Conversations. They’re the bedrock of every successful culture change programme we’ve ever delivered. And as every safety leader knows, people can never have enough of the right kind – when one colleague takes the time to stop and ask ‘why are you doing what you’re doing?.’
Yet too often, instead of challenging and engaging each other, we make assumptions, ignore what we see happening, or even pass judgement. Then we simply walk on by – keeping ourselves to ourselves.
Like Nick says – think of all those wasted opportunities to learn by catching people doing the right thing.
Suppose you’re in construction, and the company has a mandatory policy of wearing gloves. One day, you spot a somewhat shy colleague who seems to be breaking the rule during a wiring operation. You intervene with an open mind, ask the right questions, and over a friendly chat it turns out that that particular fiddly job is more efficient, and quite safely done, using fingerless gloves that protect the hand but leave the fingers free.
Next, you and your colleagues put your heads together, you discuss the options then decide to change the policy, so that fingerless gloves are recommended for certain tasks – everyone’s job just got a little easier.
With that example in mind, let’s look at five knock-on, deeply transformative benefits that follow effective conversations – benefits decision-makers shouldn’t underestimate when they review safety budgets.
1. STEADY INNOVATION
Improvements like this might seem trivial and insignificant, but real, lasting progress isn’t rapid, it’s a slow, steady upward curve propelled by continuous marginal gains. The more we encourage chance conversations and encounters like this, the more we tap into the practical, everyday knowledge that often goes unexplored in a workplace.
2. YOUR WORKPLACE BECOMES MORE POSITIVE AND OPEN
In our scenario, when people felt listened to, understood and involved in issues like the glove policy, the atmosphere changed – it bred even more improvements. Working culture evolves and it becomes the norm to speak up, share ideas and comment on what otherwise went unspoken.
Never underestimate the morale boost that being free to express yourself has in any environment.
3. PEOPLE FEEL SAFER AND MORE CONFIDENT
When you remove frustrations like the inflexible glove rule, threat of injury or pressure to hit unrealistic targets and take risks, people become happier – especially when they’re involved in the process of improvement. You free staff up to focus on other things, like getting more done, or enjoying their job.
Happiness is infectious – it also breeds more of the same.
4. INVISIBLE PEOPLE FIND THEIR VOICE
In this new environment of open discussion, where people feel valued and able to contribute, other quiet voices begin to speak up.
Consider this. When was the last time anyone asked the opinion of the cleaner? Someone who gets taken for granted, yet sees more of your workplace than anyone else. Like the security guard and canteen cook, these people know of countless grass-root problems really holding back your business, as well as cheap, simple fixes…
5. YOU MAKE REAL, PERSONAL CONNECTIONS
Now that people bother to chat, challenge and collaborate, they discover things they didn’t know about each other along the way. Assumptions and prejudice were replaced by honesty, and meaningful relationships endure through tougher times.
What follows better conversations are all the benefits you’ll see in any caring society. Like mutual respect, support and reciprocity – all of which aren’t just great for safety, they also make for thriving business.
CONVERSATIONS LIKE THESE AREN’T COMPLICATED
They just need structure and purpose – the kind we teach in effective conversation training for our clients, which even the shyest person can master. In fact, one observation we frequently hear during these sessions is ‘this is just having a chat – plain and simple!’.
And they’re right. Done correctly, this is simply a more structured chat with a real (and virtuous) purpose – but at heart it’s still just a chat.
Workplace conversations can be so much more than barking instructions or criticising risky behaviour. Leaders must engage with staff as real people, human beings not task-based automatons. Approach with clipboard in hand, looking for things that are wrong and you’ve already poisoned the conversation with blame, conflict and tension.
That isn’t a chat by anyone’s definition.
‘BUT OUR PEOPLE ARE FAR TOO BUSY FOR ANY OF THIS!’
Consider this: in the time it takes to grab two cups of coffee throughout the day, sift through your inbox in the morning (or read, contemplate and share this article!), a decent manager could have had three meaningful conversations.
One quarter of an hour each day isn’t a huge ‘sacrifice’ when you consider the long-term benefits listed above.
What makes this is even easier is that most people are happy to talk about what they’re doing, especially when it’s a leader taking an interest. And it’s a fact that someone who performs a task, day in, day out, will know far more about it, and how to improve things, than you or anyone else.
So express curiosity, concern or congratulation – like you would if you bumped into any friend or acquaintance in the high-street. Hobbies, family, holiday, weather, the weekend, what’s getting you down?, what’s going well? – these already crop up in typical conversation, and each relates neatly back to the subject of returning home safely at the end of a day.
Feel free to use this list next time you’re fighting for more effective conversations, and more attention to safety at work. Because the daily grind often gets the better of everyone, we walk on by, forgetting it’s all about people – and people love a good chat.