Navigating pushback in safety is an all-too-common challenge. This is especially true when establishing a new safety program or making changes to an existing program.
While pushback is not something people look forward to, it’s a critical element of being an effective safety professional. Over time you will begin to develop strategies for various situations and become more comfortable with handling pushback.
Key Initial Thoughts:
- Don’t take pushback personally. There are many contributing factors that drive pushback, including some that aren’t related to the issue at all. Remember that you’re providing a valuable service. The ultimate goal is to keep employees and the organization safe and healthy. Confidence is critical when communicating effective safety programs, so don’t let contentious situations bring you down.
- Navigating pushback isn’t easy. Anyone who says it’s easy to navigate pushback probably isn’t doing it very well. It can be stressful and frustrating, especially when combined with the “threat” of regulatory inspections or internal audits. Because the “success” of a safety professional depends so heavily on other people taking responsibility for their own well-being, it’s not uncommon to feel helpless at times. However, these moments pass and ultimately make progress and success that much more rewarding.
- Effectively navigating pushback builds trust and respect. Understand that how you approach pushback will go a long way toward reinforcing relationships and building trust. This is especially true if you are new to a safety program. It’s not uncommon for safety professionals to be “tested” initially as employees assess your knowledge base and overall style. Your first few opportunities to navigate pushback will set the tone for the the relationships you make and the overall safety program.
It’s worth mentioning here that there are many ways to anticipate and minimize pushback before it occurs. These include developing strong relationships, strategically managing the rollout of changes, and partnering with safety committees and “at-risk” employees when developing, reviewing, and revising safety policies. However, for the purposes of this post, we will focus on the keys to approaching existing pushback and any sources of friction.
5 Keys to Navigating Pushback More Effectively:
Remain Calm: Maintain Composure Throughout the Process
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of soft skills in the safety field. As the safety professional, your first goal when facing pushback needs to focus on stabilizing emotions and avoiding escalation. Remaining calm may be a challenge depending on the words and actions used against you, but becoming openly animated, defensive, or flustered will hurt your position and credibility.
Next time you face pushback start with a “thank you”, even if you don’t agree with the issue. Acknowledge the individual’s concerns and show appreciation for their willingness to bring it to your attention. You want to encourage open (civil) communication in your safety program, as it’s the first step in identifying issues and making improvements.
Determine the Source of the Pushback: Start with a Private Discussion
There are many reasons for pushback, and you won’t know why someone is pushing back until you ask. During initial discussions your focus should be to identify the specific concerns and underlying factors driving the pushback. If it’s a clearly a misunderstanding, you can simply clarify the policy, but in most cases your best strategy will be to ask questions and listen before developing a strategy for reconciliation.
I always advise safety managers and consultants to avoid having the initial (and potentially contentious) discussions in public spaces. If a complaint is raised in the lab, on the shop/plant floor, or in a group meeting, patiently hear it out before requesting a more private setting. This allows you to engage in a back-and-forth in a more controlled environment and minimizes the potential for escalation and grandstanding. To maintain a productive conversation, you also need to be careful to avoid belittling or shaming the individual. Be careful to avoid passing judgment or “shutting the individual down” while you’re identifying the points of contention.
These initial conversations can be tricky because it’s important to set the right tone. Not showing enough sympathy will cause employees to feel like they aren’t being heard, while showing too much sympathy can create a false narrative that may not be supported by the final decision.
Provide the “Why”: Use Resources to Justify Policy
Once you’ve listened to the concerns, it becomes time to provide context for the existing policy or practice. There are few things in safety as important as communicating the “why” behind safety policies. It’s an ongoing and constantly evolving process. Helping your at-risk employees understand the rationale behind the policies is one of the best investments you can make with your time. If you can help employees better appreciate how the policies protect them, their coworkers, the facility, and the organization, you are far more likely to achieve a successful and compliant safety program.
Misunderstanding or a lack of appreciation for the underlying hazards is one of the biggest contributors to complacency and failure to follow safety procedures. The more you can do to incorporate examples and articulate the risks (without coming across as condescending), the more successful you will be.
Keep an Open Mind: Invite Suggestions and Proposed Improvements
While many safety policies are driven by underlying regulatory requirements, there are certainly those with some flexibility. Furthermore, even those based in regulations have multiple ways of achieving safety and compliance. Looking for opportunities to compromise is one of the most effective ways to handle pushback. In some cases, you may find ways to make improvements in other areas as a “trade”. This demonstrates that you’re committed to helping the employees, even if concessions can’t be made within the policy receiving pushback.
While safety should remain your primary concern, look for ways to improve efficiency and productivity as well. If you can maintain the same level of safety, while making the day-to-day lives for your employees easier, jump for it. These are exactly the kind of win-win scenarios you should be working with your employees to achieve.
Get Help: Find Your Allies
Don’t go it alone if the issue continues to escalate. If it becomes clear after these initial steps that progress isn’t being made, it’s time to find help. Where the help comes from will vary by situation, but prompt, confident action is important. Examples may include a conversation with the safety committee, a workplace supervisor, or upper management.
When you make the decision to go this route, do so with confidence and own it. Spend time to clearly convey and document the issue and be sure to include a summary of both sides. It’s also important to note that this option should never be used as a “threat” to shut down the discussion earlier in the process. Again, you want employees to feel comfortable coming to you with feedback and ideas, so use this option only for high-level issues or when all other attempts have failed.
With practice, you will begin to develop strategies for addressing different forms of pushback. While it’s unlikely you’ll ever enjoy contentious situations, you can grow to handle them more effectively. This will provide an enormous benefit throughout your safety career and will make your programs stronger in the long run.