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December 8, 2010

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Practitioner competence – Mind the gap

Being able to manage is pivotal to what health and safety practitioners do, but how many of us would consider we are effective at it? Following their review in last month’s issue of technical competencies, James Pomeroy and Tony Boyle now consider the profession’s management competencies and ask whether practitioners merit being called managers?

How good are your management skills and would you consider yourself an effective manager? If you are not sure, consider the following questions:

  • How good is your grasp of statistical analysis, and do you understand how to prepare and interpret data?
  • Is your understanding of finance good enough to calculate the financial return on a proposed safety investment?
  • Do you know who holds power in your organisation and how to analyse their influence when considering a major change?
  • Do you think you provide your management with clear, evidence-based advice that is comparable with that provided by other advisors in the organisation?

If you answered yes to these questions, take a break and turn to the next article! If, however, you were unsure, that is not the least bit surprising. After all, we consider ourselves managers, but how many of us have been trained in modern management techniques, such as statistical process control, finance, or change management? These topics receive varied coverage in traditional professional training; the syllabuses of many of the degree programmes cover them, but this is not universal to all of the Level 6 qualifications.1

There is an interesting paradox, therefore, that runs at the heart of the modern safety profession: practitioners are trained and hired on their technical and legal competencies, yet the role increasingly requires managerial skills in which we are often not trained. Following are four managerial competencies that we believe the average practitioner should consider as part of their personal development plans.

In God we trust – all others must provide data

Whether it is reviewing audit scores, evaluating behavioural observations, or analysing and benchmarking accident statistics, numeracy is a core competency that every practitioner should have. Our safety management systems require priorities to be established on the basis of data collected, our assessment and monitoring processes rely on analysing measurements, and our requests for resources are going to fare much better if they are based on numerical evidence.

Statistical techniques can aid the practitioner in a number of ways.2 For example, they are a great learning tool, improving the understanding of what is happening in the organisation. Data also reduces subjectivity, enabling evidence-based decisions. They are also a very powerful communication tool and can significantly advance a practitioner’s argument.

It is known that managers place a high reliance on data when making decisions. Statistics are particularly relevant to decisions involving safety expenditure, where targeting investments to results is highly problematic because of the multi-factorial nature of accidents, and the fact that there are few short-term results. In other words, many investments that involve safety improvements are a significant gamble because of uncertainty about whether the investment will have the desired consequences.

This is especially relevant to improvements that rely on training3 and behaviour modification,4,5 where studies show that what works in one location can fail in another. Not surprisingly, therefore, an ASSE study,6 which sought 400 financial decision-makers’ perceptions of safety and safety personnel, highlighted the reliance that financial executives place on statistics to make evidence-based investment decisions. The study concluded that if practitioners are going to negotiate for resources they are far more likely to be successful if they use statistics to their advantage.

Given the clear importance of statistics, why has the safety profession not embraced the advanced statistical techniques that have revolutionised quality management over the past three decades? This is particularly intriguing given that the methods that have transformed product quality are equally applicable to many situations involving workplace safety.7

Furthermore, why is the average practitioner not more proficient in the application of statistical analysis and making greater use of the techniques? After all, the average practitioner has a wealth of data at their disposal. OHSAS 18001 outlines a number of proactive and reactive performance measures for safety, yet how many are really being analysed appropriately?

If this critique appears harsh, consider how many times you have come across claims that accidents have reduced, or audit scores have improved, based solely on a crude calculation of the average, as opposed to a proven and appropriate statistical technique that demonstrates that the improvement is genuine and not a random fluctuation?

As invaluable as statistics are, it is nevertheless important to recognise that no statistical technique can answer the most important question of all: why? That said, statistical analysis can tell you when something is wrong, where it is wrong, and even how wrong it is. For these reasons, we believe it is managerial competency in which practitioners should be more proficient.

Show me the money

Many practitioners experience difficulty in gaining approval for their proposed improvements, even when those changes would correct clear weakness.8,9 Why is this? Could it be the way we are communicating our requests and presenting our arguments?

Manuele10 argues that practitioners would be more effective in achieving their goals by arguing on the basis of cost, value and return on investment. He goes on to state that if finance is the language of business, practitioners need to be fluent and learn how to express their arguments in it. While many would argue with this overtly economic stance and the lack of any reference to legal and moral rationale, it is nevertheless true that an understanding of financial basics would certainly aid our cause.

We argue that practitioners should have an understanding of the language of finance and the principles of financial management. They should also have familiarity with corporate budgets: how they are prepared and managed, and, most importantly, how to influence and contribute to them. As many safety investments will be subject to certain criteria, familiarity with investment-decision criteria could also be helpful.

While it is not always possible to identify a financial return, if more advice and proposals were made on the basis of it, practitioners would better connect with executives and be able to communicate the potential bottom-line consequences of inaction.

Improved knowledge of finance will not only help influence financial decisions it can also improve the effectiveness of the safety programme and the engagement of management. Bird and Davies,11 for example, propose ten economic principles (axioms), which, they argue, if more widely adopted by practitioners, could improve the support they receive from senior management.

The message of the ten axioms is clear: a proposal will be received more favourably if it is accompanied by cost-benefit data, receives senior management sponsorship, and addresses managers’ financial and budget needs, along with their costs.

Selling to the suits

Understanding the holders of power and how best to influence them are key skills in which every practitioner should be well versed. But do we really consider how best to influence others when seeking support for a change or an investment? Doubtless, we can all think about an idea or proposal we made that did not get management approval because one or two key individuals did not buy into the idea. Better planning would help reduce the likelihood of failure.

The starting point in building consensus for your proposal will involve identifying key decision-makers who will influence the decisions of others. Then consider what form of power they hold and what type of tactics will best persuade them. We can probably all think about the different forms of power within our organisations – from the formal types, such as legitimate and reward power, which are clear to see on an organisational chart, to referent and informational power, where an individual is respected, or perhaps has power through information they hold.

Taking time to consider which individuals in your organisation have power and influence, and in what form, can place you at a distinct advantage, particularly if you are new in a post, or the organisation has recently changed its structure. It can also be helpful it you are attempting to sell a new idea, or concept to managers that will involve significant change.

It is also helpful to think about how to influence and “sell” effectively (as discussed in the article ‘Winning pitch’, elsewhere in this issue). There are nine classical tactics12 used to sell, many of which practitioners use subconsciously each day. A more considered use of them could, however, be advantageous, particularly when attempting to influence managers. While some of these tactics may seem pretty obvious, consider why there is still so much emphasis placed on compliance-based arguments for safety, and why there is so little focus in practitioners’ training on marketing, persuasion and selling – core managerial competencies that every practitioner requires.

A goal without a plan is just a wish

Change is central to what we do, and practitioners have been described as agents of change.13 But just how good is our understanding of how to enact sustainable change, and do we understand the barriers to organisational and behavioural change as well as we should?

One technique that could be highly beneficial to improving this understanding is stakeholder mapping.14 The process is relatively simple and can help individuals trying to implement change think through the implications of what they are attempting to do, where resistance is likely to be encountered, and how best to overcome it. It is particularly useful when planning a change that will require the support and participation of groups or individuals who are likely to resist.

Stakeholder mapping is a two-stage technique. The first stage identifies the key players in a change and helps evaluate how these individuals or groups may react to the proposal, based on the benefits they will receive, along with the amount of change they will be required to make. The second stage helps the practitioner develop an action plan to address the concerns that the resistors may have.

The four categories of key players are:

  • Collaborators, who should be involved in championing the change, but will need to be aware of the implications for others and use their influence carefully – e.g. unions, health and safety, human resources;
  • Compromisers, who will benefit from the change but will be concerned over the changes needed – e.g. quality personnel, supervisors;
  • Accommodators, who usually receive few benefits but need to be kept onside to ensure they do not create any inertia or apathy that could influence others – e.g. planning personnel, the CEO; and
  • Resistors, who have a net disadvantage! They are likely to resist changes, so it is best to ensure all aspects of resistance are dealt with at the enabling stage – e.g. operations, finance.

Having identified the key internal stakeholders who could be influential in determining the success of a proposed change, the second stage is to develop a plan to address concerns and improve the chances of success. Each of the stakeholder groups is listed, along with their perceived benefits or losses, and the changes required to address their concerns are outlined.

It should be stressed that the objective is not necessarily to get all groups who resist a change to become sponsors, but to develop a plan that will, as a minimum, allow a change to happen by making them neutral to the idea.

The structured nature of the technique helps identify the reasons for resistance among stakeholders, such as alternation to working patterns, or productivity requirements, and where their commitment needs to be if the change is to be successful. The technique provides a good reality check on your own plans.

There are several other models used in change management, which are similarly useful. Regardless of the technique used, structured planning and analysis of change management is a core management competency that all practitioners should possess.


This article stemmed from conversations with practitioners who felt excluded from key management decisions and not respected as equals among the management team. There was a common underlying theme: requests for resources were made that lacked strong evidence, proposals for change were made that had not considered managers’ concerns, and there was often an over-reliance on legal arguments.

The fact is, our title does not guarantee us a seat at the decision table; participation will be earned by demonstrating the value we bring.15 The single most-effective way to do this is by identifying and demonstrating how safety can not only protect the health and well-being of people but also contribute to the long-term strategies of the organisation. If we fail to achieve this, practitioners risk being excluded from the decision-making circles and becoming pigeon-holed as technical specialists only called on when there is a problem.

The profession has come a long way over the past 20 years, and the UK has some of the best-quality practitioners in the world. However, our training and qualifications are almost entirely technical and do not adequately equip us for the managerial challenges we face in our day-to-day lives. Furthermore, much of the professional training focuses on transactional skills, i.e. interpreting a legal or technical requirement, implementing solutions to existing work processes, and then monitoring the results.

Practitioners are increasingly required to have transformational skills that enable us to have far greater impact on our organisations. Transformational competence will require greater proficiency in innovation, marketing, influencing and analysing. Put bluntly, being technically good is no longer good enough! If the profession is to develop, we have to become better at managing and maximising our strengths. 

1    IOSH (2006): Higher level Qualification accreditation, March 2006 –
2    Boyle, T (2008): Health and Safety: Risk Management, ISBN-13 978 0 901357 41 0, IOSH Books
3    Cooper, M and Cotton, D (2000): ‘Safety training – a special case?’ in J Eur Ind Training, Vol.24, Iss.9, pp481-490
4    Fleming, M, and Lardner, R (2002): Strategies to promote safe behaviour as part of a health and safety management system, HSE Contract Research Report 430/2002
5    Hopkins, A (2006): ‘What are we to make of safe behaviour programs?’ in Safety Science, Vol.44, Iss.7, pp583-597
6    DeArmond, S, Yueng-Hsiang, H and Chen, P (2007): How Does Safety Stack Up? A survey of corporate financial decision-makers’ pe
ceptions of safety performance, programs and personnel, ASSE Foundation Research –
7    Manuele, F (2003): On the Practice of Safety, ISBN 978-0-471-27275-5, Wiley-Interscience
8    Dillon, C (1985): ‘Corporate Safety Manager Performance Expectations’, doctoral dissertation, University of West Virginia
9    Blair, E (1997): ‘Occupational Safety Management Competencies as Perceived by Certified Safety Professionals and Safety Educators’, doctoral dissertation, University of Kentucky
10    Mauele, F (2001): Innovations in Safety Management: Addressing Career Knowledge Needs, ISBN 0-471-43959-2, Wiley-Interscience
11    Bird, FE Jr. and Davies, RJ (1996): Safety & the Bottom Line, Institute Publishing, Inc, Loganville, GA
12    Yukl, G, Guinan, P and Soitolano, D (1995): ‘Influence Tactics Used for Different Objectives with Subordinates, Peers, and Superiors’, in Group Organization Management, 1995; 20: 272-296
13    Quilley, A (2005): The Emperor has No Hard Hat: Achieved Real Workplace Safety Results, ISBN 0-9737485-0-8, MBQ Solutions Inc
14    Ward, J and Daniel, E (2006): Benefits Management: Delivering Value from IS and IT Investments, ISBN 0-470-09463-X, Wiley
15    Hansen, L (1993): ‘Safety Management: A Call for Revolution’, in Professional Safety, March 1993: 16-21

James Pomeroy is Group HSE manager for Senior plc, and Dr Tony Boyle is director of HASTAM.



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