Improving our Safety Communications with Dr. Archana Tedone
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An excellent interview with Dr. Archana Tedone exploring the latest insights in Safety Communications to help organizations improve a critical dimension to improve outcomes. In addition to sharing ideas around how leaders can improve their safety communications, she shares some evidence-based ideas around upward and lateral safety communications – how workers share ideas and how they collaborate with each other.
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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their 0teams; their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations for those companies. Safety is an investment, not a cost for the C-Suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops the Safety Guru public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.
Hi and welcome to The Safety Guru. I’m Eric Michrowski. Today I’m really excited to have with me Archana Tendone on who’s here to talk to us a little bit about safety and also the elements of communication. So, first of all, thank you so much for joining us. I’d love to hear a little bit about your story and how you got into this field of studying worker health and safety.
Sure. Hi, Eric. Thank you so much for having me here. I got into this field of studying worker health and safety through some of the research projects that I started doing as a young graduate student. So early on as a young graduate student, I was involved in a variety of different research projects. And one of the projects that I was working on involves me conducting focus groups with health care professionals, nurses in this instance on occupational health and wellbeing. And one of the topics that we talked about in these focus groups was employee safety. And I noticed that during these focus groups, I kept bringing up the topic of worker safety and somehow the conversation always shifted back to patient safety. And I would have to find yeah. And I would have to remind these nurses over and over again that I was there to better understand how to keep them safe. And we’re talking about your safety, which in turn keeps the patient safe at the end.
In the long run. Right. And, you know, I just found nurses in particular in this focus group just to be such a selfless group of individuals who really prioritized their patient safety over their own. And it made me think we as human beings should really be programmed to prioritize our own safety and well-being. Right. Isn’t that one of our core functioning? So, when I realized that nurses are prioritizing the safety of patients or construction workers or prioritizing getting the job done faster or emergency responders or compromising their own safety to save the lives of others, I really wanted to understand why and how we can better protect these individuals working in these really high-risk industries who are literally putting their lives at risk for the benefit of others.
So, looking back, I sort of think I committed myself to this very important area of research around that point, and my work really focuses on better understanding the barriers to safe workplace practices.
That’s fascinating. And I think in today’s context, the whole topic of workplace safety for nurses and doctors, health care workers becoming even more of an elevated topic. And I’m curious, even if this was the same several years ago, I completely agree. I think safety has become even more important. You know, if that’s even possible, safety has always been a priority or should always be a priority. And I think in some of these high-risk industries, the message that keeping yourself safe will in turn help you reach those goals that you have, could be patient safety, could be getting the job done faster.
Right. Could be saving the lives of others. But I think, you know, there is some disconnect there, understanding that it is important to keep yourself safe to very well said. Definitely. And something I’ve even seen with other employees that where their role somehow impacts the safety of others, in some cases even utility workers, where they’re sometimes thinking more about the safety of others versus as well thinking that if I stay safe, I can keep others safe as well.
So, I want to get into some of your research. You’ve done a lot of research on safety communication. Can you tell me a little bit more about what safety communication is and why it is so important?
Yes, definitely. So, when people hear the term safety communication, they typically think of the more traditional downward safety communication. Right. Which is the top-down messaging from management to employees. While the research is showing us that focusing only on downward safety communication and ignoring other types of communication could be a huge mistake and can really negatively impact workplace safety, some other types of safety communication that are important to pay attention to our upward and also lateral safety communication.
Yeah. So upward safety communication captures the degree to which your employees are speaking up about safety issues, speaking up about their safety related concerns, speaking up about their opinions relating to safety in the workplace or your safety program, and also reporting things like accidents, injuries, near misses, things along those lines. So, it is important for managers and supervisors to get this information and leaders to get this information, because if you don’t have this healthy upward safety communication happening in your organization, then you’re missing out on so many opportunities to detect, correct and prevent safety issues.
Yeah, and lateral safety communication, on the other hand, captures the degree to which workers are talking to each other about safety, and honestly, this is the trickiest out of the three to improve because you as a leader can definitely work on how you’re communicating. And, you know, maybe you can implement different policies and initiatives to encourage upward communication or at least to ensure that the channel of communication is open and clear. But how do you make employees talk to each other about safety?
Right. That’s exactly ballgame game. Yeah. So, when an organization has a strong positive safety, climate and safety is prioritized and it’s really at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it’s openly discussed, then lateral safety communication becomes organic, can happen naturally. But getting to that point isn’t going to happen overnight. And trying to encourage lateral communication will likely be met with some resistance. But it doesn’t mean it’s not working, right. Yeah, I have a lot of fun examples that I’d like to share.
So, I recently conducted some interviews with some individuals who worked in an organization that just revamped their safety, vision and values. And as part of that, they wanted to increase awareness of the vision and values. So, employees were asked to start meetings and briefings with a discussion of how they’re going to embody these values in their daily work. And so, the employees, of course, when you’re asked to do something on top of what you’re already required to do, you’re going to be a little annoyed at having to take this additional step.
Right. So, they would, to some degree, start making fun of these new slogans. And, you know, so things like to be responsible or help each other work safely. And they would joke about these things. And throughout the day, they would jokingly associate these statements with events that were happening. So, you know, if they saw another employee needing help, they would say, I’m here to help you work safely as a joke. Or if they saw someone not wearing the proper PPE, they would say be responsible and so on.
And, you know, before they knew it, they realized that they were actually living the values, even though it started out as something that they were just making fun of. It quickly became integrated into their daily work lives. Interesting. Yes. I would say a tip here is that, yes, your employees may resist this, some of these safety initiatives that you take to improve lateral safety communication, but don’t let that be discouraging because it could actually be making a difference before you even realize it is so interesting.
And it actually reminds me of some work I was doing with one organization long ago where they’ve done a lot of improvements around that downward safety communication upward was still the main area of focus. There was not enough involvement where there were employees were so excited about it. But Lateral with was probably the most challenging one because people weren’t connecting with each other was a lot of tourism that was also even getting in the way of doing that effectively.
Yep, I completely agree. And with lateral safety communication, I think another way to really help promote lateral safety communication is to identify employees within your organization that can really serve as those role models that are going to be helping you promote this type of communication and discussion. So, it’s one thing for management to ask employees to talk about safety. Right. But it’s absolutely another thing to see your peers talking about safety, bringing it up during discussions, prioritizing safety in their work and research shows that seeing peers engaging in safe behaviors encourages employees to engage in these same behaviors and to establish the norms in an organization.
And this is much more effective than just having management provide direction or tell employees what to do. And this is definitely not to say that management shouldn’t be involved. Your management should also serve as role models. They should walk the walk because if you as a leader aren’t displaying the values, you’re expecting your employees to embody, then they won’t see a need to display these values either.
Very well, because ultimately you want to get it to the group. The norm here is following the rules going above and beyond from a safety standpoint, even going above what the rules and expectations are, which can really only happen once you start having seeing how people are showing up as well. Not any other tips that you’d have for leaders to communicate effectively.
Yeah. So, when it comes to effective communication downward from leaders, I think it’s really important to have the three C’s. I would say so. Communication should be. One consistent, so especially if communication is indirect, so if it’s going through supervisors to your employees or something like that, you don’t want to end up with a game of telephone where the message gets distorted before it gets to your front-line workers. So, you really want to make sure that your supervisors and managers have a clear understanding of what you are trying to convey so they can effectively communicate that information to their teams.
And if you don’t strive to ensure for this consistency, then the worst possible scenario is employees are going to be receiving these conflicting messages from different sources, their supervisors, their peers. And this will cause them not to take the message seriously. And it also puts an overall doubt on the importance and priority of safety in the workplace if they’re receiving these conflicting messages.
The second yeah. The second thing I would say is you want your communication to be clear and concise. That’s a bonus. So, you don’t really want to you don’t want to leave much room for interpretation. You want to be very clear. Researchers found that messages that are clear, easy to understand and to the point are most effective. So, this point isn’t only about safety related messages, but this could be taken for any sort of messaging that you want to convey to your employees.
And then the third C, I would say you want your communication to be caring when you communicate, understand that these workers are literally risking their lives on the job. Right. And they’re approaching conversations with their employees from a caring perspective has been found to be more impactful than coming from a scolding or reprimanding perspective. And it’s really important for employees to feel that you as a leader, genuinely, genuinely care about their safety and well-being and really helping them understand why safety policies and procedures are in place can really influence what they end up taking away from your conversations or approach your conversation from a place of care.
I love it. So consistent, clear and concise and then caring. I think those are so important that the caring one, it reminds me most really good leaders that I’ve heard of from a safety culture standpoint are always coming from a position, and they usually always have a very strong, like conviction of why safety is so relevant or important to them. I love your comment about why I had somebody who was sharing their story in terms of my leadership story on whatever episodes he was really talking about, how you really connect to why something is important, not just telling people to do something that’s so important.
So, in terms of upward communication, what can you tell me about upward? And is it really important for employees to communicate to leaders about safety?
Yes. So, as I mentioned earlier, when leaders and upper management are not hearing about what’s happening on the floor, they’re really missing out on so many opportunities to prevent and correct safety issues. So, yes, it’s very important to have an open two-way channel of safety communication, not just one way. That’s not enough anymore. And so, an important tip to maintain upward communication, I would say, is to make sure that management is acknowledging receipt of this communication and providing feedback about what’s being done or what’s going to be done with the information received.
So, if managers aren’t giving employees any feedback on their speaking up, then they’re going to feel like they just wasted their breath, right. They won’t continue to speak up about safety issues or concerns. You have to reward the behavior you want to see. Right. For example, if an employee raises a safety concern to you as a manager, let’s say, acknowledge that you’ve heard their concern, maybe you can check in with a check in with them in a few months, let them know what steps you’ve taken to resolve their issue.
And even if it’s something that you can’t really take action on at the moment, let them know that you’ve heard them. And although you can’t address it right now, it’s something you’ll consider in the future or it can’t be addressed for X, Y and Z reasons and tell them those reasons. So, providing this type of feedback makes upward communication more worthwhile for the employee. Put yourself in their perspective. Why would you, after working a very long, hard, busy day, go out of your way to speak up about an issue if you feel like no one is going to do anything about it or you know you’re not going to get any feedback on it.
So, providing that sort of feedback encourages them to continue on with that positive behavior that you’re trying to see.
But the very important point, it reminds me of one of my favorite stories I’ve ever heard, it was a somebody who is at a retirement party retiring from one of the big three automotive manufacturers. And his comment at the end was, you’ve paid me really well throughout my entire career. Thank you. But you could have had my brain for free. And I think that’s such a strong comment. But really talks to this piece about all he was looking for is somebody to listen to tap in to be open to his ideas.
And they could have had so many more solutions that ideas come forward. So, in your research, you’ve studied a construct which is really interesting and I’d love to hear more about it. And it’s around what you call safety silence motives. Can you tell me a little bit more about what it is and why we should care about it?
Yes, I’d love to. So, safety, silence motives help us understand the barriers to upward safety communication. So, safety silence occurs when employees choose not to speak up about safety issues in the workplace and safety. Silenus’ motives are the reasons behind the silent behavior. So basically, measuring this construct will help us answer the question. What are barriers preventing my employees from speaking up about safety issues? And so, we’ve identified four main types of safety silence motives, so we found that employees may not speak up about safety issues if they feel that relationships in the workplace could be damaged or it could lead to a negative image of them called relationship.
They safety silence or employees may stay silent because their organization’s climate isn’t supportive of upward communication called climate-based safety silence. Silence could be due to appraising a situation is not threatening or not worth speaking up about. So, this is called issue-based safety silence. You hear things like, oh, that safety issue wasn’t life threatening or no one ended up getting hurt. Right. And then finally, job-based safety silence occurs when employees are facing job related constraints to speaking up.
So, things like heavy time pressures or workload, and you might not find that all of these safety sounds motives are occurring in your workplace. So really measuring these motives will help you take the most targeted action to encourage healthy upward safety communication.
Hmm, interesting. So, what should I do if my employees do not feel comfortable speaking up about safety issues?
Right. So, as I mentioned, different actions can be taken based on what barriers you’ve identified in your organization. So, for example, if you find that relationship-based safety silence is very high, then your organization may benefit from having an anonymous reporting system, for example. So, names don’t have to be associated with certain suggestions or reports. And this could also always be a first step until you’re able to build a culture of trust in which employees do feel more comfortable associating their names with different reports and things along those lines.
If you find that climate, they safety silence is an issue, then you really want to think about why your organization’s climate is not supporting this type of upward communication. So, you could find that employees feel that there really is no Clear Channel of upward communication or they feel that management isn’t really responsive to upward communication. So, these are things that can be addressed through different manager or supervisor trainings.
Interesting. Yeah, it’s it is for somebody because I grew up in the airline industry and that’s where it got my first taste of safety. And I think that that that theme of speaking about air safety is so well ingrained in that industry and has been for because of so much focus on creating psychological safety, but also a mechanism, an environment where people recognize the value of speaking up. So, I sometimes take it for granted. This is such an important theme.
Right. You know, it’s very interesting that you say that because each organization, each even department and each team has its own strength in their safety climate. Right. But you kind of forget about it. At the industry level, some industries really work to prioritize safety more so than others. So, you know, you’re definitely right. There are some industries that have that tend to place a bit more priority on production, are getting the job done or other things.
And it could be a little harder to shift the safety climate in an organization working in an industry with such constraints. But not impossible. Definitely not impossible.
Absolutely. So, can you maybe share some of your takeaways when it comes to talking about safety?
Sure. So, I would say one takeaway is that communication should not be just a one-way channel. So, it’s not enough to have effective top-down safety communication. It’s important. But not enough upward safety communication is also a necessary component of a safe work environment, and lateral safety communication is really important as well for creating that healthy, positive safety climate that we’re striving for. Another take away is that change takes time. There are, of course, changes that really need to happen immediately, right?
If major safety is your concern, it needs to be dealt with. But what if you’re trying to change how people are thinking about safety or how people are viewing safety or how much they’re valuing safety in their daily work, then be patient. This is not going to happen overnight. This process might take time, but the research shows that having this strong, positive safety climate has so many benefits and not only in the realm of safety associated with things like lower accident rates or better safety performance, but also outside the safety realm, like customer satisfaction, employee commitment, better performance, things like that.
And it’s important to understand that, you know, investing in improving your safety climate does save your organization time and monetary costs in the long run. Right. They seem like just one small cog in the machine of your organization, but without it, that machine will come to a halt. So, it’s really in our best interest to try to ingrain safety into the fabric of your company so the machine will run smoothly. And keep in mind that these changes might be happening before you even know it.
And then I would say my last takeaway is that safety is a collaboration. Your workers are the experts in their craft. So, seek their expertise and try to better understand what they do, try to understand their concerns, seek their opinions, make them feel valued, and make them feel like a collaborator in your company’s safety program rather than just a participant. Because in the end, we’re all working towards the same goal here. Right? We all want to make it home in one piece.
We all want to be safe, happy and healthy. And we want to see our workers and coworkers safe, happy and healthy. So, getting on the same page about that point with your employees will do wonders to the quality of your communication between you and your workers.
I think that’s very well said. And such important reminders. And definitely when I’ve worked with more mature organizations from a safety climate standpoint to themes that always emerge as a very strong collaboration involvement, safety is everybody’s responsibility. Everybody sees it. Everybody wants to contribute in that way, which is phenomenal. But the other thing they talked about really in terms of those places tend to be great workplaces. There’s not a place I’ve been to that had a phenomenal safety culture that didn’t have low absenteeism, that didn’t have a good operational performance, that didn’t have good production performance.
It didn’t have all these other things working because people saw it as an intricate part of running a great business.
Exactly. So well said I. I completely agree with that statement. And that’s what I’ve seen from a research perspective. And also, you know, when I’ve interacted with different organizations and clients and things like that. So, yeah, I completely agree.
Well, thank you so much for having us for taking the time to come on The Safety Guru to share some really important themes. Really appreciate all the work that you’re doing, sharing those ideas, researching those ideas in your work, teaching. And as a professor at the University of Baltimore, thank you so much for taking the time and would love to have you back on the show when you’ve got some additional pointers, ideas or research that you’d like to share and broadly communicate to that important audience.
So, thank you so much for coming on.
Thank you, Eric. Any time.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Archana Tedone, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Industrial and Organizational (IO) Psychology at the University of Baltimore. Archana is a workplace health and safety researcher, and a large portion of her work focuses on identifying the organizational barriers to a safe work environment. She has published numerous studies in the area of workplace safety in journals such as Accident Analysis and Prevention, and the Journal of Advanced Nursing, and has even authored an encyclopedia entry of the topic of Workplace Safety. Archana also has several years of experience working as a organizational consultant, with expertise in the areas of training and development, survey design, employee wellbeing, and workplace safety.