HOW TO HAVE THE RIGHT KIND OF SAFETY CONVERSATIONS
By Nick Wharton, Consulting Director at Tribe Culture Change
When do you normally talk about safety at work?
Let's be honest - it's usually when someone’s done something wrong or their unsafe behaviour catches your
attention. And as a leader, you perhaps feel it’s your duty to point out their mistake and correct them so it
doesn’t happen again.
There’s a more productive way to approach conversations like these
First, let’s consider your position.
This person probably knows more about their particular job than you do. They’ve taken a risky shortcut for a
reason, and leaders like you have duty to help challenge that behaviour, but together. Confrontation,
accusation and recrimination just shut people down, so any hope of learning why it happened gets lost. That
helps no one in the long-run.
Let’s look at this from another angle. What happens when you see someone doing a job safely?
Do you perhaps take it for granted? After all, that’s just the way you expect every task to be performed. So
you walk on by, and say nothing. Another missed opportunity to learn and encourage safer behaviour!
With the way things are above, the behaviour we want to see less of (unsafe) is getting more attention than
the behaviour we want to see more of (safe).
That’s a dangerous imbalance!
Let's have a different kind of conversation - the right kind
In the true sense of the word, a conversation is two-way. It's an engagement, a discussion, dialogue. Each of
these words mean slightly different things of course, but what they have in common is an exchange of ideas.
Effective conversations are proactive exchanges that happen naturally, as they do everyday when people
come together, to express interest in one another's affairs.
From a leadership perspective, this is just what happens when good leaders are interested in how staff drive
their business. There's no hidden motive, other than simple human curiosity in other people.
This isn't about whether someone's working safely or unsafely - they're just working, and as a good leader
you should want to show interest. In fact, done properly, in most cases you won't even know if they're doing
something the right or wrong way - that’s the outcome of the conversation, not the cause.
Why waste precious time 'showing interest'?
Because all the evidence shows that engaging your staff, at every level, is fundamental to strong, sustainable
improvements in performance. And it’s leaders who make that happen - it’s on you to set a positive example,
and inspire staff by demonstrating you care about their well-being, in their day-to-day jobs.
But there's more to it than that. Take a look at these other advantages:
1. It's a great opportunity for you to reinforce safe behaviour
For every instance of undesirable behaviour, there are bound to be countless instances of positive behaviour
that otherwise go unnoticed - ones that deserve recognition.
You recognise safe behaviour by praising it, and encouraging someone to discuss and reflect on the reasons
why they chose to do something in a particular way. You might ask why they chose to take certain
precautions, and the act of them justifying their own decision is often enough to cement that behaviour in
future, and set a great example to others.
2. It forms lasting connections between individual behaviour and long-term consequences
One of our greatest obstacles is our inability to form a connection between a seemingly insignificant choice
in the short-term, and what might happen in the longer-term, if things go wrong. Like operating machinery
without a guard because it’s quicker, or not wearing a crash helmet on a motorbike.
If you discuss that choice with someone, you encourage them to reflect on their real priorities. These could
be obvious ones like getting the job done, satisfying the boss, fitting in with colleagues. But other less
obvious consequences, like accidents and how they affect quality of life with our families often go unspoken,
despite being more important to that person.
3. It gets to the root causes of why your people behave the way they do
This is precious information to anyone searching for opportunities to improve business performance. And
you can only reveal it by engaging someone and asking them for honest feedback without fear of
If you threaten or punish someone, that automatically stifles any chance of discovering a root cause, learning
and fixing it so it doesn't happen again in future.
Too many poor leaders jump to conclusions, and put people's risky shortcuts down to laziness or stupidity.
This conclusion isn't just dangerously simplistic. It's wasteful, when you consider the insight you miss out
Your window onto culture
Our behaviour is influenced by the attitudes, values and beliefs around us in the workplace. And effective
conversations, like the kind we describe here, are a valuable window for revealing them - what we call your
And this powerful act of conversing openly with employees doesn't just unearth insight, it's one huge leap in
the direction of solving all your problems too.
Because when someone feels involved in a process of improvement - by you giving them a chance to have
their say - they automatically become invested its success. They feel able to contribute their own ideas and
opinions about how things are, and how they can be made better in future. More often than not, we find that
staff even volunteer themselves to own and drive the changes you all want to see.
Now, isn't that worth having a conversation about?
Let’s end with a real-life story
I’m reminded of a time when I was working with a large pulp and paper mill in India, where we’d been
talking to employees on the shopfloor about their machinery and processes. Afterwards, when my group
were walking back to the office, we came across a lady sweeping the floor. That was when I suggested a
conversation with this cleaner.
At first, the senior managers I was with were a little dismissive: what could we possibly learn from someone
without any direct impact on production?
Yet, knowing there’s value in involving everyone at every level in an organisation, we engaged her in
conversation anyway - about her role. Then we asked her why she felt her daily duties were important, to
which she replied:
“By keeping the place clean and removing the dust, I ensure workers stay healthy but also it is better
for the product, because paper doesn’t get contaminated”.
The managers were utterly amazed that someone doing such a seemingly trivial job would think so broadly
about the importance of their role. We thanked her profusely for her diligent work and told her what a great
job she was doing.
By involving her in discussion and commending her efforts we could almost see her swell with pride! No
doubt her commitment to the company was boosted too, by senior managers who validated her role and
made her feel valued.
This is the power of effective engagement with staff. Take time to talk and listen to your people, whoever
they are, and they’ll reward you with better safety, quality and performance.
Nick Wharton Biography
Nick served as an Infantry Officer in the British Army before returning to university to get his
Master’s Degree and starting a career in Health & Safety. This included both Enforcement
and H&S Management roles in the UK. He joined JOMC, one of the UK’s leading Culture
Based Safety Consultancies and is now a Director at Tribe Culture Change. “My role is to
manage our excellent group of experienced and knowledgeable consultants, as well as
overseeing the development of the many and varied new tools and approaches we use to
help in getting the safety message across and achieving Culture Change”.
Nick has helped a wide range of businesses in many different industries in many parts of the world including
the Middle East, India, Russia, Africa and USA. Some of these include: BAE Systems, Nestle,
National Grid, Bombardier. In India, Nick has worked on behalf of the British Safety Council
with several clients including ITC and Asian Paints. “What I really enjoy about this job, what
makes it special, is seeing the ‘light bulbs’ come on, especially with previously cynical
people”. Outside of work, some of his main passions are cycling, rock climbing and ski
mountaineering, all of which give him a unique insight into the requirement for an ongoing,
dynamic risk assessment and clearly demonstrate that safety doesn’t stop you doing things
– it is an enabler that means you can do all sorts and be around to tell the tale afterwards.
Specialist subjects: Engagement and Leadership in Safety.