How Will They Know? in Part II of His Series on Exploring the Universe of Effective Safety Communications, Larry Hansen Examines the Seven Elements of Organizational Communication and Their Critical Role in Shaping Safety Success

By Hansen, Larry | Occupational Hazards, October 2004 | Go to article overview

How Will They Know? in Part II of His Series on Exploring the Universe of Effective Safety Communications, Larry Hansen Examines the Seven Elements of Organizational Communication and Their Critical Role in Shaping Safety Success


Hansen, Larry, Occupational Hazards


W. Edwards Deming believed that an organization's ability to achieve "quality excellence" hinged upon management's ability to answer one simple question, the same question that lies at the core of safety excellence. It is, "How will they know?"

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How will they know: What is expected? What process to use? If the process is working? Most importantly, how will they know when excellence has been achieved? In this short yet insightful question, Dr. Deming captured the critical importance that data, information and profound knowledge, aka effective communication, plays in attaining operational excellence. Deming further noted: "Numbers are numbers; numbers are not knowledge," cautioning managers to seek "the good reasons for poor performance," i.e., the reasons behind the numbers. Attaining organizational intelligence requires that an organization develop systemic ways to obtain objective data, identify process variances and solicit unfiltered feedback on cause and correction, three elements critical to an effective communication process.

Many businesses, unfortunately, have a bias for quick and easy, not necessarily effective, communication processes. They focus on moving information, not conveying understanding. In addition, today's "e-com" world has fueled information overload that further threatens organizational intelligence. Consequently, employees in poor communicating organizations feel that they live on planet "NETMA" (Nobody Ever Tells Me Anything). Ignorance may be bliss, but in business and risk management, it's what you don't know that can hurt (and will cost) you.

A reader survey conducted by Human Resource Executive and Risk and Insurance magazines found that although business executives recognize employee communications to be a low-cost way to address workers' compensation concerns, only 39 percent of those organizations surveyed had an ongoing communications program. Perhaps this is the reason that Tom Lynch, past executive of Lynch Ryan Associates, contended: "Show me a company with high costs, and I'll show you a company where employer and employee do not communicate effectively."

What's the net effect of poor communications on employee attitudes and work performance? Cynicism, suspicion and credibility gaps between executives and front-line workers wherein trust diminishes and performance declines. To succeed in safety, process leaders must improve the level of corporate intelligence in their organizations through communication systems that work hard at working!

To optimize safety performance, an organization must examine the ways safety is addressed in key communication systems, and integrated into the organization's vision, values and mission. If safety is to evolve beyond programs, to become part of the organization's culture, i.e., "how business is done," it must be included in and reinforced by all key communication systems. It must be embedded in the organization's:

* Core Guidance Documents -- Its written (and electronic) directives, specifically its vision, purpose, mission and values statements.

* One-on-One Contacts -- Its routine manager contacts and interactions with individuals and direct reports.

* Formal Meetings and Training -- Its formal gatherings and scheduled skill building and information exchanges.

* Feedback Systems -- Its systemic process of listening, hearing, gathering, assessing and acting on critical performance information.

* Measurement and Metrics -- Its reports, scorecards and performance spreadsheets.

* Recognitions and Rewards -- Its "WIIFM" (What's In It For Me?) performance management systems, and

* Management Actions -- Its executive decisions and management practices.

If any of these means are omitted, or compromise safety as a value, employee cynicism grows and performance declines. Let's examine these seven elements of organizational communication and their critical role in shaping safety success. …

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