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Front-line employees are more influenced by their supervisor than their CEO on a day-to-day basis, yet many supervisors are never provided with safety leadership training. In this episode, Eduardo Lan, partner at Propulo Consulting, discusses the importance of investing in your supervisors’ skills. Abilities like assigning work, asking questions, involving employees, and connecting with team members are often overlooked and dismissed, but they are the key to a safer, more productive workforce. It’s time to move beyond outdated “command and control” methods and ensure that all supervisors are taught how to lead effectively and respectfully to achieve the best results.
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Hi and welcome to The Safety Guru. My name is Eric Michrowski. Very happy to have with me Eduardo Lan, who’s a partner with Propulo Consulting, has done many, many years in organizational change within different contexts and more recently, in the last 10 to 15 years, it’s been a lot of work driving transformations around safety and safety culture. Eduardo, very excited to have you with me today.
Thank you, Eric. Very excited to be on the podcast as well.
So today we’re going to be talking about a very interesting and important topic around front-line leadership, supervisory skills, around safety. But before we go there, I really want to understand if you can share a bit about your journey that got you into this safety world and where that passion comes from.
Absolutely. So, I didn’t start out as a safety consultant at all. I didn’t even start out as a consultant. I started out as an executive in the transportation industry. I was a warehouse manager and the company I work for and I won’t mention names. I had an old style of command and control and it was really an abusive environment where you scream at people and you were even rude to people. And I received that kind of treatment. And I dish that out. I was very young. I was like twenty-five years old at the time. And it got to a point where I really felt icky about being in that kind of environment and treating people like that and being treated like that. And I remember I was being groomed to be a director. I was a manager at the time and I remember thinking to myself one day, I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t treat people like this.
There’s got to be a better way to work and be productive. And so, I left that company and that started me on the path to really figuring out ways of managing organizations and leaving in ways that were both respectful and dignified and at the same time increased production and had a result, positive result on the bottom line. And a few years later, I became a consultant, management consultant, a leadership consultant, and then a few years later, somebody asked me if I would be willing to do some safety work, and which was really strange at the time for me because I had no idea what safety and anything about safety chert and I am the person and I told the person, look, I don’t know anything about safety, I’m not I don’t know the technical elements of safety. I don’t know what I wouldn’t know where to start. And the person told me that the type of work they were doing had a lot to do with commitment, leadership, with communication and that I would be a good fit for it. And so, I decided I decided to try it out.
And this was, I don’t know, maybe almost 20 years ago. And I soon found that it was that I was very passionate about it, that this passion I had around treating people right and had everything to do with safety. There’s nothing more important that than watching out for the physical well-being of people. But when we talk about safety, at least the way I hold it, it’s not just physical. It’s mental. It’s emotional. It’s social.
It’s everything. Does that answer your question?
Absolutely. So, you’ve done a lot of work over the years around safety. And one of the things that you are realizing was really the importance of the role of supervision in safety. Can you share maybe some thoughts and how that reflection came about?
Sure. So as soon as I got started doing work in the area of safety, I was. Basically, doing training sessions for frontline workers and we were trying to raise their risk awareness and have them have changed their mindsets and their attitudes and be more responsible in terms of safety. And it was all great work and it did have an impact. But very soon in my career, I discovered that sometimes I would go back to some of the organizations I work with, and these things were back to the way they were before and we would try to figure out what was missing, what had happened.
And one of the things that we found was that workers change the way they communicated with each other or worked and. Because of the training we had done with them, but then they were shut down by their supervisors, like, for instance, we would tell them, if you see anything that doesn’t look quite right, that seems unsafe to you, to stop the work and figure out a way to do it that would be safe. And sometimes we would find that they would do this and then they would get in trouble with their supervisors because their supervisors would say to them, like, what are you doing?
You’re here to work. Just get the work and stop with the nonsense. And so, it became apparent quite soon in my career as a safety consultant that the front-line supervisor, the front-line leader, had a huge say in how work was done and how workers behaved.
Sure. And I think in many cases in interactions even with frontline workers, the feedback that’s become clear is they often listen to the supervisor more than the CEO in terms of relevance from day to day. So, they have more influence in terms of how they show up, which is unfortunately, I think that the sad part is very few organizations and industries have really invested in in in their front-line supervision or front-line leadership skill sets.
Absolutely, so, yeah, to your first point, the supervisor is the person that is there with the workers day in and day out. So, her influence is huge on their behaviors, their mindsets. They are looking to him or to her to fit in, to be accepted, to be well regarded. And so, they will follow that person’s lead. Now, as you mentioned, very few organizations in this. We also have found.
I also found this out very soon in my career, spend money training, developing, coaching, mentoring supervisors that they don’t see a need to do this. And I guess there’s some apparent logic to this. The people that tend to get hurt are the workers. They’re the ones doing the work. So, your logical and immediate response solution to the problem is let’s train the workers. They’re the ones getting hurt.
So, then I’ve heard that many times before.
Exactly. And the thing is, yes, in training the workers, it’s important and necessary, but it’s insufficient. If you do not train the supervisors, the supervisors will shut down anything that the workers shift or change in how they do the work. And when one issue with the supervisors, it’s typically the kind of the root of the matter. And the root cause of the matter is that supervisors tend to be to have been workers themselves, usually the most productive, the highest performing workers that got promoted through the ranks.
And here lies the conundrum in that many of the skills that got them to be the best worker, being assertive, being a go getter, getting things done, pushing through whatever issues there was, even taking shortcuts. They were celebrated sometimes for taking shortcuts. Are in opposition with the skill set that they now need as supervisors, right?
So how do you close the gap? What are some of the themes that a supervisor needs to learn? Because in a lot of organizations, when I’ve poked around on supervisory training, it’s often, I’d say more labor relations training, it’s how not to end up in a grievance over the contract or something really basic, but not on how to lead, how to influence. What are some of the things that you think need to be covered for supervisors to become more effective at safety?
Sure. So first off, I would say it covers some of the usual leadership topics. Sure. And so, supervisors don’t actually do the work. They lead people that do the work. So, their job is no longer about how high performing they can be, but how much they can get others to be high performing. So that has a lot to do with leadership. It has to do with communication, with influence, with engaging people, with getting people to think creatively and intelligently about the work that they’re going to do and with getting people to really own the work that they’re doing.
So, a lot of it has to do with general leadership training. Now, some of it and this is, I think, where a big difference can be made in terms of supervisory training and coaching and mentoring. A lot of it is very skills-specific. And so, it has to do along with how you assign work. And one of the things that we tend to do when we are the boss in terms of assigning work is we tell people what to do, and we tell them how to do it right.
So, I call it tight on what to do, tight on how to do it, as opposed to tight on what needs to be achieved and loose in terms of how you achieve it.
Correct? Correct. And then we make the really kind of crazy assertion that because we said it, they must have understood it. I mean, it’s clear I said it. I said it several times. I said it really loudly. I’ve said it many times. And we ask them sometimes if we’re gracious enough, do you have any questions or is everything clear? And if I’m your boss and I tend to be very tight, tight, tight, as you say it, and I ask you, when you’re one of the workers that that that reports to me and I ask you, do you have any questions there?
Is everything clear? What do you think your answer is going to tend to be? I’ve got it covered. Don’t worry.
Exactly. Exactly. And the problem with that is that that answer oftentimes has nothing to do with the fact that you really got it and you got it covered. It’s got more to do with the fact that you don’t want to look foolish. You don’t want to look bad in my eyes. You want to look good. So that’s where the trouble starts, because then we send them out and they do whatever they think is best. And oftentimes, it’s not what’s best and that’s where accidents happen.
And so, one of the skills that we teach supervisors is to learn to tell people what to do, because oftentimes, you know what the work task is, but don’t tell them how. I ask them how they’re going to do it right and ask them how they’re going to do it safely. And here in here, it’s a really simple but not easy at all skill, which is the skill of asking people. Sure. And if you ask and by asking, we mean not just any question, but open-ended questions and questions that get people thinking.
And it’s as I was saying, it’s this really simple skill. Everybody knows how to ask questions or understands what a question is. But asking questions is a real art. And I remember supervisor I work within a mining project that that when he got just the importance of asking people open-ended questions. So open-ended questions are questions that ask for information what, how, where instead of close-ended questions that require a yes or no answer. So, the moment.
The supervisor got the power of asking people open-ended questions, he was just amazed that what he could get his team to do in terms of thinking and really raising their risk awareness and their safety ownership in another theme, I think is that’s also important is really around coaching, because a lot of supervisors, like you mentioned, came from the ranks. Right. And coaching. Is it normally something that you talk about when you’re a frontline team member? So, tell me a little bit about the importance of coaching in those conversations.
I would say it’s huge, Eric. Unfortunately, yes. Coaching is not often considered for frontline leaders, for supervisors, if at all. It’s considered for senior leaders, but not for frontline leaders and supervisors. And it’s huge because some of the skills that will be teaching supervisors, such as asking people how they’re going to do the work using open-ended questions that get people thinking another skill that that is really important is acknowledging people for the safe work that they do, not just talking about the bad or the unsafe work and also redirecting or stopping in a skillful manner the unsafe work and unsafe behaviors they may be engaged in.
And these are all skills doing these things in a manner that really gets people thinking, that really helps people welcome the message that is a conversation instead of a monologue. These are all skills that require time to be learned and perfected in terms of understanding. They’re pretty simple in terms of practice. They’re extremely difficult because we have a lifetime and supervisors in particular of not working, not communicating with people in that manner, basically talking at people.
And so and so what coaching does is it provides a supervisor with a field coach that is an expert in that type of work assignment, that type of communication, communication, that type of engaging of people in toolbox, talk and work assignment, conversation. And when a supervisor gets that kind of coaching and the impact that he can have and the result and the safety results that can be obtained and will blow your mind, I’ve seen organizations that have really taken on and a supervisor skill coaching that have really made a huge difference in their safety records and in how the work is done.
And it has an impact not only on safety, which is the initial focus, it has an impact on quality. It has an impact on productivity. It has an impact on working environment, on worker retention. And it’s really incredible what can be done when leaders, front line leaders in particular, realize the power they have if they engage people in the conversation instead of talking at them.
This episode of The Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and Safety Culture Advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, energize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety, leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit us at propulo.com.
And I think when you think about a lot of behavior-based safety programs, even historically, that have been launched in organizations. One of the things that surprised me is how little training was actually provided on how to deliver the feedback when the entire point of observations is really to trigger a conversation around what people saw, how they could do it better, or recognize the right safe choices as well. And this is such a fundamental skill set to driving safety and reinforcing the right choices, the right behaviors and shifting attitudes and mindsets.
Correct? And it’s and in my mind, it’s a lot it’s one of the big reasons, if not the reason for the bad name, the bad rap that BBS programs have gotten because they become about how many observations you do, how much your hard to fill out. Then people start gaming the system and just creating cards that were no observation existed. Or if you do, go ahead and do an observation. The feedback is so poor that you might as well not have done the observation because that interaction actually hurt that person’s level of safety ownership, given the nature of the interaction that took place.
So, Yeah, a huge part of a program like that or any safety interaction is the quality of the conversation that you’re sharing with people. And supervisors are not taught how to have no conversations.
Many leaders aren’t taught, but definitely not supervisors. And then that’s usually where you needed the most. So, I’m curious of your thoughts. Organizations often if they’ve got a limited budget around safety in training, they often will say, like you mentioned before, I want to focus on my front-line team members. Is that really the best place to start? Would you say there? Would it be working with leaders or would it be with supervision?
I think the best bang for your buck is supervision. Obviously, if you want to have a radical transformation or step-change in how in your organization, safety, culture, you need to work with all levels of the organization because supervisors don’t are not there. Twenty-four hours a day, senior leaders hold the purse strings and many of the key decisions about systems that also impact safety and workers. I mean, are their own person and they will make their own decisions.
Right. But if your budget is limited and you have to choose one place, that place is supervision and its supervision, not only in terms of training, but as you mentioned, in terms of coaching and because training is just your entry point at developing skills.
Exactly. Any examples that you can share where you’ve had really sizable impact by focusing on supervision and maybe can you share how that can help transform an organization.
Yeah, absolutely. So, I was mentioning this example of a mining project I was involved in a couple of years ago where, you know, it was they had a they didn’t have a terrible safety record, but it wasn’t great. And they needed to improve. And there was also this working environment that was very much carrot and stick people. The. People are not very happy working on that project, and they work there because they had to there was a lot of turnovers, they would go to other projects and we focused heavily on.
Shifting the way supervision supervises the work and the way supervisors engage with their crews, and we did initially with the training with them, and then there was a lot of field coaching. Sure. That impacted really every touch point they had with their crews. So, the toolbox talks, the safety meetings, the shift handover and even the day-to-day interactions. This organization was so committed to improving that they embed it. Safety cultures. Yes, safety coaches, email safety coaches in the work.
And they just lived in that worker camp and where part of the population and really shadowed the supervisors and where they’re continuously helping the supervisor up their game in the ship was really incredible in terms of how safety was improved, of how the culture was shifted. You could see it in the numbers, but you could also feel it and people would talk about it. Like, I feel like my supervisor knows me. He cares about me.
He asks me what I think I feel valued. And you could see people’s contentment around being heard and heard and seen and allowed to contribute in that manner. But more than their contentment, you could see the level of commitment, a new level of commitment that they have to doing good quality, safe work.
Right. I remember doing some work in at a mine site is similar, just illustrating the importance of the supervisor. There was in one mine shaft, there were two supervisors and the crews were working side by side. And the difference between both supervisors was stark. One was barking, yelling, telling how the work should be done. The other one showed active care day in and day out about everybody’s loved ones, why they were staying safe. And you could sense it when we were talking to people that were working down this particular mine shaft, they you could see in their conversations you could almost identify who they worked for just based on their stories and their examples.
So, an incredibly powerful and important one. Obviously, safety results were very different, very stark difference between both in terms of supervisory training and we’ve talked about that’s a good first step. Is it really different from leadership training or maybe is it more in terms of the delivery and the topics that I cover that that you should consider a difference?
I think there is a marked difference. As I said, it’s not that some topics will be part of the general leadership curriculum, but some topics are varying and skills specifically in terms of assigning work. Sure. And their field base. So, the best type of coaching for supervisors may start out in or training for supervisors may start out in a classroom setting, but very soon it goes to the field. Right. And it’s in their work environment, at their usual work meetings.
And that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s where they’re having a real impact on people in the way they engage with them and the way they communicate with them in the way they involve them or not. And so, I think that’s smart and markedly different, distinctly different from general leadership training. It’s a lot more field based, you know, that’s what I would say about that.
Absolutely. I would agree with you on that on that front. But I think it’s more importantly than anything else, is really the criticality of investing in front-line supervision, training, really investing in those front-line leaders. When somebody gets upgraded from the craft, there should be something that that teaches you how to get on board. There should be more investment even beyond peer support with somebody else. There’s so much that can be done to develop that skill set.
So, Eduardo, thank you so much for sharing some wonderful ideas on this really important topic of supervision. Any closing thoughts that you’d like to share?
Yeah, I’ll take two more things. I want to touch upon something. You sat around actively caring for people. Another key point that we stress that I stress and that we stress it in terms of how supervisors can engage with their crews is really is this thing around, Karen, concern around the relationship and really key to getting people to work safely to follow your lead is their belief that you care for them. And in terms of the impact on workers, which is what we ultimately are looking for, because they’re the ones doing the work and they’re the ones closest to the risk and usually the ones who get hurt.
And, you know, we know and we’ve known for thousands of years that telling people what to do doesn’t work it. And there’s this quote that they it’s really a quote, I think, by Confucius. But they attributed now to Benjamin Franklin that says, tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, but involve me directly and I will learn and I will make it mine. So that’s the kind of training and coaching we are alluding to, teaching supervisors how to really involve people directly instead of telling them.
Yeah, I think that’s very well said. I often even talk about the theme of safety participation just as a vehicle to get people more connected, involved around safety to drive improvements, but also more likely to follow the rules. But that’s also linked to it really is the more I’m engaging you, involving you, the more likely you’re going to do the right thing when nobody’s watching.
Correct. Yeah, it’s really almost like magic that it even trumps. Salary considerations, sometimes people have such a need to be involved and to be heard and to be seen that if we as leaders now I’m speaking about all types of leaders can learn to do that, the level of discretionary effort that we get from people will blow our minds.
I think it’s a very important point. I think it’s too often most people think I’ve got promoted so I can tell you how to do it. But listening is often important piece and sometimes it doesn’t even come out. That was one of the things I learned early on in my career when people were telling you the process and the tools, I have been adequate if you fix that. That didn’t necessarily solve the problem from a perception standpoint, because often what they were saying is you didn’t engage and involve me in it.
What actually came out from surveys, from focus groups was more focused on the tools and the methods, the procedures, as opposed to you didn’t engage and involve me.
Yeah, and I think that has to do a little bit with the culture that we live in. That’s not commonplace, particularly for big, strong men, which dominate sometimes the industry to say, I want to be heard, I want to be seen, that you’re not going to necessarily hear them say that. But here’s the thing. It’s a universal human need. And if you want to have an impact on somebody else, whether you’re a senior leader, a frontline leader or even a crew member, you should be well advised to know that.
Yes, absolutely. Well, Eduardo, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on safety, supervision, safety, leadership, particularly at the frontline levels. I think it’s such an important topic. Really appreciate you taking the time to share your insights on this. Thank you.
Oh, thank you. I’m very passionate about this. So anytime. Thank you.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Eduardo Lan is a Partner with Propulo Consulting, a global management consulting firm delivering significant and sustainable improvements in organizational performance. As an accomplished organizational consultant and safety leadership coach, Eduardo has extensive experience in safety culture transformation, leadership development, high-performance projects and operations across the United States, Canada and Latin America. With over 20 years of experience in Leadership and Organizational Transformation, Eduardo is truly an expert in Organizational Development and Change, specifically safety leadership.