Coaching for Safety Excellence

Many safety leaders dream of a workplace where individuals are willing to go above and beyond the base expectation to achieve exemplary safe work performance. But how do we make that dream a reality when so many of us are struggling just to gain compliance with safety policies and procedures?

Research at Sentis has revealed that 86% of our clients are operating in a safety culture where at best, most employees are complying with safety expectations because they have to, and not because they want to. Which means that many leaders are doing the hard slog trying get their people to ‘do the right thing’, particularly when no one is watching. Safety leaders admit that telling their workers again and again what to do to remain safe at work and policing their workforce is tiring and frustrating and the workers themselves also tire and switch off from the same messages being repeated over and over. Is there a better way to engage the workforce and drive a culture where people own safety and willingly contribute to the greater good of the organisation? Drawing on coaching techniques within the safety leaders’ bag of tricks is one powerful way to achieve this.

Coaching Conversations

Coaching conversations steer away from the command and control leadership style of yesterday and instead puts the workers back in the driver’s seat. They reinforce existing strengths and prompt individuals to problem solve solutions themselves through the use of effective questions. Instead of telling a worker what to do or how to solve a problem, or even what they did well, a coaching conversation uses questions to bring out the strengths and solutions from the individual. Rather than telling an employee “You managed that job safely, well done” the safety leader asks a coaching question such as “What helped you to manage that job safely? What did you learn from that job that we could share with the team?”. Rather than telling an employee what to do we would ask “How might we go about solving that? Where could we find out more?”.  Coaching conversations develop trust as they recognise the resourcefulness of the workforce and demonstrate faith in the individual to solve problems independently. They also inspire and motivate people to willingly go above and beyond expectations and create a learning culture to continuously improve. As a result, the workplace culture matures and generates better safety performance.

There are many ways to lead a team to greater performance and some would argue there is no one right way, as each situation and each person may require a different approach from their leader. For example, a new employee with little experience may need more instruction and supervision than someone who has been in that industry for a long time. Coaching conversations are best used when assisting a colleague to reinforce existing strengths or develop a skill which they are motivated and engaged to learn. When else could leaders draw on coaching techniques?

When to use Coaching

Coaching can be used to:

  • Develop skills required to meet expectations.
  • Invest in employees with high potential who are engaged and want to develop willingly.
  • Coach people through a process or organisational change.
  • Draw the best out of people when problem solving and collaborating.

A coaching conversation need not be a formal process. Often these conversations occur incidentally. The trick is to use your coaching skills when the situation suits. For example, a coaching conversation may assist a leader to better engage their team in the safety messages during pre-starts, or assist a team member to raise safety concerns with another person more effectively. An example of group coaching could involve the safety leader working with the whole team to plan a safe and efficient shut down.

Coaching conversations work best when:

  • They stand on a platform of respect, trust and openness to learning on both sides.
  • There is adequate rapport and trust with the other person.
  • The safety leader listens and seeks to understand the situation or other person’s perspective first.
  • The safety leader guides the individual or group to develop their own answer through questions (not telling or directing).
  • It focuses on what is positive now and what could work well into the future, rather than seeking to overcome or minimize weaknesses.
  • The conversation finishes by confirming or setting a commitment to action.

Questions as a Coaching Tool

Questions are a key tool in leadership and can be used for a variety of different purposes within a coaching conversation. Questions that help the individual discover what is possible can be used to explore road-blocking mindsets, such as “This is too hard” and “How am I ever going to do that?”. The purpose of these questions is to help individuals identify what is ‘possible’ and reframe to a position where it ‘can be done’ or ‘has been done’ previously. For example “When have you done something like this before?” or “Where could we find an example of how this could be done?”

Questions that help determine what ‘good’ could look like are used to paint a picture of the ideal state such as “If we were to conduct effective prestart meetings, what would they look like?” Questions that help design an action plan can be used to create a clear path to achieve that ideal state. For example, “To achieve X, what do we need to do?”. Questions that explore how well the person/team is delivering on the action plan can be used to reinforce the goal or maintain and refine the goal once it is achieved. For example, “We have worked really well as a team and improved our safety performance, what can we do now to keep up the momentum?”

Humans value consistency. Being consistent is often perceived as more important than being right because the human brain loves patterns and predictability. When an individual makes a commitment to do something, there is an internal desire to follow through as failure to do so is perceived as inconsistent. Inviting the team to make a commitment, rather than ‘demanding’ the commitment from them is a more effective way to ensure their follow through. Safety leaders can ask for this commitment through questions, such as: “Could I have a commitment from you that you will report back to me when the task is complete?”. As a safety leader, offer a commitment of your own to your team to meet them half-way. “I commit to raising your concern in the leader meeting. Can I ask you to pass the message back to the team that we are following it up and encourage anyone with additional concerns to raise with me?”

Remember that changing habits and utilising or developing existing coaching skills takes time and practice.  Some individuals or groups may need multiple coaching conversations to influence change successfully. Don’t give up!

Coaching conversations whereby we help the individual utilise strengths and identify solutions themselves can be a very powerful strategy to empower and focus a team on the attitudes and behaviours that will make an organisation safer. How could you use coaching techniques to improve your team’s safety performance?