Safety is unlikely to improve without a transformational conversation

As the relevance of Leadership encroaches on the workplace safety discipline, so do supportive concepts and techniques such as transformational conversations.  There is little doubt that such concepts are applicable to improving safety management and worker safety, even if, to some extent, these concepts are old wisdom rebranded into modern lingo.  Safety conversations can, and should, be transformational but don’t think that this type of conversation is new or unique.

Transformational conversations have been integral elements of the language used by  OHS consultants, and small business people, (and frauds) all the time, mostly subconsciously.  By answer the phone or asking “how can I help?” you indicate that you are available to be supportive and helpful. It also throws the emphasis back on the customer/employer to be more forthcoming with information and reinforces that you are not providing/imposing solutions but helping the client to develop or refine the solutions themselves.

This is a crucial element of OHS law that the business community still struggles to appreciate. Everyone wants to be told what to do, as this involves minimal thinking. But the days of prescriptive laws and regulations are gone and so the employer must be more actively engaged in safety decisions.  The persistence of this attitude can be seen within many of the statements made recently by Australian businesses in the OHS law harmonisation dialogue (I hesitate to describe it as a debate).

The principal OHS duty to establish and maintain a safe and health work environment remains with the employer, or PCBU so, it can be argued, unquestioningly accepting the advice of an OHS consultant is breaching these laws. The employer is supposed to be involved with the decision making, to be in consultation, and not just handballing the OHS consultant’s recommendation to their operations manager for implementation.

When I assess hazards on site walks around factories, offices and construction sites I do not identify hazards for the client but ask the client whether they see any hazard. In this way, the client learns an alternate perspective of their own worksite.  Hopefully they also learn that the consultant or adviser is not there to do their job for them. The advice should be seen as a second opinion, not the first opinion. And certainly not the last. The “last” is the client’s decision to control the hazard.

During sociological studies I was impressed by the book (I was too young in 1972 to have seen the TV programs) “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger.  It is “considered a seminal text for current studies of visual culture and art history” so is likley to have been missed by most safety professionals as most do not come from a Humanities background.  But this book, coupled with literary deconstruction and the analysis of novel narratives, convinced me that one’s perspective of something can be just as important as the something itself.  This new perspective on hazards can come from the application of transformational conversations.

One article about transformational conversations identified four “unknowns”:

  1. “We don’t know what solution we’re going to get here.”
  2. “We don’t actually know what topic we’re talking about, what problem we’re trying to solve.”
  3. “We don’t know who we will be at the end of the meeting.”
  4. “We don’t know what kind of universe we will live in when we are done.”

These unknowns can be very threatening to the safety professional, and to a lesser extent, their clients but, I believe, are important stepping-stones on the pathway to safety innovation.

Transformational conversations are required in many social and occupational areas.  It is hard to imagine human resources and personnel management without this type of conversation, although it happens all the time and leads to many of the psychosocial hazards appearing in the modern workplace.  I would say that the successful rearing of children is impossible without transformational conversations.

This type of conversation should become the default setting in any safety conversation in order to empower the client to reexamine their worksites and their system of work so that they feel comfortable and confident in asking the questions that can lead to safer workplaces and safer workers.

Your leaders are learning this sort of stuff through their own personal development courses and by reading business magazines such as the Harvard Business Review.  By knowing what they know and what they are trying to apply to safety management, you will (finally?) understand what they are on about and, probably, increase the success of the conversational strategy.  And if your boss is not already on the transformational conservation pathway, you may just be able to move into a position of greater safety influence in your organisation or with your clients by applying this old “new” technique.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “Safety is unlikely to improve without a transformational conversation”

  1. Your post raises an important point. There are lots of health and safety bodies and recommendations out there but it is important to understand that it’s the employer’s responsibility to communicate them to their team. This way safety will be embedded in the company’s culture and will be enforced internally.

  2. Kevin – example please. \”Transformational conversation\” is a new term for me. What on earth does one look like in a safety context?

    1. Transformational conversations are those that encourage learning. For instance, with young children, it is recommended nowadays that you don\’t tell them what they did was wrong but ask them questions so that they realise, their actions or words were harmful, hurtful or not appropriate. Self-realisation, with a little coaxing, seems to provide greater enlightenment and retention but also may generate innovation.

      In construction, it is possible to see a huge mess of uncapped pickets, unsecured ladders, unstable trench edging, etc.. Instead of saying, \”that\’s a hazard, fix it\” the transformation conversation may be, to the contractor, \”do you see any hazards here?\”. If they do not, enlighten them or gently prod them towards enlightenment with comments like \”that ladder looks a little shaky\” or \”the trench edge looks a bit unstable\”.

      You could even ask questions for the future such as \”does anyone work on this site in poor weather or at nighttime?\” In the hope that they include these potential hazards in their Safe Work Method Statements or job safety analysis.

      The intention is for the structure of the conversation to generate lasting change, or transformation, rather than a quick fix with little long term knowledge.

      Perhaps you can think about the concept as generating wisdom instead of knowledge.

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