Relationship-Centered Safety: Mindful Conversations

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Relationship based safety leverages the powers of relationship and mindful conversation to achieve what most organizations are seeking in their safety programs—a culture where every employee is willing and able to stop an unsafe job/action and question themselves or their coworkers to avoid injury and harm.

Effective communication is vital to achieving this goal. However, people won’t accept your feedback or help in the absence of relationship because they will not listen if they don’t trust you.

The current management philosophy says if you give the right information to the right people at the right time, and they have the training they will make the right decisions. This has proven to be untrue over and over. Brain research has shown us that decisions are not made in the rational cortex, but instead originate in the emotional part of our brain. It is postulated that emotions developed to help people survive because emotions sensitize us to others' feelings and this prevents us from being kicked out of the clan—something that would have led to death in the early days of humanity. It turns out we have grown by leaps and bounds in technology but our brains retain the same sense of urgency for relationship. Without relationship there is no trust and without trust there is no communication.

To understand how to best establish these working relationships and provide the skills to create meaningful conversations we’ve adapted Brandeis University Professor Jody Hoffer Gittell’s seven dimensions of Relational Coordination.

  1. Timeliness
  2. Frequency
  3. Accuracy
  4. Problem Solving
  5. Mutual Respect
  6. Shared Knowledge
  7. Shared Goals

The first three attributes describe high quality information and the last four represent the conditions for effective giving and receiving of information. We have adapted them for safety noting that both communication skills and quality of relationships are important. While almost everyone invests in communication skills training for their managers, I don’t know many that invest in helping supervisors or managers understand the importance of building good working relationships with their employees or between team members.

Yet effective relationships and communication are the best means of preventing system failures by catching and addressing the earliest warnings. We call these early signs drift and weak signals. Some of them are procedural such as delays in addressing safety issues. Others are emotional such as fear, intimidation, or indifference to safety concerns by management. These potential precursors to disaster will not be identified and communicated in an environment with poor relationships.

Can you develop good relationships by observing the quality of your communication? Could changing the communication patterns lead to changing the quality of relationship? We think the answer is yes. We have successfully used a process that

  1. Manager/supervisor/Team Leader Conversations allows entire management groups to take a quick reading on its own communication health and within matter of hours to set action plan for improving it.
  2. Leader skill development to facilitate conversation in work meetings.
  3. Employee level/Supervisor/ TL conversations to assess communication health
  4. Skill development for worker level communications
  5. Identification of meeting/huddle structure to practice skills. Develop self-evaluation sheet.
  6. 6 week follow up on action planning
  7. Quarterly follow up and skill refreshers as needed provided by managers.