Contributor: Tom Gregg, Corporate Safety Director
One of my earliest memories coming into the safety field as a twenty-something year-old project safety manager was my Safety Director handing me safety violation ticket-book to write out citations and fines to contractors whenever I saw something wrong. Seriously. In triplicate carbon-copy, too. Even then, new to the profession, I knew this was a terrible approach that would probably get me beaten like Joe Pesci in Casino. Not the best way to way to build trust or good project morale, and certainly not a good way to grow engagement, right? Management theory and practice have come a long way since those days. We know we get much better engagement and performance through respect, trust, empathy, partnering, recognition, and performance coaching.
If employee engagement is one of the critical ingredients to world-class safety performance, then what is it and how do we achieve it? Well, there are many good definitions of “engagement.” I personally think of employee engagement as “the level of an employee’s commitment to their work and the achievement of company goals and vision, as demonstrated through their actions.” Engaged employees demonstrate a motivation and willingness to contribute to company success, achieve goals, and a drive to fulfill the mission.
Society for Human Resource Management says, “Engaged employees might report feeling focused and intensely involved in the work they do. They are enthusiastic and have a sense of urgency. Engaged behavior is persistent, proactive and adaptive in ways that expand the job roles as necessary.” Engagement is elusive, though. According to Gallup, just 33 percent of American workers are engaged by their jobs. Fifty-two percent say they’re “just showing up,” and 17 percent describe themselves as “actively disengaged”1; Well… that’s not a pretty picture. And I venture to guess that it’s even worse on a construction site. Without an engaged and empowered workforce, we’ll never achieve our safety goals.
So what inspires engagement? First and foremost, employees want to feel valued and respected. They must trust management. People want their ideas to be heard and when possible, feel like their work is meaningful. They also want to believe in, and feel aligned with the company’s (and leaders’) vision and goals. Other factors influencing engagement include communication, trust, social cohesion, and supervisor support. Quantum Workplace (the research firm behind “Best Places to Work”) has identified six drivers of employee engagement that have the greatest impact:
- The leaders of their organization are committed to making it a great place to work.
- Trust in the leaders of the organization to set the right course.
- Belief that the organization will be successful in the future.
- Understanding of how I fit into the organization’s future plans.
- The leaders of the organization value people as their most important resource.
- The organization makes investments to make employees more successful.
While I feel fortunate to work for a company that embodies these principles and I feel fully engaged in our mission, the weak link in our “engagement chain” that affects our project performance, results, and client relations is often contractors that work on our projects. Their management, especially the front-line supervisors like foremen and superintendents, may not have had the same leadership training, experience, or perhaps role models, to teach them how to build trust, respect, and engagement. Not every company embodies the principles that nourish engagement. Employee engagement increases dramatically when employees experience positive interactions and relationships with their direct supervisors or managers. So how can we help bridge that divide on our projects:
- Be a role model for the brand of leadership that achieves those principles discussed above. Furthermore, lead with positivity and compassion. Create rapport. Use our Mission, Guiding Principles, Core Values, and goals as inspiration to build alignment.
- Find ways to drive decision-making and safety responsibilities to the front-line, allowing for a more bottom-up approach, rather than top-down. Trust.
- Encourage front-line engagement in planning activities, safety inspections, improvement efforts, safety meetings, committees, etc. Include safety responsibilities and accountabilities at all levels of the project organization, including front-line workers.
- Empower each person to speak up when they see something wrong (or any opportunity to improve), grant stop-work authority, and challenge them to always intervene when they see another employee at-risk, even if they don’t know them.
- Ask them questions; get their opinions. Act on their suggestions. They are “closest to the risk” and will have a fresh or diverse perspective on making work safer.
- Give regular performance feedback with coaching and recognition for a job well done.
- Communicate with them in a respectful, professional manner and they will begin to trust you, share information, and engage more.
It goes without saying that all of these principles and behaviors affect not only safety performance, but every other performance aspect of our business, from quality and production to profitability. And of course, they affect the overall culture of the company, not just the safety culture. So, what are you doing to engage your direct-reports and/or contractors on your project?