Communication: The Key to Great Safety

You’re a crew leader or even a supervisor and you really know your stuff, yet your crews aren’t quite following your direction. Something is amiss, but you can’t figure it out. Or maybe you’re a journeyman lineman, but your apprentice continues to not follow your direction. It’s becoming a problem for both of you that you’re not sure how to fix. In both cases, maybe it’s due to poor communication. We all can speak a language – some of us can speak many languages – but are we really communicating? Are you being heard? Most importantly, are you being understood? Communication and safety go hand in hand and without good communication skills, you may actually find yourself talking “at” people, not really communicating. The following Tailgate covers tips and techniques that can be used by anyone who really wants to make a difference in how they interact with and influence their crew members.

Start with the thought that people come to work to do what is right. No one comes to the job purposely thinking, “Hey, what can I mess up today?” Start with the assumption that they don’t know something you know or don’t see something you see.

Create the environment to be heard. Sure, there’s a time-honored tradition of giving your apprentice corrective feedback in public and thick skin comes with the job, but some people need privacy for difficult conversations. Knowing your audience is very important if you want to really be heard.

Set the stage for the conversation. If you see something you want to coach around while working, call a timeout and make the job safe. Put your crew at ease; reinforce their good work before starting a critical conversation. If the feedback can wait until a natural break in the work, use the break as the time to share what you observed.

Be tactful. Discuss what you observed, something like, “Hey, guys, just wanted to take a minute to let you know what I observed right now before we do it again and hurt someone.” Quickly getting the issue out in the open helps get an immediate resolution, and demonstrating care helps put the crew at ease. One thing you want to avoid are long conversations that sound like sermons or testimonials. Involve the crew in the discussion and ask them for solutions. Observation conversations are teaching moments, and people learn best when they have a chance to participate in the discussion.

Avoid abrupt, offensive and accusatory statements. Address the inappropriate behavior and not the individual. Be respectful and understanding – your intent is to create a two-lane highway of communication, one lane for giving information and one lane for receiving information. As the team lead, it’s your job to really understand why the observed behavior occurred. Asking and listening are the only ways to get to the “why.”

Maintain a nonthreatening approach. Some studies say as much as 70 percent of communication is nonverbal. Body posture, tone of voice, facial expressions and emotional tone convey the meaning behind the words you speak.

Validate cooperation. Be sure you reinforce your crew’s cooperation during the coaching session, complimenting them on the things that are going well. Make it a point to let them know they are doing a good job and that the coaching talk is a demonstration of care, as no job is so urgent or important that it cannot be done safely.

Ensure you listen. Patiently listen to the individual; don’t interrupt. Make every attempt to ensure you understand their perspective. Learn why the individual is doing what they are doing.

Apologize if needed. Sometimes our emotions get the better of us – if for some reason you lose your cool, acknowledge it. Apologize immediately, get it out in the open and explain why you’re emotional. Many times the emotion comes because we care, so tell your crew that. Talking about it clears the air and allows your crews to see you as person who is genuine.

Agree where you can. Look for opportunities during the discussion to agree with the individual or crew you are coaching, giving credit where you can. Verbalize your understanding of the person’s situation as this helps you build rapport and allows the individual to meet you in the middle.

Encourage the crew to hold to standards. Some crew members may not know the standard, and as we are aware, we often learn from others so our understanding of the standard may not be correct. Reinforce that standards are proven to protect people and equipment. Make sure you allow for discussion and don’t just drive for blind compliance. Adults need to understand the reasons behind a standard. Make sure you provide education on why the standard exists.

Advocate for the individual’s or crew’s success. Demonstrate you care by helping resolve their issue and concerns when raised, and keep them informed of progress.

With a little practice of these basic concepts, you can achieve great communication that will allow crew members to learn from each other, generate a team environment and establish a strong team dynamic that will enable your crew to work out issues as they see them. After all, isn’t the goal of safety to cover each other’s backs when we need it?

About the Author: John Boyle is vice president of safety and quality for INTREN, an electric, gas and telecommunication construction company based in Union, Ill. Boyle has more than 28 years of experience, and has worked in nuclear and wind power generation and electric and gas distribution.

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