Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Leadership and Communication Skills for the EHS Professional: Would You Rather Be a Buffalo or a Goose?

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Leadership and Communication Skills for the EHS Professional: Would You Rather Be a Buffalo or a Goose?

Article excerpt

Most EHS professionals are not trained in the so-called "soft skills" such as basic leadership, written and oral communication and listening. I can vouch for that. I accumulated three science-oriented degrees (B.S., M.S. and Sc.D.) and was well prepared in the technical aspects of occupational health and safety, but terribly wanting in the soft skills or "sales skills" I needed to leverage my technical expertise. I was well-positioned to work and communicate with my EHS peers, but not well-equipped to work effectively with my customers, such as labor reps, workers, plant managers and general management.


This article is intended to discuss the nontechnical skills so essential in optimizing our effectiveness. Our technical skills give us the right to succeed, but it is our personal leadership and communication skills that provide the way we succeed.


The dictionary defines leadership as "taking others to places they would not normally go." I prefer to define leadership on a more personal basis: the taking of ourselves to places we would not normally go. Leadership does not need to mean being the boss. Leadership also can mean how well we leverage our functional responsibility as an EHS professional. For example, you may be the industrial hygienist or the safety engineer on a task force building a new plant. You are not the project leader, but you are clearly the leader in terms of your functional responsibility. No one else is as well-prepared to offer input on industrial hygiene and safety as you.


That brings us to the buffalo and the goose. Buffalo travel in herds and there is one leader. What happens when the lead buffalo is eliminated? The herd is in disarray and falls easy prey to its assailants, as you may remember from the movie "Dances With Wolves." However, geese travel in formation and rotate the leadership. That is the point; we all are leaders of our functional responsibility and therefore, need skills not typically developed by our formal training. Incidentally, what would be another term for the formation geese fly in? How about "t-e-a-m?" Geese flying in formation are 71 percent more efficient than when flying solo. No different than us HSE professionals. We need the skills to be solid team players. This article will focus on listening skills and effective business communications--both critical for personal leadership and teamwork.


Listening often is described as the most important sales communication skill. It makes sense: How else would we know what the customer needs, wants and desires if we didn't listen to the customer? You say you are not in sales. Wrong. We all are in sales. As HSE professionals, we are selling injury and illness prevention and environmental quality to our customers.

Given the importance of listening, think about how much formal training you've had in listening: 2 weeks, 1 week, 1 day or maybe none for many of us. Yet listening is critical to our ability to influence change. Next, we must realize that listening is not a passive activity. Listening is actually a dialogue, not a monologue where the speaker speaks and the listener merely listens.

Listening requires the use of our eyes, mouth, brain, body and, oh yes, our ears. We need our eyes so we can see the expression and body language, our mouth to acknowledge and clarify, our brain to assimilate the message, our body to indicate we are open and understanding, and our ears to hear the words and how they are spoken. This simple model should be most helpful in growing our listening skills.

Words, Dance, Music: This simple model in Figure 1 demonstrates the active nature of listening and the importance of non-verbal listening. The table shows the approximate contribution each component of this model provides to effective listening. Words account for a mere one-third, the tone or inflection of the words (i. …

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