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The New Age of the Trusted Health & Safety Professional

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

To be truly successful a practitioner needs to be trusted. Harness your power skills to execute and deliver a safer world of work.

Are you a Health and Safety Practitioner or Professional? Do you have the skills needed to build a reputation to effectively influence long-lasting change? Do you want to leave a legacy which will remain long after you have left? This article explores how power skills build credibility and trust.

The first time I heard the term soft skills used in Safety was a few years ago at a branch meeting for Safety Practitioners. The professional body at the time just introduced their new pathways for membership grading. Depending on your experience or qualifications you would either achieve technical or graduate-level membership. Someone said that these so-called soft skills are needed to be graded beyond technical level. The term soft skills didn't sound right to me, I wondered if it shouldn't be power skills?

Communication isn't the same as talking well

Over the next few years, I had often heard people in safety circles say that this or that person has or lack the soft skills needed because they can or cannot communicate well or are articulated? How often have you seen a job advertisement for a “Safety Superstar” with the requirement, to be able to communicate well? I'm afraid that the safety profession is at risk to be a profession of sales, selling the same snake oil. The ability to "sell", because you are a "good communicator" isn't going to realise the long-lasting change needed for the successful delivery of a safer world of work..., let me explain.

The Safety Profession as a Trusted Brand

The ability to create a trusted brand as a profession is what is needed to realise change. To deliver a safer world of work for everyone, practitioners must offer more than the "sale". Safety practitioners need to understand that to be effective, the brand should add value. For the world of work, that means safety is embedded in business practice. Good talkers or people who are able to make a good speech are often mistaken as good communicators. Good communication requires a conversation between people, whereas delivering a speech only requires an audience or a mirror...

In Safety, audiences, seldom participate in conversation because 9 out of 10 times the presentation is about the things the organisation should be doing according to the practitioner. Seldom would you see active engagement of the audience to challenge some of the so-called requirements.

At the 2019 edition of the Safeguard Conference in Auckland, I listened to a debate. The theme of the conference was Disrupt yourself. The panel debated if paperwork saves lives. It was a good debate, but there had been no definitive conclusion. I think the majority take away was it doesn't save lives but are needed. What was however very interesting was the panel facilitators follow up post a few weeks later on his website blog Safety on Tap. He concluded that you can still be wrong even if you won the debate either way. What he said was that he has learned from a young age as a debater that real learning is from hearing both sides of the argument. That is powerful, the ability to listen and not to confuse confident speaking with competence and the truth. This is probably the most powerful skill. What wasn't said, in my view is that the debate was quite senseless because documented assessments and procedures is the legal proof needed if there is an inquiry but it may not be enough to prevent an accident. So regardless of should, there had been a winner, either way, they would still have been wrong. What saves lives, on the other hand, are motivated organisations who embed safety into business practice. That means not only paperwork but a culture of safety. Therefore, a confident communicator with a good theory may still be wrong. What is required is a well-rounded practitioner that influences and motivates. And who instils both confidence and long term trust. A practitioner with a balance of technical skills and so-called soft skills.

Don't confuse confident speaking with capable advice.

Communication most definitively is the foundation of the power skill set of tools needed but it isn't the only tool. The ability to "sell" safety should never be the prerequisite skill requirement of a Health & Safety Practitioner. When safety, is sold as a supposed compliance fix, then it is made cheap. Safety is a legal requirement; it is good business and it is moral, the right thing to do. When Safety is being sold it is often sold under the guise of compliance. If this happens it becomes a piece of paper collecting dust somewhere. Have you ever been sold something you didn’t want? This result in the loss of trust in the profession.

Good communicators listen. Communication is a science according to an article published in Forbes. Communication requires at least two parties, one who listens and one who talks. It is also a two-way street. The article Why It's Better To Be A Great Communicator Than Speaker identifies the third requirement, trust. According to the article, a leader failed to deliver on a promise of gun control and therefore he lost credibility and trust. The leader is a good speaker but he failed to communicate properly, by not asking what the community wanted. This is perhaps an area where safety practitioners struggle the most.

"And it is predicated on the implicit understanding that the person communicating can actually deliver what they’re saying. It’s a shared endeavour that requires underlying trust."

According to the dictionary, trust implies to believe that someone is good and honest and will not harm you, or that something is safe and reliable.

The dawn of the new age of the Safety Profession

There are many health and safety practitioners out there in the world of work who are daily challenging the old ways. If we as a profession collectively want to make a difference then the safety brand needs to change. We must be able to add value to the business. Safety must add value time and time again, safety practitioners as a collective, must become trusted advisors.

In his book The Trusted Advisor, David H. Maister introduces the trust equation. According to Maister, trust requires credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation. Maister, says that a person who fails on credibility are often seen as windbags. Failing on reliability is typical of irresponsible chance takers. People who are poor on intimacy are characterised as technicians. And lastly, those who are bad at self-orientation are seen as devious. To win the trust of your clients you have to be good at all four dimensions. Unless you are so superb at one or two that the lack in others can be ignored. But you have to be superb and not good.

The four elements of trust embody the requirements of a well-rounded safety practitioner. Think of well-rounded safety practitioners as the Beauden Barrets of safety. It is not good enough to have tons of technical skills when the safety person lacks the power skills needed to execute and to deliver a safer world of work for everyone.

Intimacy and Self-orientation are the elements needed to be able to work well with others, these elements are also known as emotional intelligence #EI. To be credible the safety practitioner must be able to back up what is said with experience and credible qualifications which in turn deliver reliable work over and over again.

The well rounded safety practitioner

In November 2019 IOSH launched a new competency framework as the precursor to a new professional development journey for its members. The resources and mechanisms will come in 2020 and if the industry is buzzing about this news, it is with good reason. The new Framework breaks down the competencies needed into Technical, Behavioural and Core elements with a total of 96 competencies broken down in 12 areas. I can only imagine that Power skills would span from the behavioural element of the IOSH competency framework to the core element and embed into culture. The skills a practitioner need to deliver a framework for organisations to work in would span across all three sections. According to the IOSH website, safety practitioners must conduct themselves appropriately in the workplace. This section includes competencies for building effective stakeholder relationships. The behaviour section is broken down in 18 competencies to develop personal performance, developing exemplary communication skills and an ability to work productively with others. According to the website, these are all abilities that underpin the building of successful and productive relationships.

On the #IOSH framework, the ability to work with others sits adjacent to communication. As a practitioner, you will not be very successful unless you can harness the full gamut of power skills. To speak well alone will not get you there. To be truly successful a practitioner needs to be vulnerable, show empathy and to be kind to others. To do so the practitioner should learn to listen and to understand the situation. The other good news is that according to a post recently in social media IOSH leadership has "coined" the phrase power skills long being used in the business world, so it is just a matter of time before the International Safety community will catch up and call these skills what they are, power skills. Business acumen, by the way, is another important power skill to master.

Power skills alone aren't enough to guarantee good performance

So, when you have all these competencies then you are capable? Wrong, you need to know the business needs (stakeholder management) remember business acumen? Practitioners need to take the time needed to truly understand the business before introducing any so-called improvements. Experienced practitioners know it pays to at least take a 100- day assessment before suggesting any changes when starting in a new role as a practitioner. There are many examples out there where strategies and safety initiatives had failed even when implemented by some of the best professionals out there. For sure they all had the same goal and that is to contribute to safer workplaces. So why do they fail? The answer is simple, one they do not add value or they were not fully embedded into business practice. This happens because the strategies employed to implement the poorly conceived changes often deploy leveraging and commanding tactics. These tactics result in short term wins and are sadly often seen as good performance to the observer. The problem with these strategies and styles is that they don't last. Eventually, the practitioner loses trust and credibility. Sure, there may be periods of success but they are not long-lasting.

How do we measure success?

Take a listen to Simon Sinek in this video on how to measure success. He uses the example of one of the best performing organisations in the world the US Navy SEALs. According to the #SEALs, Performance is what you do on the Battlefield. In a business context think of it as the place of work, performance is the ability to perform your tasks. The technical or hard skills needed. In the military, teammates want to know if they can trust you with their life. Do you have the skills to protect them? Skills alone, however, isn't enough, you must be trusted. Trust is what you earn. Can a team member trust you with their money or their wife? According to Simon Sinek, you do not want a high performer low trust practitioner on your team, what you want on your team is the steady performer with high trust. These people are your well-rounded practitioners, treat them well.

Effective Health & Safety Advisors know that they must add sustained value to the business. By adding sustained value, the brand becomes trusted. Practitioners must be able to build a reputation of being credible, reliable, intimate and have a good sense of self-orientation. Effective Health & Safety Advisors also know that to be able to demonstrate capability, membership with credible and reputable professional bodies are no longer a nice to have but a necessity. The Health and Safety Association of New Zealand #HASANZ introduced the register for practitioners and professionals in 2018 this is a one-stop-shop for businesses to find reliable, quality health and safety advice and services.

The New Age of the Trusted Health & Safety Professional

Envision a world of work where reputable practitioners who have put in the time and effort to gain the qualifications and the experience needed to build a reputation of professional trusted advise, add value by embedding safety into business practice. This is achieved by deploying a balance of technical and power skills and to strive for excellence. What will this do for the profession? And for the world of work? What if recruiters start looking for the ability to listen and to build trust and not only the ability to communicate?

What trusted advice look like

It would pay for businesses and those who are looking for trusted Health and Safety advice to shop for accredited and or registered advisors who align with competency frameworks like the IOSH or INSHPO frameworks. If you want trusted advice, then look for graded members of professional bodies such as IOSH, NZISM etc, by doing so you know you are in good hands. A good starting point for practitioners to showcase credibility in New Zealand is to gain membership with a professional body and to register on the HASANZ register as either a practitioner or professional depending on qualifications and experience.

Go and develop your power skills to execute and to deliver a safer world of work for everyone.

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