By Phil La Duke
In my last column, The Safety Side, in Fabricating and Metalworking magazine (http://www.fabricatingandmetalworking.com/2013/06/stereotypes-get-a-bad-rap/?goback=%2Egmr_1533957%2Egde_1533957_member_254035449) I wrote about personality styles and understanding how a person prefers to be treated and tempering ones style of communication to meet another’s needs can make one not only a more effective safety professional, but a very effective professional of whatever career one chooses to pursue. I posted, as is my habit, a link to the article to the many LinkedIn groups to which I belong. The response was generally positive, but not universally so. One reader posted”
“well i’m not quite sure to agree with what you are saying. i know first hand that most employers, supervisors, or just about most anyone does not like or like working with someone who speaks their mind. and i guess i fall under that category. i say what is on my mind and i don’t try and find precise words so feeling are not hurt or just misunderstood. it tends to piss people off, oh well that’s me and i’m not changing for anyone. i am very productive in any job/career i do though. ell i’m not quite sure to agree with what you are saying. i know first hand that most employers, supervisors, or just about most anyone does not like or like working with someone who speaks their mind. and i guess i fall under that category. i say what is on my mind and i don’t try and find precise words so feeling are not hurt or just misunderstood. it tends to piss people off, oh well that’s me and i’m not changing for anyone. i am very productive in any job/career i do though.”
I always appreciate it when people post comments, especially when they disagree (provided they can avoid attacking me personally, to which I typically respond in kind) and this was no exception. In this particular case, I was struck by how resolute the poster was in his position of “oh well that’s me and I’m not changing for anyone.” I responded in part that if what he is doing is working for him then he should keep at it. Maybe it is working for him, but many others who feel—and act—that way the poster does, find themselves limited. These people seem to be offered far fewer advancement opportunities, pay raises, opportunities for plumb assignments, and tend to have worse performance appraisals. Often they limit themselves without even knowing it, and many who ignore differences in personality styles find themselves forced to work twice (or more) as hard just to achieve the same (or less) rewards as those who temper their styles to better relate to others who feel differently. It’s easy for those who find themselves blaming the successful, branding them as suck-ups or favorites or some other pejorative euphemism for someone whose sole reason for success is undeserved and unfair.
The whole exchange reminded me of an adage Human Resources professionals have known for years “we hire people for their technical skills and we fire them for their (lack of) interpersonal skills.” I think this is particularly true in the field of worker safety, and this is a real problem. Of course we need competent and skilled safety professionals this should go without saying. Safety professionals must be skilled in a lot of technical areas and my intent is not to diminish this in any way. But there is a real need for safety professionals to be interpersonally adept—unless they can do their jobs in a way that encourages people to respect, and yes, even like them, they won’t be effective for long.
The Good The Bad and The Ugly
There are four types of safety professionals: safety professionals who are technically good and interpersonally good, those that are technically inept AND interpersonally inept, those that are technically skilled but interpersonally clumsy, and those that are technically incompetent but are politically adroit. I make no claim to what percentage of safety professionals fall in which category, but it behooves us all to try to increase the population of safety professionals who are both technically and interpersonally masterful.
Technically Gifted Social Toads
If there is any truth to the idiom “we hire for the technical skills and fire for the interpersonal skills” then there is likely a disproportionate number of safety professionals who are well educated and skilled in the requirements of worker safety. These people bulldoze their way through life and tend to alienate not just the rank and file, but also leadership. They find it difficult to get funding, have their initiatives thwarted at every turn and generally do their jobs in a haze of hostility and frustration. They start to see the organization—both front line employees and leadership—as the enemy; as impediments to the work that needs to be done.
Some safety professionals may scoff at the idea that their success is rooted in whether or not people like them, and may even seen popularity and safety as mutually exclusive (I have at least one colleague who, whenever he wants to avoid talking to someone on a plane simply tells the other passenger the he works in safety). Many safety professionals who were drawn to the profession because of their love of rules and enforcement may find it difficult to understand the importance of having good interpersonal relationships with their constituency. In the most extreme cases the safety professional is dismissed and replaced by someone more “reasonable”.
The Eighth Waste & Rain Man
I once worked with two different safety professionals who were universally seen as great guys—real sweethearts—but completely incompetent. One, who in an organization that had an aggressive continuous improvement program aimed at eliminating the Seven Wastes— earned the unfortunate nickname, “the Eighth Waste” because of his simple-minded, albeit well-intentioned ideas, around the nature of safety. Rain Man, was a similarly well-liked and uninformed safety professional. Neither of the two were able to do much good, and when the organization began valuing the job a competent safety professional was supposed to do both faced with either rapidly bring up their skills to an acceptable level or be summarily dismissed.
Taking Out The Trash
Obviously, we can’t protect those in our number who are neither interpersonally skilled nor technically adroit, but they are out there. Fortunately, their numbers are rapidly declining. There was a time that people who weren’t particularly skilled but who hadn’t committed an offense that would justify firing them. These people were put into safety because —at least in the early days of our profession—safety was seen as a function that was impossible to screw up. Many of these people were put into the position after washing out of the job that they were hired to do. Most kept their jobs until they were allowed to retire. Unfortunately, many of these retirees have decided to hang out a shingle and continue to ply their trade as a consultant. So be fore warned, the drecks of our profession have not gone gently into that good night they have poorly made business cards, a crappy website, and are open for business.
 The “seven wastes” is a key component of the Toyota Production System, a continuous improvement system that forms the foundation of practically every world-class management system developed since. The Seven Wastes in TPS are defects/scrap, over-production, waiting, transportation, excess inventory, motion and excess processing.
 Before any of you retirees get all bent out of shape, puff up your chests and fire off a nasty missive, most retirees I know are more than competent professionals. In fact, when I was running Rockford Greene International I relied heavily on skilled retirees to deliver training and provide my clients consulting services.