Communication Strategies for Achieving a Total Safety Culture: Employers Need to Overcome the Perception That Giving Safety-Related Feedback Creates Interpersonal Conflict

By Williams, Josh; Geller, E. Scott | Occupational Hazards, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Communication Strategies for Achieving a Total Safety Culture: Employers Need to Overcome the Perception That Giving Safety-Related Feedback Creates Interpersonal Conflict


Williams, Josh, Geller, E. Scott, Occupational Hazards


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One of the most effective ways to improve a safety culture and prevent injuries is to optimize safety-related communication throughout an organization (Williams, 2003). Unfortunately, employees often fail to "speak up" when they observe risky behaviors even when they know they should.

The Safety Culture Survey administered to hundreds of organizations by Safety Performance Solutions Inc. (SPS) indicates 90 percent of respondents believe employees should caution others when they're operating at-risk. However, only 60 percent say they actually do provide this critical feedback.

During training and structured interviews, we ask employees why there's such a gap between people's values ("should caution") and actual behaviors ("do caution"). Participants respond that giving safety-related feedback will create interpersonal conflict, indicating, "It's not our job to give safety feedback." Also, they often do not feel competent at giving safety feedback or they don't want to insult coworkers who have more experience (Geller & Williams, 2001).

It is unfortunate employees are reluctant to warn coworkers when they observe risky behaviors, especially considering that most injuries have a behavioral component (along with system factors; Geller, 2001, 2005, 2008). Ironically, people underestimate others' willingness to receive safety feedback. In fact, 74 percent of respondents (from the SPS Safety Culture Survey) confirm they welcome peer observations for the purposes of receiving safety-related feedback. Yet, only 28 percent believe other employees feel the same way.

Employees will be more open to safety-related feedback if coworkers do a better job of providing and receiving it. To provide effective corrective feedback to others when they are working at-risk, don't make it personal --focus on behavior. Ask questions to facilitate discussion, and don't lecture. Give feedback immediately and one-on-one, while showing genuine concern for others' feelings and well being. Offer the opportunity to work together to find better solutions. Finally, thank the person for listening.

To receive corrective feedback effectively, you must actively listen and don't interrupt.

Remain open and receptive and don't get defensive. Discuss better ways of doing the task. Finally, thank the person for providing feedback.

In addition to cautioning coworkers operating at-risk, it's important to praise employees who regularly do their jobs safely. This builds a more open, positive safety culture and increases the likelihood these work practices will be performed safely in the future. However, most employees say they almost never receive one-on-one praise or appreciation for their safety-related behaviors. Employees at all organizational levels are well served to provide frequent, genuine praise for safe work practices (Williams, 2003, 2002). Before addressing more communication guidelines, it's useful to consider various communication styles.

Communication Styles

A complicating factor with safety communication is that people have different styles of communication. Brounstein (2001) defines four basic communication patterns: the Dominant, Passive, Passive-Aggressive and Empathic styles. The first three styles are generally maladaptive and stifle the cultivation of a total safety culture. The fourth style, the Empathic pattern, is ideal and most conducive to effective communication and culture improvement.

The Dominant Communicator--Dominant communicators tend to "run people over" in interpersonal conversations. Dominant communicators often believe they're never wrong, their opinions are more important than those of others, and people who disagree with them are either disloyal or misinformed. These misguided beliefs often lead to maladaptive behaviors such as public criticism of others, blaming others when problems arise, acting bossy and negative, using verbally aggressive and threatening language, showing a lack of appreciation for the accomplishments of others, interrupting others and even finishing their sentences or dismissing new ideas without listening to the rationale. …

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