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April 8, 2015

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“People don’t care what you know until they know you care”

By Nick Bell, Colin Powell and Peter Sykes

This statement is normally attributed to Theodore Roosevelt (although some online bun fights argue this point). Whoever uttered or penned these words, it is a powerful sentiment.

The concept can shed some light on how we perform as health and safety professionals.

Powerful Presentations

When people are speaking about a subject that is close to their heart, their gestures might become more animated (perhaps telling a story with their hands), their tempo and tone of voice alter, facial expressions shift and even the sort of words they use can change. We might notice these things unconsciously and simply come away with a perception that the speaker really cares.

A core skill of a good presenter is the ability to recognise and constructively manage and utilise those various forms of communication: Verbal, non-verbal and para-verbal (i.e. how we say things).

Early in my career I was running groupwork sessions for high risk offenders. Every group was videoed and, in debriefing sessions, we reviewed ourselves in action in what were cringeworthy but powerful lessons in these different forms of expression.

A presenter who is committed to the subject can be quite appealing compared to the monotone drone that delegates might have been expecting. Obviously, as trainers and presenters we often have to cover raw data. It is usually when we illustrate the points with personally meaningful case studies that the presentation can really drive the message home.

When we are making a case to senior managers, our passion can serve to bolster our confidence and conviction. It is likely our message will be received much better.

You cannot convincingly fake conviction: you are likely to be inconsistent, so come across as disingenuous, or can become a bit of a caricature. If we passionately care, we have to manage how it manifests to ensure we don’t overcook our message. We could appear dogmatic, our display of emotion might be distracting or we might wander off into telling ‘war stories’.

I often hear people say that they ‘ended up in safety’. I accept that school leavers are unlikely to be planning a career in health and safety (although I have a cunning plan to change that). However, I would be interested to know what beliefs and values led us to accept the initial opportunity and then remain in the profession. More importantly, it may be valuable for practitioners to reflect on what drives them and how that passion comes across.

Transforming Leaders

In a recent article, we spoke about the benefits of a transformational leadership style.

To be transformational it is incredibly important to be seen to care about what you are saying. Simply stating that “health and safety is my number one priority” clearly won’t cut the mustard. Leaders need to be consistent and  ‘walk the talk’. This is much easier when you are guided by clear values and principles. Workers are then more likely to trust the leaders, view them as reliable role models and will feel safer. For example, they don’t have to guess what is or is not going to be acceptable to the leader.

If a leader genuinely cares about workers, this is likely to extend beyond health and safety and will influence how a manager talks to their team, the terms and conditions of employment, working arrangements and so on. In transformational leadership spiel these can become examples of showing “individualised consideration”.

Transformational leaders create a compelling vision for their followers, and build the competence and confidence of their team to meet that vision. Imagine how leaders like Mandela or Richard Branson might have fared if they lacked genuine conviction in their vision. Sharing and achieving goals helps us to feel proud of being part of the team and fosters a deep sense of belonging (academics refer to this as organisational identification).

It can be incredibly powerful to ask the team to help shape the vision (e.g. discussing what they think the objectives or mission statement should be) and to propose their own methods for achieving it. Transformational leaders ‘intellectually stimulate’ their workers, encourage them to challenge the status quo and to find solutions.

When a leader is respected and empowering, workers will not only identify with the team, but also with their leader. The leader’s values and beliefs can become personally meaningful to the worker. Motivation research shows how powerful that is for shaping subsequent behaviour.

We can’t force managers to care about what we care about and I don’t suspect we appoint many managers for their capacity to empathise. However, effective communications skills (such as coaching skills) can be taught and if we, as health and safety professionals, are transformational there is a good chance that our passion and conviction can rub off on other leaders.

By Nick Bell, Colin Powell and Peter Sykes

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