me work hard to understand their jobs and the plant systems, we did, indeed, build a very successful safety process.
The Road to Success
The above lesson holds true even if you come out of the field and will be a safety professional working directly in the same field you have been in for years. You will have a high degree of knowledge about the work, but employees still do not want to be dictated to – they want to participate. Get their input, admit when you don’t know, get the answers and listen to their suggestions.
Below are a few more important aspects of earning and maintaining integrity:
• Follow up and follow through. If you tell a worker that you will get back to them with an answer, do it. Even if the answer you end up with is disappointing to the group, it is important that they hear it from you.
• Be present. This may sound ludicrous; after all, how can you ever not be where you are? But I know people who, even when they are standing right next to you, are obviously not engaged with you. Don’t be that person. Listen, respond, reflect and engage.
• Do not gossip. This should be self-explanatory, but we sometimes still need to be reminded.
• Do not vacillate. Know what the policy is and what your expectations are as well as those of the company. Be prepared to explain those expectations in a reasonable, understandable way. There may be times when you can’t give all of the information you have, but some explanation is much better than none.
• Be fair and consistent. One of the fastest ways to alienate a work group is to treat some people one way and others another way. There is no doubt that you will work with people you like better than others – that is the nature of humanity. Nonetheless, it is imperative that you equitably apply the criteria and rules to everyone.
Respect – Give It, Get It
Respect is really just the other side of the integrity coin. They are typically, although not always, lost or gained together. My personal experience has been that if I treat everyone I meet with high regard, I am seldom disappointed. Regardless of what they do for a living, how much money they make or where they live, people want to be respected. The reward for treating them that way is their respect for you in return. Plus, people have a tendency to live up, or down, to the expectations of those around them. Give them a chance to succeed at a higher level.
The following list is not exhaustive by any means, but these are things that, if done consistently, will earn the respect of those around you:
• You will be challenged – expect it and prepare for it. Stand your ground when you need to, but maintain the moral high ground at all times. Don’t lash out with personal attacks. Stick with the relevant facts and focus on the process.
• When you are wrong, admit it. Standing your ground to protect your ego is a fast track to losing the respect of others.
• When someone has a better idea, use it. You will build more good will and garner more support for your own good ideas by helping others succeed and be recognized.
• Be an advocate for your workers. This does not mean publicly attacking company policies or company leaders. It does mean finding common ground on issues that can be divisive and being the cooler head when those around you are losing theirs. Find creative ways to address potentially costly fixes.
• Understand and care how your decisions, recommendations and requests impact the business.
• Practice active listening skills when concerns are brought to you. Show equal interest and attention regardless of who brings the concern.
• Be willing to take the time to explain to people why something they would like to see happen cannot or will not be done. Just saying no and walking away says that you do not have enough respect for them to trust them to understand the intricacies or nuances that went into the decision-making process.
The bottom line is that much of what we do for safety depends upon how we are perceived by our peers, our bosses and our company’s employees. If we are seen as people of integrity, if we are people who are respected and who respect others, our chance to be effective agents for change is magnified. If we lose either or both, we have made a challenging job nearly impossible.
About the Author: Michael Caro, CUSP, has spent 17 years as a journeyman lineman for both contractors and utilities. He became a safety professional in 2006 and is currently director of safety and training for UtilX Corporation, a Willbros company. Caro earned his Certified Utility Safety Professional credential in May 2010, and he holds a Certificate in Safety Management and a Certificate of Executive Safety from ASSE. He is also a graduate of Saint Louis Christian College with a bachelor’s in biblical studies.