What happens when an employee plucks up the courage to challenge a senior manager’s unsafe behaviour and is met with negativity, bordering on rude?

Colin Hewson tells how a particularly negative safety conversation had surprising results.

Recently, I was working with a small group in a client organisation, coaching effective safety conversations. After a day in the classroom, discussing some of the theory behind the technique, the time had come for each individual to go out on site and put into practice what they had learned.

Recognising what’s being done well

They group did a great job and I witnessed some really positive safety engagements, with a range of people from security personnel, painters and slingers, to banksmen and crane operators. I was especially pleased to hear them discussing and recognising what was being done well, as this is what most people do most of the time, yet we forget to acknowledge it.

A brave challenge

These discussions were confirmation for each individual that with some thought and preparation they really could just approach people and ask about safety, recognise what was being done well and discuss the consequences, in terms of harming themselves or others, should they have not been following the safe systems of work.

Then as the final conversation was being sought, one of the group, Jeff, spotted three ‘managers’ in the operational area who, unfortunately, were not complying with the site rules. He was brave enough to suggest he would go and have a chat with them.

Putting skills into practice

He was very courteous in his approach and introduction, explaining that he was on a coaching course and did they have a couple of minutes to help him put his new skill in to practice.

Their response, as one, was dismissive and uncooperative possibly even rude. However, as one of the group warmed to the mission, the conversation developed to an extent, grudgingly.

The fact that they were not following site rules had to be discussed, to understand why and gain a commitment for the future. The senior of the three was particularly unhappy with the intervention and it was with some reluctance that he shook hands at the end of the engagement.

Jeff was, let’s say, put off by his experience and left wondering what he had done wrong. While there were some minor learning points, which we discussed, overall his approach was very good.

The tide turns?

About half an hour later, on another part of the site, low and behold the same senior manager appeared and asked Jeff if he could have a word. Fearing that he was going to tear a few strips off him, I moved a little closer, ready to defend him.

However, the conversation took an unexpected turn. The manager, who had obviously spent some time thinking about the situation, actually apologised to Jeff, saying that he was right to challenge him and that he had thought about some additional training he could run through with his team.

Time to reflect

This experience shows that even what seems to be, or indeed is, a negative conversation, can often prompt a positive response in the end. What the conversation does, is make a person reflect on the consequences of their behaviour and the image they project. In this case, it even led to positive action being taken to make the site safer for all.

A good learning experience all round.