Tips for Selling a Stronger Safety Culture to Employees
In 1992, I was content to be a frontline supervisor in the airline industry. I enjoyed the job and liked working in an exciting industry. I certainly did not have any ambitions to pursue a career in safety and health. That is, until safety chose me.
Like many others in the safety and health profession, I joined the ranks after a serious incident. I entered the field knowing very little about safety. Twenty-eight years later, I still can’t say I’m an expert, but I have learned a great deal.
As I reflect on my career, I recognize the importance of establishing a knowledge base. That base of knowledge comes mainly from knowing your stuff, the technical stuff. Adding certifications shows the world that you have attained a level of technical expertise. Such expertise establishes credibility that, in turn, opens doors to conversations and opportunities.
Selling safety is about making safety personal.
However, to make a difference—to have an impact—we need both technical skills and soft skills. In short, we need to be able to “sell safety.”
To many people, the terms “selling,” and “sales” have a negative connotation. The mention of a used car salesperson conjures up a decidedly negative image. You’ve been “taken for a ride” when you “are sold a bill of goods.”
Similarly, the word “safety” conjures up images of the safety officer enforcing regulations, handing out disciplinary action for violations and mandatory training.
Perhaps Dale Carnegie said it best when he described selling as: “Selling is about influencing someone to do something you want them to do, and the only way to do that is to find out what they want and show them how to get it.” Or, in our case, find out what they want most and show them how safety and health can help them achieve it. In other words, we need to sell our abilities, and we need to sell safety’s attributes and contributions to the benefit of workers, and ultimately, the success of the company.
Selling safety is about making safety personal. When we make safety personal, we make a connection to what employees want most. Often, we think of family, friends, pets and the other relationships we value. That’s a moral aspect of safety, but there is much more to making safety personal depending on people’s roles and responsibilities within the organization.
For example, for a director of finance, reducing company expenses is personal. Showing the director how safety can help reduce costs is making safety personal to them. Making safety personal will look different with every person in the organization—and at every level.
Regardless of who you’re selling to, there are three critical components to making safety personal:
- knowledge, and
These components can build on each other, or they can be stand-alone. Working on each part simultaneously is ideal but not necessary. Here are three strategies for selling safety that either I have seen work or have worked for me.
Where are you going, and will others follow? When we think of characteristics of successful leaders, they lead with empathy, humility and determination. They are passionate, persistent and decisive.
The most successful leaders have one additional characteristic that sets them apart: They have a vision. They know where they are going. They know the key to managing a group of people is articulating a shared vision or goal that inspires their team to take action and work hard together.
Too often, safety professionals settle for cool-sounding safety slogans that we put on a banner, emblazon on a T-shirt or display on our vehicles. We consider these slogans our vision, and we feel good about them because we have done something tangible. In reality, those banners collect dust and the T-shirts fade. Soon, the slogan becomes obsolete and eventually invisible.
The slogans are not the problem. It’s our ability—or inability—to bring them to life. A sound vision connects with people emotionally, and emotionally connected teams give more effort than the bare minimum. Over time, this will help a safety program move the needle and leads to organizational change—and an organization’s success.
If your safety banner has been hanging on the shop wall for more than a few months, take it down and put it into action. Here are some suggestions for bringing your vision to life:
- Never, ever, miss an opportunity to talk about your safety vision. Have an elevator pitch ready for those impromptu opportunities in the boardroom and on the shop floor.
- Be able to explain how your safety vision contributes to the organization’s overall vision, mission and strategy.
- Explain your safety vision 10 times and in 10 different ways. I call it the 10x10 communication rule. Telling them with banners, emails and in safety meetings is not enough. Start sharing your vision in job descriptions and continue through onboarding, routine evaluations, text messages and even social media. And don’t forget the impact of a simple handwritten message that is posted on a bulletin board or an individual’s toolbox. An executive chef I once worked with posted handwritten notes at each workstation in the kitchen. That’s a powerful, and personal, way to communicate
- Get someone else to talk about your vision. Sometimes, it might be more impactful for employees to hear your vision or message from a formal or informal leader than from you. That means you have someone with influence selling safety on your behalf, which is important because there’s only one of you.
If you don’t have a formal safety vision yet, that’s OK. Start a vision ledger and document your thoughts and conversations with employees, managers and leaders. Spend 10 to 15 minutes a week reflecting and jotting down ideas or general thoughts. Eventually, you will notice a common theme to build on, and your safety vision will get clearer over time.
To better understand your employees, you must know what they want most. The only way to know what they want is to ask. That means we must be good conversationalists. To be a good conversationalist, we must listen more than we speak. One way to get people talking is by asking them questions they enjoy answering.
These questions will vary depending on who you are engaging. For example, you might ask an operations manager what they are held accountable for. If you are speaking with a frontline employee, you might ask what they are most proud of. Answers to these questions allow you to connect safety to something they want most—and help you better tailor your sales pitch.
Fortunately, there are some universal wants that don’t require extensive interviewing to learn. For example, we all want to be acknowledged or recognized for our contributions. Dale Carnegie astutely explained the importance of recognition when he said: “Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Abilities wither under criticism; they blossom under encouragement.”
In other words, never miss an opportunity to recognize the smallest wins, or the biggest wins. We often focus our recognition efforts on frontline employees, but the same holds true for managers and leaders. If you have a leader who is a powerful ally, then recognize them as the “Safety Executive Leader of the Year.” When employees feel appreciated, they are more likely to champion (or continue championing) safety. And, if you decide to implement a formal awards or incentives program, then you can offer rewards they value—furthering the feedback loop.
Lead with your heart. In my own presentations, I often use Mother Teresa as an example. Mother Teresa demonstrated another aspect of leadership we can strive to emulate. She may not have known much about management or finance—or safety for that matter—but we all knew what was most important to her: the poor and not just the poor, the poorest of the poor.
We knew that because she led with her heart. She was passionate, even enthusiastic about serving the poor. People who lead with their hearts tend to be passionate, and we like to be around passionate people. They tend to be more positive and have a brighter view of the world and the future.
As a safety professional, let your passion and enthusiasm show by talking about why safety is important and how it contributes to the organization’s success. People can hear your passion through your voice and the way you inflect, project and even pause. People can see your passion through your facial expressions, body language and hand gestures.
When people can tell you are passionate about something, that can trigger an emotional response of their own, too. In fact, taking time to ask and learn about other people’s job gives you an opportunity to connect safety to their own responsibilities and values. That can help you personalize your safety sales message.
People who lead with their heart also tend to smile more. In my opinion, smiling is another leadership characteristic because I believe if safety truly comes from your heart, you will smile.
You smile because you know you are working in their best interest to send people home safely every day so they can enjoy the things in life they love the best: families, friends, pets, hobbies and so forth.
When you smile, you show people that you are not primarily concerned with following procedures, enforcing procedures or auditing procedures for the sake of being in compliance with regulations. You are concerned with people, first and foremost, as people. You are also showing that you value their opinions, expertise and contributions.
By smiling and leading with heart, you are creating a psychologically safe environment. You are using your passion for health and safety to make life easier and better for others. You are showing, rather than telling, them the benefits of health and safety and how they can contribute to their own success.
Many organizations foster employee engagement by emphasizing purpose. You can, too, by inspiring others through your safety vision. Learn what they want most and show them how to get it by working safely. Finally, let your passion and enthusiasm shine through in all that you do.
As a safety professional, continue to focus on growing your technical skills. Technical skills can help with data collection, reporting and demonstrating a return on investment. These skills can establish credibility, but in order to affect organizational change, you need to appeal to people’s emotions. Soft skills can help garner emotional buy-in.
To be an effective safety professional, you often have to influence without authority. That means we need to bolster our ability to sell safety. The term “selling” often has a negative connotation, but at its core, sales is about influencing behaviors.
When we connect safety in this fashion, we can change attitudes, processes and decisions at all levels in the organization. Most importantly, when we shift from safety cop to safety salesperson, we show how safety contributes to the organization’s success.
Patrick Karol, CSP, SMS, CIT is an independent safety management consultant specializing in safety leadership workshops and motivational speaking. Pat’s safety career began as a front-line supervisor with safety as a collateral duty and today involves advising organizational leaders on risk reduction strategies. His experience includes 25 years in the corporate safety departments of two Fortune 200 companies and the federal government. He is the author of Selling Safety, Lessons From a Former Front Line Supervisor.