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When It Comes to Safety Leadership, Watch Your Language

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Photo courtesy of T.J. Lyons
An image of Alice Hamilton (left), alongside a quote from her autobiography, hangs above the author's desk.
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Above my desk hangs a picture of a woman born in 1869—Alice Hamilton. She is the mother of industrial hygiene and the ultimate safety professional.  I recommend that every safety manager read her autobiography, “Exploring the Dangerous Trades,” in which Hamilton details her safety investigations of armament factories in New Jersey, mercury mines in the southwest and lead smelters in Wisconsin. The first poisonings of some good people.

In her book Hamilton recounts a conversation with a close friend and a quote from that section of the book hangs next to Hamilton’s picture. Although the friend never roused one to a fighting pitch, Hamilton says she taught her a much-needed lesson: that harmony and peaceful relations with one’s adversary were not in themselves of value unless they went with a steady push for what one was trying to achieve.

“So often, I have succeeded in breaking down the hostility of an employer and in establishing a friendly relation with him,” Hamilton wrote about herself. “I have been tempted to let it go at that, to depart without unpleasantness. Then I have remembered [what my friend taught me] and have forced myself to say the unpleasant things that had to be said.”

That is leadership based on honesty, a vital ingredient when protecting construction workers from injury. The ability to speak about what’s needed, the words we choose to speak or not speak and how and when we say them, define us as leaders.

In today’s highly politicized and complex project environments, you will run into risk-averse people who choose the safe ground and waffle and waver rather than speaking what needs to be said. I call this the danger of indecision. Unless kept in check such operational indifference will damage good people and the organization.

Reluctant Leaders

Consider a manager who tries to make a decision by announcing,  “Let’s form a committee to evaluate this.” He or she might be a reluctant leader unwilling to make final decisions because he or she believes it's best to delay rather than decide.

The cost to an organization for the extra work required by a tentative department head is easy to calculate. Start by counting the number of committees in your company, determine how many are “evaluating” something and you have your answer. When is the last time a committee was dissolved because its work was completed?

Certainly, committee input is critical. Opinions from those doing the work are the foundation for any decision. You must understand what it is needed from those you lead, and you must learn to listen to lead.

By the same token, a reluctant leader in your ranks will crush independence and assure that next great idea will never be allowed. A good leader makes decisions based partly on what their trusted team recommends but also while heeding some inner voice based on their own experience, many mistakes and some successes.

I have learned that if you are a leader or supervisor, your staff members scrutinize and interpret your every word based on the listener’s mood, trust,  level of respect for you and the setting. We all recognize this primal tool—language—because we use it to determine who to trust and who to distrust.

So take care with your words, for words can be used to disguise true intentions and meanings. For example, beware when a nominal leader says,“My thought process.” Real leaders say, “I think.”

Or when someone says, “Well, that’s how it’s done here.” That translates into, “Your idea is not welcome.”

Listen for “beta-test,” yet  another sign that the person yapping is determined to occupy the middle ground of inaction.

And then there is, “Take it to the next level.” That's the classic line that portrays an endless set of incremental achievements indicating no chance of accomplishment.

So consider what you say – always.

I have learned to make my point and actually bite my tongue to stop from rambling. I did it today, and it works for me. Leaders say what’s needed, when needed and then listen. That is hard.


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