Let’s face it. Becoming a good EHS manager is hard. To do it, you need to have the right technical expertise—especially if safety is a priority at your company. Without that expertise, building a safety culture that minimizes workplace incidents, lowers risk, and reduces compensation costs will be a challenge. Having the right technical skills, on the other hand, can help you overcome this challenge and thrive as a good EHS manager.
But you also need the right interpersonal skills to be a good EHS manager—the kind of traits human resource professionals call “soft” skills. Less quantifiable than technical expertise, these skills define how a good EHS manager interacts with others, including outside workers such as contractors. They help navigate work environments, motivate other workers, and attain safety goals when supported by the right technical skills. As vital to effective leadership as these technical skills are, however, soft skills are what really set safety leaders apart.
While developing good soft skills helps when building a safety culture, they’re also vital to job success. In fact, a lack of soft skills is more likely to get EHS manager fired than a lack of technical knowledge, says one study. According to the Stanford Research Institute and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation, 75 percent of long-term job success is attributable to soft skills, while only 25 percent is attributable to technical knowledge.
Why Soft Skills Matter in a Safety Culture
Soft skills matter in safety because they are what get employees and especially contractors to provide discretionary effort. That term describes the effort that employees can give at work but don’t have to. Put another way, discretionary effort involves an employee going above and beyond. In safety, it means getting people to go well beyond just complying with safety rules, regulations, and procedures. Discretionary effort is critical to creating high-performing safety programs and to create effective leadership.
“Exceptional safety happens when people look for and report hazards, give peers feedback on safe and at-risk behavior, and most difficult of all, admit when they have made mistakes (report near misses) so lessons can be learned,” says Judy Agnew, Ph.D., in an article in
PM eZine, the Performance Management Magazine. “You don’t get this kind of engagement in safety when employees dislike, distrust, and (most importantly) fear their boss.”
Obviously, you can’t generate discretionary effort from employees if you can’t get employees and contractors to like and trust you. And you can’t do that with technical knowledge alone. You also need the right soft skills to do it. They are not always easy to develop, but acquiring these skills can make a big impact on your credibility as a good safety leader.
Soft Skills Every Good Leader Needs
Below are ten soft skills all effective leaders need to build a strong safety culture, along with some practical tips on implementing them.
Listening — Effective leadership means being a good listener. It makes for good communication. So, while you might be skilled at articulating your ideas, you also need to listen to others. Give speakers your full attention when talking safety, take notes, be open to new ideas, and reserve judgment on safety issues until you get the whole picture.
Communication — Good leaders master the ability to communicate well. It helps form and maintain relationships and spurs feedback. More importantly, it promotes the honest exchange of ideas between people. So, support safety statements with the right metrics, avoid tentative language when writing guidelines, and show confidence when discussing safety. You may also want to create a program for communicating with employees that includes the following:
- Regular safety meetings
- In-depth tool box discussions
- Face to face discussions
- Focus groups addressing critical safety concerns
- Employee surveys
- A system for logging issues and resolution
- Safety newsletters
- Electronic notice boards
Nonverbal communication — The words you use have only a 7% impact on workers. But your body language has a 57% impact. Maintaining eye contact, using the right facial expressions, and holding posture to project confidence are examples of good body language. Another way to communicate non verbally is to lead by example. Your actions set the example for other workers to follow when they are not being observed.
Connecting with others — To build a strong safety culture, you need to communicate with employees, senior managers, EHS manager, contractors, and colleagues. In other words, you must connect with all stakeholders. To connect with others, call people by their right names when talking with them, show genuine interest in them and their lives, and make everyone feel important. Creating a program that recognizes and rewards safety accomplishments of others is one way to do this.
Negotiation — Good business leaders are always negotiating. So are effective safety leaders. To be a good negotiator, you must achieve a win-win for everyone. Look at how a safety procedure affects an employee’s job, offer people options on safety issues, and find ways to show employees you’re a team player. Focus on avoiding politics and setting realistic goals.
Saying “no” — As a safety leader, you’ll probably have to say “no” a lot to employees, like when they want to bend or change safety procedures. It’s critical you learn to turn down employees without creating animosity or losing credibility. Let people know you understand their position on things, end the conversation on a positive note, and offer options to help.
Conflict resolution — People are going to have conflicts. It’s inevitable. But conflicts can lead to safety incidents. So, conflict resolution needs to become your stock in trade. To do it, be proactive in eliminating potential conflicts, react to conflicts in a positive and helpful manner, and opt for collaborative solutions when resolving conflicts.
Coaching for performance — You need to invest in your people to build a strong safety culture, especially those working directly under you. Two key components to coaching for performance are creating a positive and productive environment and providing constructive feedback. To do that, you need to set realistic goals, push self-development activities, recognize people in a meaningful way, and provide the right training.
Dealing with difficult workers — Other workers will judge you on how you deal with difficult employees, so you need to do it effectively. That can be challenging, especially where safety issues are concerned. Tackle safety issues as soon as possible, use documented evidence, like an employee’s safety record when pointing out bad behavior, and have a plan for correcting the wrong safety behavior.
Managing change effectively — No one likes change. So, when new safety protocols or regulations are involved, resistance often occurs. When change takes place, workers often look to good leaders for reassurance and a sense of stability. Let employees share their thoughts, be available to answer questions, and emphasize the positive aspects of these changes.
These ten leadership tips can help safety leaders create an effective safety culture. Other safety leadership tips that can help build a strong safety culture include: learning how to motivate workers and delegate to others, setting the direction for your program, leveraging teamwork, and making zero incidents an attainable aspiration. Also, don’t obsess over root causes and maintain professionalism at all times.
Good safety leaders are made, not born. They work hard on both their technical and their interpersonal skills to master their leadership styles. Often, these soft skills are the straw that stirs the drink. So, if you’re serious about
being a good EHS manager, sharpen your soft skills. They can help you create the trust you need to generate the right effort from contractors and employees and build a strong safety culture—one that goes well beyond just complying with rules, procedures, and regulations.