Engineering is a challenging discipline, but sometimes it's a snap compared to dealing with people. While technical and operational details are, of course vital, to running process operations, it can be at least as crucial to use the right people skills to successfully communicate among leaders, managers, supervisors and operators.
To encourage more effective use of these often-neglected soft skills, Steve Anderson presented "Creating a Culture of Safety Through Effective Leadership" today at the Yokogawa Users Conference and Exhibition in Houston. Anderson is the founder of Integrated Leadership Systems, a leadership training and executive coaching firm based in Columbus, Ohio.
Anderson began by asking: "What are some examples of cultural issues in your organizations that make it difficult to ensure the safety of your employees? What are the critical ingredients in a culture that has an excellent safety record? And what must leaders do to develop and maintain that culture?" He reported that the critical ingredients of safe cultures are aligned and engaged employees, effective communication, reinforcement of desired behaviors, and challenging of undesired behaviors.
"You can't just tell people when they've screwed up. They have to know when they're doing right much more often," said Anderson. "This is a more effective way of letting them and their colleagues know what you want them to do."
Anderson reported that his program was developed and taught to a large construction company in Ohio as a part of its commitment to improve safety after a fatality. "They completed safety checklists and quarterly safety audits and posted the results. The result was this company and one of its subsidiaries both recently won national awards from the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of North America as having the best safety record in their class in the U.S., and they went from being an $80-million company to being a $250-million company during the same time period. A culture of safety isn't just safer—it's also more profitable."
However, achieving these kinds of results means changing some traditional practices and assumptions. Anderson says the old, top-down, do-as-I-say leadership structure should be replaced by a servant-leadership model. "This means the most important people in the company are those on the front lines, serving its customers and making the money, and it's the leader's job to help them succeed by finding and providing what they need to be most effective."
Words Convey only 7% of Meaning
Anderson explained the most important part of this servant-leadership model is effective communications, not so much with emails, but by face-to-face interaction. "About 55% of personal communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice, and only 7% is words, so text loses about 93% of the information that senders want to get across. This is why we need more face-to-face," added Anderson. "Email is especially deadly to discussing complex issues effectively because it doesn't establish the feedback loop that face-to-face does to show that recipients understand what's wanted of them."
This old disconnect is exemplified by the fact that many bosses think employees just want money, while what they really value is interesting work, appreciation and the ability to contribute opinions and ideas. "Research by Development Dimensions International Inc. shows that highly engaged employees have far fewer quality errors than disengaged employees—about 52 errors per million pieces made versus 5,658 for disengaged employees." Further, engaged employees feel that their work is appreciated, and they feel that their opinions count. "For optimal motivation, employees need four positive stokes for every one time they're criticized, and this means catching them doing right daily," Anderson said.
"According to the book Positive Discipline, recognition is most effective when it's timely, specific, personal and proportional. Timely means don’t wait until the review—do it now! Specific means telling the person exactly what they did right. Personal means delivering the input in a way that each person finds meaningful. And proportional means making that communication appropriate to what the person did."
To avoid destructive control-dependency loops that reinforce aggressive and passive-aggressive behavior, Anderson stresses that leaders must truly listen to their employees and encourage them to speak the truth. This also requires all players to be assertive, but not aggressive or excessively emotional with each other. "This requires participants sitting face-to-face, describing what was done and how it made them feel, making a plan for the behavior that's wanted, and staying positive," added Anderson. "Managing emotions means acknowledging, accepting, assessing and acting on them, so you manage them instead of being managed by them."