It’s time for a ‘soft’ SQEP*

* ‘Suitably Qualified and Experienced Person’

A couple of years ago I gave a presentation to the North Wales IOSH branch on behavioural safety and safety culture. There were 70 people – their biggest turnout in four years.

As part of the presentation I showed the following slide and said, ‘OK, these were the answers, so what was the question?’

what-makes-a-1

The response was immediate – ‘the attributes of a good manager’, which is true. The actual question was ‘What makes a good supervisor/site manager?’ and I asked it of fitters, supervisors and site managers as part of research I undertook with Bangor University and Alstom Power Services (see my blog ‘We need a new approach to safety education’). Further discussion showed that there was wide recognition that these attributes in supervisors and managers helped to reduce error and error pre-cursors and supported other behavioural safety elements such as open reporting, questioning attitude, stop the line and human performance. So far, so good.

However, when I asked, ‘So how many of you and your organisations actually recruit or train for these attributes in your engineers, supervisors, QHSE managers or site managers?’, the answer was – none. That’s quite an incongruence – while it is widely recognised that these attributes play a significant role in creating a safe working environment, this recognition was not reflected in recruitment or training practices.

Communicating culture

In 2011 The Work Foundation published a report entitled ‘Good Work and Our Times’ in which it emphasised the role of first-line management in communicating culture in an organisation. Supervisors and managers are the people who create the day to day experience of the employees working for your organisation, who set the behavioural examples, who create the climate in which safety is carried out, who have the awesome responsibility of setting people to work in dangerous environments. They are the people who put into practice the organisation’s culture on the front line.

Yet how many of them understand that this is a  crucial part of their role? And how many of them are suitably qualified and experienced to do this, equipped with the knowledge of human behaviour and motivation, team behaviours, communication skills and with the emotional resilience, to fulfil this role?

b.SAFE D2iP ‘Dependency to Interdependency’ Safety Leadership Programme

Beehive’s flagship leadership programme – the b.SAFE D2iP Safety Leadership Programme

Beehive designed  a behavioural safety programme – the b.SAFE D2iP ‘Dependency to Interdependency’ Safety Leadership Programme – based on the research results for Alstom Power Services which resulted in significant changes to behaviours in first line supervision and management. Those changes had a significant effect on results, but the effects were further reaching. Once the behaviours became embedded it became apparent that the agency fitters used did not have the behaviours that Alstom now required. The drive and initiative of QHSE manager Mick Edwards, who was at the forefront of the behaviour change project, led to us working with the agencies rpoviding the fitters-introducing the behavioural model, explaining the need for a different approach to recruitment, and giving guidance on how to interview for behaviours. In short, introducing a whole new perspective on what being SQEP – suitably qualified and experienced for a role – meant.

The D2iP is now our flagship programme and we’ve delivered it in the power and rail sectors to excellent results.

Better recruitment cheaper than training

It is far cheaper to recruit people with the right attitudes and behaviours than it is to change the behaviours and attitudes of people already in role. This extends to recruiting people who are open to learning and change. But first these attributes and behaviours have to be taken seriously by the organisation in relation to risk and safety. They have to become part of the organisation’s criteria for recruitment, and those recruiting have to understand why and how to interview for behaviours and attitudes, as well as technical or operational qualifications and experience. Which leads to the question – is it time for ‘soft’ SQEP?

Join us on June 12th for our next one-day ‘Coaching for a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture’ workshop. It’s been designed and delivered by Beehive in partnership with NSAN, the National Skills Academy Nuclear, and has NS4P endorsement. The aim is to provide a basic introduction to how coaching can support you and your organisation in building a healthy nuclear safety culture. Contact Stacey Balmer at stacey.balmer@nsan.co.uk for more details or to book your place.

Flier for the new ‘Coaching to support a healthy nuclear safety culture’ one-day workshop, designed and delivered by Beehive/b.SAFE in partnership with the National Skills Academy Nuclear

Three reasons why coaching skills are invaluable for nuclear leaders

Coaching skills are invaluable for nuclear leaders. They help increase accountability, improve decision making and create a respectful work environment, all vital elements of a healthy nuclear safety culture

In my previous blog I used a quotation by Karl Weick. The basic message was, in high reliability organisations, when technical systems get too big and complex it’s impossible for a single person to understand them or anticipate problems. Humans need what Weick describes as ‘rich, dense talk’ (Weick, 1987) – communication that generates enough data to help inadequate humans make sense of what’s going on. Face to face talk is richest, and coaching encourages it to be richer. This is why coaching skills are invaluable for nuclear leaders.

This has real relevance to building ‘Management commitment to safety’, the second category of the WANO ‘Traits of a Healthy Nuclear safety Culture’. I never fail to be in awe of the managers in nuclear facilities. The responsibilities are so great, the risks so profound. They need every bit of support that can be given to help them do this. I don’t just mean technical training, or safety by design, organisation or even behaviour. I also mean in developing ‘soft power’ skills like coaching.

The problem with human cognition

I started studying human psychology and communication back in the ’90s. When I became aware of how complex it was, I was astonished that humans ever manage to create any kind of shared understanding, or get anything done at all. This familiar Youtube clip shows some of the problems with human perception – how easy it is to miss things when you’re looking for something else. Our senses are not, in many ways, reliable.

‘Nuisance alarms’ and ‘sign blindness’

The need to be constantly alert – to be paying attention at all times – is contrary to the way our brain works. From an evolutionary perspective we are designed to ‘tune out’ things that are constantly there that seem to present no threat, so we can save energy and attention for the real threats. This is why we have ‘nuisance alarms’ and ‘sign blindness’ – we switch off from things we don’t need to pay attention to any more. It’s one of the biggest issues with having achieved a safe working environment – when things are safe we automatically let our guard down, and we’re fighting against our cognition when we try to keep vigilant.

Coaching and ‘Management commitment to safety’

In the face of how challenging it is to keep vigilant, and in view of the nuclear safety culture traits associated with the second WANO category, ‘Management commitment to safety:

  • Leadership accountability
  • Decision making
  • Respectful work environment

Coaching, and the mindset, skills and tools associated with it, help managers to stay vigilant by using the knowledge, experience and perceptions of the people around them, rather than having to rely entirely on their own resources.

Three ways in which coaching skills support nuclear managers:

  1. When managers use coaching models and tools they:
  • help people think through and ‘own’ a course of action. This improves confidence and accountability. It therefore improves ‘Individual commitment to safety’
  • help people think through the choices and their consequences. This helps to ensure ‘conservative bias’ – making sure the safest course of action is taken

2. When managers use open rather than closed questions they:

  • gain valuable information from the people around them, which they couldn’t get themselves. Therefore, while accountability still rests with the manager, they have better information on which to base decisions
  • understand the thought processes behind how people act. This helps to highlight gaps in knowledge or awareness, and identify training needs

3. When managers adopt the Adult – Adult coaching mindset, the work environment automatically becomes more respectful:

  • the coaching process is one which treats people with dignity. They are treated as if they are capable of thinking and as if their opinions matter
  • in addition, people feel valued because they are listened to. Trust automatically increases

Coaching skills for nuclear leaders

The results can be transformational. However,I’m not suggesting that simply changing to a coaching style of management will solve every problem a nuclear leader faces. Nor am I suggesting that open questions are the only type of questions that are useful – that would be absurd.

My point is that coaching provides a set of skills that will increase the flexibility of response of nuclear managers. Managers need to be able to move along the ‘ask/tell’ continuum of management styles to respond most flexibly to a situation, particularly when things are going wrong. Coaching skills, and the mindset and tools of coaching, provide an alternative set of tools for those people with the awe-inspiring responsibility of keeping our nuclear facilities safe.

Ref: Weick, K,  ‘Organisational Culture as a source of High Reliability’ (California Management Review, Volume XXIX, Number 2, Winter 1987

Coaching and nuclear safety workshop

Join us on June 12th for our next one-day ‘Coaching for a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture’ workshop. It’s been designed and delivered by Beehive in partnership with NSAN, the National Skills Academy Nuclear, and has NS4P endorsement. The aim is to provide a basic introduction to how coaching can support you and your organisation in building a healthy nuclear safety culture. Contact Stacey Balmer at stacey.balmer@nsan.co.uk for more details or to book your place.

Flier for the new ‘Coaching to support a healthy nuclear safety culture’ one-day workshop, designed and delivered by Beehive/b.SAFE in partnership with the National Skills Academy Nuclear