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That’s What I Meant to Say: Safety Leadership in Communication


Individually, the disciplines of safety, leadership and communication each encompass a broad range of specialized experience. Yet, if we look at the relationship between the three disciplines, we can create a general understanding of how safety and leadership are directly impacted by communication in a specific work environment.

Defining leadership can be a difficult task; everyone has his or her own definition of a leader. According to John C. Maxwell in his book “Developing the Leader Within You,” leadership is synonymous with influence. This definition applies to a safety culture in that all must be responsible for safety because everyone is an influencer in their work environment. In this context, every individual is a leader and must take every necessary precaution to ensure a hazard-free work space.

It is incumbent upon leaders at every level of influence to acknowledge that communication is a difficult process. Most adults are biased by their own thoughts, feelings and experiences, and tend to hear through those filters. Additionally, communication typically involves mixed delivery methods such as verbal inflection, tone and body language. Research suggests that only 7 percent of the actual words used have an impact on the listener and 38 percent of how the words are said impacts the listener, while 55 percent of what is communicated is based on body language. All of this reveals just how important it is that we work at delivering clear and direct communication.

A Complicated Issue
Compounding the issue of good communication, Jim Dugger, in his book “Learn to Listen: How to Tune In Before Someone Tunes You Out,” reminds us that most adults listen at a rate of 400-500 words a minute, while a person can speak only 100-150 words a minute. This results in listeners having plenty of time to interject their own thoughts, feelings and experiences during the communication process. In “Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard,” author David Augsburger reveals that although there are approximately 1 million words in the English language, the average adult has a personal vocabulary of approximately 2,000 words, and 500 of those most common words can have as many as 14,000 different meanings.

We can properly conclude that striving to deliver direct, clear and concise directions in leadership communication is imperative to a safety culture. To assist with the application of this type of communication, I borrowed the S.M.A.R.T. mnemonic to create communication objectives. This model can be used to declare a leader’s concise and clear requirements for safety. Though this concept may be used in a variety of situations, in this case it is being specifically applied to transmission and distribution line work.

S.M.A.R.T. communication must be:

Written safety rules utilize words like “must” and “shall” in order to be clear and direct with expected safety requirements. The same expectations are required in verbal communication. For example, saying “John, safety glasses must be worn on the job site at all times” is more effective than “John, I would like you to start wearing your safety glasses on the job.” The first is direct speech while the second is passive. Communicating in direct fashion not only enhances understanding, it establishes that compliance is compulsory.

Compliance is the measure of the required expectation. Did the communication result in compliance with the expected safety direction? If not, you probably need to reword your statement.

An accident-free workplace – and every employee’s personal safety – is not only an achievable goal, it is mandated. Zero injuries is the only acceptable number for your safety goal.

Every employee expects clear and direct communication from leadership. When instructions have been clear and direct, and failure to comply is determined, appropriate action for behavior modification is imperative. Passive communication negates a positive environment, and relegates the leader to utilizing more aggressive communication, which diminishes his or her ability to move the employee toward a positive modification of his or her behavior.

Direct communication must be timely to set expectations for the employee regarding the safety requirements in their specific work environments. Leadership must communicate clear and concise directions, whether written or verbal, as a standard of operation at all times. Timely intervention may include the need to immediately stop work to correct a violation of a safe work practice. Clear and direct coaching in correct procedures is an essential part of safety leadership.

Communicate or Disintegrate
Safety and leadership are directly impacted by your organization’s communication effectiveness. S.M.A.R.T. communication objectives strive to assist you with defining concise and direct communication to ensure that employees have a clear understanding of safety expectations. Otherwise, we find ourselves in a situation of conflict and misunderstanding, and trying to compensate for what we meant to say. This has a tendency of placing both leaders and employees in aggressive postures, which only serves to hinder communication.

Clear and direct communication empowers a leader with the capability of driving the workforce in a positive, healthy and potentially conflict-free environment. An appreciated employee, one who knows and understands what is expected of them, is a productive employee.

About the Author: Timothy D. Self, CUSP, is the director of operations for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction. He has more than 25 years of line experience working as a lineman, trainer, and training and safety manager.

Leadership Development