Supervisors are perhaps the most important people in an organization. Supervisors are responsible for getting the work done. They are also responsible for how safety happens - or doesn’t.
Numbers show that the vast majority of incidents happen at the front-line. That is no surprise since there are more people working at the front-line than anywhere else in the company. That means there is a need for more front-line supervisors than there are senior managers (well, you hope there are).
The highest percentage of staff turnover also happens at the front-line. And turnover, most times, stems from the relationship between front-line employee and their immediate supervisor. People don’t leave a company, they leave their immediate supervisor. When employees have had enough of the job, it usually means they have had enough of their boss. What is the main cause of a breakdown in the relationship between employee and supervisor? A lack of rudimentary management skills or leadership ability.
Most times, good employees are thrust into supervisory positions without any preparation or support. The skills they bring are what they may have learned or observed on the job from the untrained supervisor that came before them. But without good skills, supervisors find themselves sometimes over their heads in dealing with front-line issues. In instances like this, it is not unusual to see a retreat to the default position of command-and-control. It is where untrained supervisors feel safe. After all, no one can argue against the rule book and the law.
Sadly, this is how many companies unwittingly turn front-line supervisors into safety cops. When the job of supervisor is to be a motivator, a leader and a mentor, it is impossible to do that while clinging to the rule book. More than anything else, employees want their supervisors to be good people who care about the employee and their contribution.
In an effort to combat a supervisor’s decline into the command-and-control model, here are 5 ready-action strategies that front-line supervisors need to focus on to keep their crews engaged and focused on safety while building a better safety crew culture:
Focus on Your Own Crew
That is all you have control of. Ignore what is happening over your head in upper management or in areas that do not effect you directly. You can’t fix those. You have control of what is in front of you on the ground. That is where engagement takes place. Your team is depending on you to remain focused on them. Keep your crew as the primary source of your attention. Hold them in the highest regard. These are your people and they deserve to have your best effort.
Build Crew Culture
As a front-line supervisor, you set the tone of “how we do things ‘round here” with your crew. Ultimately, you also set the tone of how we ‘safely’ do things ‘round here. Do not give up that responsibility for any reason. If you are pushing safety because it is the rule, then you will get minimum compliance. It will be just enough to cover their behinds. But if you present safety “because you guys are valuable and I don’t want to lose you,” then you will get a different response. You will get crew members that begin to value their contribution. They will begin to see that you care about their safety. When that happens, they will care about their safety.
Improve Trust and Respect
The supervisor either builds or destroys a strong sense of loyalty. Supervisors are the first line of communication between crew and the company. What supervisors say and how they handle issues will determine whether they keep their good crews or turn them over. Supervisors need to learn the names of their front-line people - and the names of their families. If you as a supervisor don’t care enough to know their names, how can you claim to care about them as valuable people - and ultimately, their safety. Get personal. Build trust and respect. It keeps crews tight. The longer you can keep your crew working together, the better that their performance will get.
Remove the Negative Communications
Enthusiasm inspires enthusiasm - negativity breeds negativity. Photos of severed limbs do not motivate anyone to be safe anymore than photos of overweight people improve motivation to get to the gym. People cannot embrace a list of things not to do. They want an action plan of achievable steps. Delete all of the gruesome photos and injury videos from your workplace - including PowerPoint slides. Remove the words "don't" and "never" from your safety communications. More importantly, remove them from your own vocabulary. Don't and never are incomplete instructions. Use positive words of achievement. Empower employees to make good choices, not to avoid bad ones.
Focus on Tracking Positives
Data is useful in understanding why incidents take place. But not all employees comprehend the formula calculations to arrive at LTI or TRIF numbers. So instead, use achievable, we-are-almost-there numbers that encourage more effort in safety. A TRIF of 1.1 can be turned around and presented as 98.9% safety effectiveness. Ask your crew to make an extra effort to reach that last 1.1%. Reaching an extra 1.1% seems much easier to achieve than a complicated formula. And do not forget to recognize good safety behaviors. Keep employees focused on achievement, not on avoiding failure.
Employees need help to find their internal motivation to produce safely. They will look to their supervisors to provide that. Employees expect supervisors to offer positive performance feedback; a key requirement in keeping employees engaged and motivated. That means supervisors need to take their positions seriously.
Supervisors, get the training you need; either through your employer or on your own. But do not be surprised if the company does not jump in. After all, you will keep your skills and take them with you wherever you go. So, be prepared to do it yourself. Make a self-investment. The more you improve as a supervisor in the short-term, the more valuable you become to any company in the long-term. And the better you build trust and respect from a solid crew of safety performers. A crew is only as good as its supervisor. Make your commitment to be a safety leader.