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:
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.
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.
I argue that coaching skills, which incorporate:
goal- and outcome setting
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
feedback and appraisal
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.
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:
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:
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 September 26th and November 18th 2019 for our next one-day ‘Coaching for a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture’ workshops. They’ve 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 firstname.lastname@example.org for more details or to book your place.