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7 Easy and Effective Actions Supervisors Can Take to Improve Trust and Free Communications

Written By: Paul J. Zaffuts Esq., The Zaffuts Group

Consider these two scenarios. First, as part of your role as an ECP professional, you get out in the field to engage directly with site personnel. By “making the rounds” you have the opportunity to remind them of ECP’s role, how to contact you, and the importance of a safety conscious work environment and healthy safety culture. You’ll likely also occasionally observe staff meetings, planning meetings, pre-job briefs and other engagements between supervisors and their direct reports. But, how many times have you seen this: with only about a minute to go in the meeting, the supervisor asks “any questions?” … silence … “thanks, we’re done.”

Or, how about this? A concerned individual comes to the ECP. During your intake, you ask whether they had raised their concerns with their supervisor and they say they had. Then say something like “he said he’d look into it, but I heard nothing … I asked about it and he said he forgot, was sorry and would remember this time, but again I heard nothing.”

In my experience, the vast majority of supervisors want their employees’ trust, a free flow of questions and ideas, and to effectively address their employees’ issues and concerns. However, these same supervisors frequently excuse poor engagement behaviors like those noted above as the inevitable result of unrealistic demands on their time: too many meetings, too many “fire drills,” and too little time to engage. If we look closely, in many cases these supervisors are correct: their busy schedules, demands, and attempts to “multitask” negatively impact their ability (and desire) to engage with their employees.

Speaking to their employees, we hear that these behaviors show their supervisors to be lazy and indifferent to concerns and safety; that they do not respect their employees, and that supervisors prefer not upsetting the “status quo,” than addressing their concerns. As a result of these and similar behaviors, and to most supervisors’ regret, their employees lose trust, and may stop bringing up questions, concerns, and issues altogether.

Fortunately, with a few easy and straightforward actions, supervisors can go a long way to retaining their employees’ trust and encouraging the free flow of information and issues. This is because most employees just want to be heard, their ideas, issues and concerns considered, and the respect of a response. This type of “engagement” is not difficult and does not require a significant time commitment (which supervisors simply do not have), but it does require attention, a bit of effort, and consistency.

I find that by taking a few simple actions, supervisors will often see a positive change in their employees’ willingness to bring up ideas, questions, and issues. Of course, all workgroups are different, and so “your mileage may vary!” With that said, I encourage you to discuss the following with your supervisors:

Tip 1:  Have with you at all times a 3x5 card, pocket notebook, or other way to take notes, and whenever one of your workers asks a question you cannot answer easily, write it down while the employee is still there and use 3-way communication to make sure you have captured it correctly. Why is this so important?

o   First, if you are like me, I forget things pretty easily. And that is particularly true when I’m busy, distracted, and attempting to multitask. You cannot answer questions or issues that you don’t remember.

o   Second, you are much more likely to follow through with the question or issue simply because it is on your “to do” list. Crossing off those items provides a concrete sense of accomplishment (but don’t cross it off your list until you’ve provided the employee with feedback – more on this later).

o   Third, writing down issue down in front of the employee and ensuring that you’ve understood him or her correctly, shows, in a small but meaningful way, that you respect him or her, as well as his or her issue.

Tip 2:  Exhibit the same behaviors at meetings. Write down questions and issues you cannot answer immediately and use 3-way communication to ensure you have it right. Write the question or issue down on your 3x5 card or personal notebook and/or if it the issue is raised during a periodic meeting held at the same location each time, create and use a semi-permanent “parking lot” posted at the meeting location.

o   Take these actions for the same reasons you do during one-on-one discussions. But, you get more “bang for the buck” when your entire workgroup observes these positive behaviors.

Tip 3:  In both situations, make sure to tell the employee (or group if it is during a meeting) what will do with the question or issue, and jot this down on your 3x5 card or parking lot so you remember.

o   For example, you may say you will document it on a condition report (CR), or you may say you will obtain information from a particular supervisor or manager.

Tip 4:  When soliciting questions or issues, make sure to do so with sufficient time left in a meeting to take the above actions. As discussed earlier, asking for questions or input with only a minute or two left in a meeting panders to your employees and makes clear to them that you do not want questions or issues.

Tip 5: Let your employees know when you will take the action you promised, and do it. It will come as no surprise to many of you that workers will frequently know if you have or have not done as you promised. For example, they may review CRs, or speak to someone in the group whose supervisor with whom you said you would speak.

Tip 6:  Follow-up and answer the question or “resolve” the issue. This may be quick and simple, or it may be a longer-term effort. But, if you want to create trust within your workgroup, act as if the questions and issues they bring to you were yours in the first instance. So, if you asked another supervisor to obtain information, follow up with that supervisor. If you wrote a CR, check on its status.

Tip 7:  Provide feedback, both interim and final. How often do employees tell you that their supervisor never did anything with a question or issue they raised? And, when you ask the supervisor about this, he or she says that they addressed the issue a while back but … “oops” they “forgot” to let their employee know. Another opportunity to build trust lost, or in other words, the supervisor successfully “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” Some very important points on feedback:

o   Remember your 3x5 card - you shouldn’t cross the question or issue off your “to do” list until you circle back with your employee with the answer. However, you should also provide feedback on status. This will demonstrate you have not forgotten about the issue and requires only a brief encounter.

o   If possible, provide feedback and final resolutions of issues when you have some or all of your workgroup together, such as at a weekly staff meeting. Of course, if such an opportunity does not present itself, don’t delay in speaking directly with the person who raised the issue. But, by providing feedback and resolution to a group, you have created a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that you are a man or woman of your word, that you care about the issue, and respect the person who raised it – and to do so to a number of your employees at one time.

I am confident that all of you have many other ideas and suggestions for actions supervisors can use to build, retain, or regain trust and encourage a free flow of information within their workgroups. Start simply and challenge supervisors to use a few to start, but do so consistently. If they do, I am confident that it will not take too long before they see some positive responses. Follow-up with them to “check and adjust.” Hopefully, they will realize applying these actions tends to improve their own work environment as well as that of their employees.

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