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April 13, 2011

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Learning and development – A little more Conversation

Coaching is now an established tool in the kit of many employers looking to develop staff performance in various areas. Richard Byrne examines the approach and suggests how practitioners can adopt it as a method of improving health and safety learning and awareness in their organisations.

In the last few years, coaching has become a real buzzword, as well as big business, with a 2009 survey1 revealing that more than two thirds of organisations use coaching for their staff, and 70 per cent are either ‘increasing’ or ‘maintaining’ coaching.

Various other studies show that coaching, if applied correctly, can be instrumental in improving organisational culture and performance – irrespective of what that culture or performance relates to, be it safety, profit, sales, or any other organisational performance measure.

But despite how fashionable coaching has become (more and more job descriptions for safety professionals now make reference to it), it’s surprising how many people don’t really understand what it is, or where, as a tool, it fits in the kit to improve organisations’ safety culture and performance.

People development

‘Learning’ is the general term applied to the change in a person’s behaviour in situations to which they are repeatedly exposed,2 and although we cannot directly see ‘learning’ taking place we can measure a change in the person’s performance as a consequence of the exposure.3 For example, when someone learns how to operate a machine their performance improves through better productivity, less machine downtime, less product damage, and fewer accidents.

There are four overarching learning techniques that organisations can use to develop their people: training, coaching, counselling and mentoring.4 The relationships between these techniques are shown in figure 1 overleaf.


Training is the best-known and used development tool. The ‘trainer’ tells the ‘learner’ what to do with respect to a specific job-related activity. The learning is well-defined and dictated by someone with more relevant knowledge and experience than the learner.


Mentoring is similar to training, insofar as the mentor advises the person how to do something, but the learning tends to be more about how the individual deals with situations, or specific circumstances, rather than ‘transactional’ on-the-job activities. A mentor offers help, guidance, advice and support to facilitate the learning and development of another.

Crucially, a good mentor is able to share life experiences and wisdom, as well as technical expertise.5 For example, they are often used to help new starters negotiate the pitfalls of organisational politics. Another way to look at them is as an ‘independent person’ to whom you can turn for help.


Counselling provides a regular time and space for people to talk about their troubles and explore difficult feelings in a safe environment; a counsellor respects the person’s viewpoint while helping them learn about themselves, or the circumstances in which they find themselves.6 The counsellor does not tell the person how to sort things out, or even offer advice on doing so. The subjects covered tend to have more to do with the person’s feelings, or circumstances affecting them, which involve such tricky topics as conflict and crisis.

Counselling has many pitfalls, however, which is why it should be left to the professionals: either a trained counsellor or, depending on the subject, a human-resources specialist.


The modern meaning of a ‘coach’ was arguably first defined by a scholar at Harvard, who suggested that in order to be a better tennis player you had to overcome the opponent within yourself, and sometimes you need someone to help with that.7 That is what coaching is all about: helping people make sense of what is going on around them, identify the blockers that are preventing them from performing or achieving what they want to achieve, and finding solutions for themselves.

Think about the tennis coach: all they do is help the player understand the barriers the player has in their own mind, which stop them playing better. The same applies to most things: your career, your life, people development, safety.

The role of the coach boils down to nine key aspects.8 A coach should:
1 make you stop and think;
2 recognise your ability beyond your self-perceived limits;
3 uphold your vision, keeping you focused and on track;
4 provide objective and honest feedback;
5 point out your blind spots;
6 facilitate and expand your learning;
7 encourage you when you’re flagging;
8 hold you accountable for your actions; and
9 help you raise your self-awareness.

A coach can help with any of these things in any situation, on any subject, but only if the person they are coaching is willing to develop, ‘leaves their ego at the door’, is prepared to ‘own’ their development, and has some underpinning knowledge.

The great thing about coaching, unlike some of the other learning methods mentioned, is that the coach doesn’t have to be an expert in the subject in which they are coaching people. Above all, coaches need to be skilled at asking penetrating and pertinent questions that get to the crux of the issue, be good listeners, and help people develop through the questions they ask.8

Coaching can, if used correctly by the safety professional, help improve both safety performance and culture by working with people at all levels of an organisation.

The front-line worker

The job of those working on a production line is often repetitive and involves operating discrete sections of the track. Every so often, machine-related accidents at the site begin to creep up, so a refresher programme on the safe use of the machines is required. Instead of the usual toolbox talk, why not try a coaching approach to understand why the accidents are happening and what can be done about them, while giving the operators some refresher training at the same time?

You could make the operatives stop and think by talking to each of them individually at their station and asking questions about what they do, and why. If you ask the right questions the responses you get will prompt further questions, and so the opportunities for learning increase – for example:

You: Testing the controls on the machine at the start of every shift and writing the results down seems a little OTT to me. Why do you think we have to do it?

Response: Health and Safety say we have to.
You: Come on, there’s got to be a reason!
Response: It’s to check that we can stop the machine if someone gets caught in it.
You: Has that ever happened?
Response: Not to me, but it could. Look, you can stick your hand here and…
You can see where this is going! This form of questioning encourages learning because people are telling you what they know, and you can keep going with it to help them fill in any gaps they have, as well as identifying some things they may never have thought of, and you might never have found out.

Through this type of conversation it becomes really easy to see if the person has ‘more to give’. For example, by asking the right questions and really listening to the answers, you can start to identify people that might be really useful on the safety committee, or who could be great workplace safety champions.

The front-line manager

These people are the front-line employees’ first or second line managers – for example, production, or store managers – and they often work in fast-paced environments with myriad immediate safety issues. As the safety professional to whom they turn for advice, we should – rather than just answering the question, or even taking the problem on ourselves – coach the manager through their query, which will be much better for them from a developmental point of view.

The conversation could go something like this:
Manager: I need a forklift truck in the warehouse to help me store my stock better. What do I need to do from a safety perspective?
You: What have you done so far?
Manager: Nothing.
You: Ok, when you came on that course a while ago we talked about lift trucks then and the problems they can create. Can you remember what they were?
Manager: Eh…trained users, nobody else near it when it’s in use. .?
You: Do you know who to contact for training?
Manager: Yes, the Training Department.

You get the idea. Often, the manager knows what they have to do – they just need the sense-check before doing it. As safety professionals, our default response is often to tell people what to do. In some cases, that is the right approach – for example, in the event of a fire – but at other times, all you do is hinder other people’s learning by not taking the opportunity to build on the knowledge they have already acquired.

Of course, this level of effort on your part does require time. The conversation above could take five or ten minutes, whereas simply telling them what to do takes two. But investing that extra time really does pay off in the long run.

The senior manager

This person’s role is one of leadership; they will not usually get involved in the hands-on running of the ship but instead make sure it is going in the right direction, at the right speed, and that nobody has fallen overboard. Most safety professionals want the senior management in their organisations to be more visible in terms of leadership on safety issues. This is potentially a difficult conversation, but coaching can facilitate it.

You can start by taking the time to understand what the manager’s vision for safety is within their part of the organisation. Get some time with them out in the field, or on site; get under their skin, find out what makes them tick – ask them questions about how they feel when they are told there has been an accident and one of their people is seriously hurt. Or, find out what a safe organisation looks like to them, work out the difference between where you are now and that vision, and ask them how they think your organisation could get there.

As the relationship develops, ask to spend more time with them. When you are out and about, ask them what impression they think they give to the people they meet about how important safety is to them. Of course, this can be difficult, as they may think they are doing a great job but you disagree. The important thing is not to ignore that. You need to tackle it head on by providing examples, such as: “Do you remember talking to so and so and you said..? How do you think they might have interpreted that?”


Various tools are available to help individuals and organisations improve their performance through learning. Traditionally, and for a number of reasons, the safety profession has tended to favour training and, to a lesser extent, mentoring to ensure a safe working environment and advance the safety culture.

Adopting coaching as an approach to learning will deliver a huge opportunity to achieve a step change. Coaching is all about self-realisation brought about by the coach asking the right questions. The examples above show that for the safety professional to be an effective coach they need to shed the ‘clipboard and cagoule’ image that some still have and, instead, become leaders of safety. They need to start having ‘adult’ conversations with all the people they work with, shifting away from being critical of things (‘you can’t do it like that’) and towards helping people solve problems for themselves.

1 CIPD (2009): ‘Taking the temperature of coaching’, Chartered Institute of
Personnel and Development, London
2 Bower, GH and Hilgard, ER (1981): Theories of learning (5th Ed), Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
3 Patrick, J (1992): Training: Research & Practice, London: Academic Press
4 Michelin Management Development Programme (2010): ‘Developing yourself and others’, unpublished lecture notes, Michelin Tyre: Stoke on Trent
5 Ashridge Virtual Learning Resource ‘Mentoring’ available at:
6 ‘Making sense of counselling’ available at: help/medical_and_alternative_care/making_sense_of_counselling#whatis
7 Whitmore, P (2009): Coaching for performance (4th Ed), London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
8 Lim, V (2005): IOD magazine (Spring Ed), pp8-9, Institute of Directors

Richard Byrne is a chartered member of IOSH.

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13 years ago

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