How coaching can support a healthy nuclear safety culture

b.SAFE Bitesize - a series of short training, webinars, blogs, podcasts and videos on all things health and safety
b.SAFE Bitesize – a series of short training, webinars, blogs, podcasts and videos on all things health and safety
b.SAFE Bitesize – ‘How Safety Can Support a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture’

In this podcast, the first of a series of four, Sara Lodge describes how coaching supports the development of a healthy nuclear safety culture.


As both an activity and a management style, coaching has, over the last 20 years, become a mainstay of organisational development. This is because it:

  • increases accountability,
  • improves morale,
  • increases productivity
  • and increases well being, among other advantages, in both coaches and those they coach.

The benefits of coaching to the world of health and safety are also being more widely recognised. Because of this, IOSH, among other bodies, is promoting ‘Coaching for Safety’ programmes to support safety practitioners in their roles.

Nuclear sector

The nuclear sector has fallen behind in this. While much has been made of the need for a safety culture specific to the needs of the nuclear sector, there seems to be little recognition that development of these traits require a different set of skills to technical. This is something that we’ve noticed in our work in highly regulated sectors. While cultural or behavioural change initiatives may be outlined in detail, the skills required to achieve them aren’t. Therefore, while money may be spent on change programmes, because little money or effort is put into developing the skills essential to their success, the programmes fail, or are not as successful as they could be.

Coaching skills

I argue that coaching skills, which incorporate:

  • goal- and outcome setting
  • active listening
  • questioning skills including open, interrogative, exploratory, probing, confirmatory and challenging questioning
  • summarising and consensus building
  • collaborative problem solving and action learning
  • empathy and relationship building
  • constructive challenge
  • feedback and appraisal
  • reflective practice

Nuclear safety culture

Are all vital to building the kind of nuclear safety culture traits which evidence shows are needed to avoid major events, and I’d argue to investigate them.

Listen to hear the first part of my explanation why.

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

How coaching can support a healthy nuclear safety culture

The mindset, skills and tools of coaching have direct correlation to the traits and attributes identified by WANO as being characteristic of positive safety culture.

I have previously I blogged about organisational culture , outlining the four things you need to know if you’re looking for cultural change. One of the four things was that organisational history is part of culture – what’s happened in the past influences ‘the way we do things’ today.


I was reminded that events in an industry’s history impact on the culture of the organisations in it as I read Serghi Plokhy’s sobering book ‘Chernobyl – History of a Tragedy’. The Chernobyl event in 1986 changed the world; it also transformed the nuclear industry. Nuclear operators realised that they needed to work together and learn from each other to avoid further catastrophe. The result was WANO, the World Association of Nuclear Operators, formed in 1989.

WANO traits

WANO’s mission is:
‘To maximise the safety and reliability of nuclear power plants worldwide by working together to assess, benchmark and improve performance through mutual support, exchange of information and emulation of best practices.’ *

As part this, WANO published the Traits of a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture. which describes the traits – defined as ‘pattern[s] of thinking, feeling and behaving’** – found to be present in a positive safety culture. The traits are grouped into three categories:

  1. Individual commitment to safety
  2. Management commitment to safety
  3. Management systems

Framework for discussion

What WANO doesn’t do is prescribe the best way of developing the traits. Instead they’re presented as a ‘framework for open discussion’** and a way to keep nuclear safety culture evolving. Beehive Coaching and Leadership Development Ltd has been providing learning and development to the nuclear sector for over a decade and we’re an organisation with coaching at its heart – the clue’s in the name. To contribute to the ongoing discussion I’d like to show how the discipline of coaching, and its associated mindset, skills and tools, can help to develop the traits and therefore support a healthy nuclear safety culture.

‘Change the conversation, change the culture’.

The WANO document states that shortfalls of the traits have been shown to play a big part in plant events. The decisions and actions that led to such incidents as Three-mile Island and Chernobyl, for example, were a direct result of plant culture, traced to the beliefs, values and shared assumptions of the organisation**. In my past blog I show that culture has complexity, breadth and depth as well as history, which makes changing it a long term project. But there is an organisational development principle which is a good place to start culture change. That is – change the conversation, change the culture. When we change communication in an organisation we go along way to changing culture too.

Using coaching to develop and support a healthy nuclear safety culture

Coaching is a conversation, but a conversation that has a specific:

  • structure and purpose
  • mindset
  • skill set
  • series of tools and models.

non-directive coaching

There are different styles of coaching but the style I’m talking about is ‘ask’ not ‘tell’. It’s about using questions rather than giving instructions, and crucially, open questions. The non-directive focus of coaching conversations – using open questions in a structure which guides the individual or team through reflection to decision making and action – is what gives coaching its potential to transform. It increases situational awareness, improves problem solving and decision making and increases accountability. It puts the human into human performance in a way that no other approach can.

Highly regulated industries and dependent safety culture

A non-directive approach can be a big challenge to hierarchical organisations with a traditional management style, however, particularly in highly regulated industries. In these there’s always a danger that the necessity of compliance to regulation can result in a dependent safety culture, characterised by a ‘tell’ management style where compliance is not only the safety focus but the safety aspiration.

But compliance is surely the minimum to be aiming for, whereas building commitment to the intent and principles behind the regulation is the key aim of supervision and management. And building commitment requires a different set of skills and a different style of management to ensuring compliance – one that coaching training can provide.

how coaching relates to WANO’s three categories of traits

Over the next three days I’ll be taking each of the categories of WANO traits in turn, to show how coaching can make a significant contribution to each. To join in this conversation, and to share the impact coaching has had on your organisation, or the impact you’d like it to have, subscribe to the blog.

(Due to the current pandemic Beehive and NSAN are running the C4HNSC workshop as 3 x 2.5hr sessions live-streamed via Zoom. The session run over three weeks with workplace tasks in between. The first sessions start at 10am on July 14th 2020 and continue at the same time on July 21st and 28th. They are endorsed by NS4P. For more information or to book your place please go to )


** WANO Principles PL 2013-1 ‘Traits of a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture@