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How To Handle Supervisors Who Lack Safety Communication Skills

Construction workers having meeting, with digital tablet

This is an excerpt from our free guide on improving supervisors’ safety skills. It reviews six challenges with supervisors and safety, and provides practical ways to create more safety-conscious frontline leaders. 


This excerpt reviews one of the most common challenges—supervisors who lack safety communication skills.


The Challenge: Supervisors Are Poor Communicators, Especially When It Comes to Safety

Nobody pays attention to a toolbox talk that’s being read in a monotone voice off a piece of paper. Nobody wants to take instructions from someone who can’t look them in the eye. And absolutely nobody wants to participate in an uninspiring group discussion about who-knows-what. 

The quality of supervisor communications on safety issues can have a dramatic impact on safety performance. Even if supervisors aren’t poisoning the safety climate with negative interactions, lackluster communication styles can limit employee buy-in for safety. 

To tell how effectively supervisors are talking with workers about safety, look for these signs: 

  • The supervisor’s crew shares a common safety language and uses the same safety terms. 
  • Everyone understands how to submit near-miss and incident reports. 
  • Employees are aware of hazards and other safety issues. 
  • Safety stories are regularly told in conversations. 
  • Workers seem engaged in safety discussions. 
  • There is an increase in communication (and not just about safety). 
  • Employees volunteer for safety initiatives. 

If you notice relatively few—or none—of these traits among a supervisor’s team then it may mean that the supervisor is a poor safety communicator. 

The Solution: Offer Coaching and Resources on Communication

Communication is a skill—and that’s both good news and bad news when it comes to frontline supervisors. 

It’s bad news because it can’t be faked and if they don’t have the skill then they’re going to have a hard time successfully communicating with workers

But it’s also good news because like any other skill it can be improved with practice. Just because they aren’t a good communicator today doesn’t mean they can’t become a better communicator tomorrow, or a great one in a few months. All it takes is training and practice, practice, practice. 

Supervisor-to-worker communication is all about skills, context and trust. Whether it’s a one-on-one discussion about a worker’s actions or a pre-shift meeting that will set the tone for the day, supervisors need to be able to quickly identify the lay of the land, use effective communication skills to get their message across, and have built up enough goodwill that workers are able to trust what the supervisor is saying. 

Supervisors also need the tactical skills necessary for effective conversations, like knowing how to speak successfully to a group of people and/or how to use a positive tone to better engage with workers. They’re not going to wake up one day with those skills, but you can help them develop their communication competencies by offering them several types of support.

Provide Handouts and Resources

The most low-effort way to encourage skills development is to offer resources that can guide supervisors through this process. This solution works best if there are only one or two problem areas that you’d like them to improve upon. For example, if supervisors’ pre-shift meetings and safety talks aren’t up to snuff then give them a copy of the 15 Tips to Improve Your Toolbox Talks guide

Be cautious though, as this only works if the supervisors already know their skills are lacking. Otherwise, they could find it insulting if you hand them a printout on public speaking when they think they’re doing just fine at it.

Offer Coaching and Mentorship

Teaching someone how to be a better communicator may sound like a lot of work—and it is. But the payoff can be absolutely enormous. There’s simply no faster way for someone to develop a skill than through directed, hands-on learning. As an additional benefit, dedicating time to honing supervisors’ skills can show commitment to the supervisor and may send engagement levels soaring.

Begin by establishing a need and a shared purpose: helping the supervisor become a stronger communicator so that they can better relay safety messages. From there, identify where the supervisor needs help, whether it’s exuding presence and authority, having difficult conversations or talking engagingly about safety issues to their entire team. Then offer them mentorship on their specific issues. Allow them to talk about past struggles, mental roadblocks and other challenges they have.

Start diving into specific communication skills, from making eye contact and enunciating clearly to larger concepts like using storytelling to engage an audience. Share your own experiences, provide concrete examples of when and where each skill is used, and explain why it’s so useful. Offer time for them to practice, and plenty of room for them to fail. Stay positive, gently correct missteps, and keep the goal front and center: better safety through better communication. 

Coaching and mentorship is also by far the best way for you to help supervisors improve their ability to determine the context for any given situation. By learning how to “read the room”, they’ll get better at tailoring how they talk to the situation at hand, which is a must-have skill for any effective communicator. 

Give Motivation and Support 

Connect the dots between new communication skills and a better future state—like feeling more confident, garnering more respect from their subordinates and peers, and potentially earning more money because they’re better at their job. 

Keep in mind that skills development doesn’t happen overnight. Supervisors will need lots of support, encouragement, check-ins, and motivating as they travel the long road to building better communication skills. 

Remember

Your supervisors aren’t going to improve on their own. And there may not be anyone else in your organization that will care as much as you do about teaching supervisors how to have a bigger impact on safety.

If you want to learn to learn more about how to turn your frontline supervisors into safety champions, read the free guide on developing safety-first supervisors today.

On-demand webinar

Safety and the Supervisor: Developing Frontline Leadership Skills to Improve Safety

Supervisors are the bridge between organizational directives and on-the-ground operations. Their skills and knowledge are critical to a seamless flow of information in both directions and to their organization's safety success. This webinar offers EHS managers and company executives actionable advice on improving safety through leveraging the role of frontline leaders.

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