The McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs defines “buy-in” as “to agree with; to accept an idea as worthwhile.” And that gets to the core of the problem: safety professionals who struggle to get employees to buy-in to safety aren't positioning safety as worthwhile.
Checks, balances, paperwork, rules, processes, meetings, penalties, fault, and impending doom? That’s how safety has been traditionally presented. Employees resist it. Little wonder, really. Employees feel like they are controlled by the safety program. It matters little whether they actually are or not—perception can be a person’s reality.
Here are five reasons you’re likely not getting the buy-in to your safety program and how to fix it:
1. You’re Making Safety Boring
I know, you can’t help it. You have forms, paperwork, inspections, rules, procedures, and incidents to talk about. The problem is likely that you are lumping the content and the presenter into one when they are clearly not. A great presenter can make any subject less boring. So, get good at presenting. Make it fun. Make it interesting.
Here’s your takeaway idea: buy a book on presentation skills. Don't buy a book on using PowerPoint. (Please. Stop.) Read the book on presentations—all of it. Mark the pages. Dog-ear the corners. Invest yourself in it. Then buy another and do it again. Get good at presenting. Rely less on using PowerPoint.
2. You’re Talking at Them
Recall the empty faces of employees who couldn’t wait to leave the last safety meeting. That's because you’re talking at them, not with them. It's what telemarketers do: while you wait for an opportunity to get off the phone, telemarketers keep talking at you, not with you. You do the same thing in your safety meetings. Get good at having conversations one-on-one about safety. Help employees see how safety helps them, not you. Focus on making safety about employees and less about them following rules.
Here’s a takeaway idea: start building your legacy. Help others succeed. It’s a simple leadership philosophy. Talk with your people one-on-one as often as you can, be helpful to others, build trust and rapport. People can buy-in to that.
3. You’re Waiting for Senior Management to Go First
It's not unusual for safety managers to blame upper management for employees not buying-in to the safety program. Too many safety professionals claim that the safety culture cannot improve until upper management buys-in. And that’s just wrong. Oh sure, it’s easier if management buys-in, but it is certainly not a requirement. Furthermore, if senior management doesn't buy-in today, does that mean you are unable to help your people stay safe? Of course not. You have to go to work in spite of the perceived barriers to your success (for advice on getting buy-in from above, see Get Your CEO to Support Safety with the Curve Approach).
Your takeaway idea: stop making excuses and waiting for someone else to do something. Instead, do something that helps a front-line employee be better and safer at the job. Do it one employee at a time if you have to. But don’t make excuses for not being better.
4. Balance Your Position Between Manager and Leader
The difference between a manager and a leader is that one manages and one leads. (I realize that this is an oversimplification - but it's true). You’re supposed to be leading too, not simply managing. To manage is to maintain the status quo. To lead means to move on to something better. If you’re not improving the safety program’s results, then, by default, you’re managing them. That means there's little forward momentum. You have to build momentum. Safety becomes more exciting and easier to buy-in to when it looks like it’s moving forward. People will get behind something with momentum (see 3 Ways to Become a Safety Leader to learn more).
Here’s your takeaway: get a paper and pen and jot down 5 things you want to improve about the safety program. Not 5 results you’d like to have, but 5 things you can take action on. Then start getting them done. Give the perception that there’s momentum and ask employees to help you move your list forward, one item at a time.
5. Certification Doesn’t Make You a Leader
You don’t need to be certified in safety before you can buy-in to safety. Anyone who embraces safety as one of their personal values can buy-in to safety—front-line employee to CEO. You may need to have certification in order to manage the safety program, but to buy-in to safety as one of your personal values needs no schooling, courses, or certification. Let’s be clear about that. Employees are inspired by the person you are—not your designation, and not your certification. Safety management is supposed to be selfless. Safety professionals are supposed to care about people, not try to impress them by the number of courses they take.
Here’s your final takeaway: refrain from using your certification as your hammer. People are impressed by people who care about them. They are not impressed by people who hold their titles, positions, and certifications over them. Be a caring person and let your schooling help you make better decisions for others. Become people-focused first, and allow yourself to care for the people you work with.
You have the control over your safety program and how many of your good people buy-in to the program. Observe your own participation. Be aware of the things you’re doing that helps others to buy-in and the things that hinder that effort. Correct the latter.