Improving Safety Leadership Skills: An Interview with Shawn Kent Hayashi

Recently, I interviewed Shawn to find out what communication tips she has for general managers, supervisors and safety professionals about how to improve their safety coaching and leadership communication skills.

1. How do you recommend that safety professionals train new staff to develop their safety skills?

Shawn: First, you need to train people thoroughly when it comes to induction safety training, using the right training materials (read 6 Ways to use the Whole Brain in Workplace Training), then it's time to coach new staff on-the-job to help them develop their new safety skills.

Often, supervisors forget that it takes a long time to learn a new skill.  Remember, how long it takes to learn how to drive?

First, we are unconsciously incompetent—we do not even know we do not know. “Blissful ignorance” is another name for this stage. When something or someone raises our awareness so that we want to know how to do it ourselves, we are consciously incompetent. This stage can be painful or feel like a challenge—we have questions about how to begin, what to do, and how to practise the right actions, behaviors, and thinking to achieve the desired results. As a coach or manager, you are facilitating this development process by asking questions and sharing guidance, experience, and direction at the time they are most helpful.

Ideally, you model or demonstrate exactly how to do it (read Using Demonstrations in Safety Induction Training).  By providing opportunities for new starters to practice repeatedly leads the employees to being at first consciously competent and later, unconsciously competent.

Some skills or competencies are easier for us to develop than others.  I’ve observed that those people who have struggled to learn how to do something are often better teachers or coaches of that material than the people to whom it came naturally and who did not have to work at learning it. When people struggle to learn a new skill, they focus on each step. They practice over and over until they gain mastery. That practice becomes a gift in that these learners see distinctions in the skill development steps that others miss. These insights enable them to be better observers and to give clearer feedback to those they are coaching.

2. How do you recommend safety professionals coach experienced staff to improve their safety skills?

Shawn: For a staff member who has been working with the company for some time, but who needs to improve their safety performance, you need to make them aware that they are not working safely.  Often, people will not even be aware that they're not working safely.  You can't get any change in their skill level until they are aware (read this article on how to talk to make them aware at How to Initiate a Difficult Safety Conversation).

There is a point in a conversation that determines if you are crossing a line with someone: if you begin to tell an adult how to develop a skill and he or she is not asking for that know-how, you have skipped over an important awareness building conversation.

People being coached need to acknowledge and understand why it is important for them to develop the skill. If you are managing and coaching people, before you dive into the specifics, begin with an awareness building and capabilities conversation (download the free discussion guide for more information below).

Once they have said, “I want to do better job of working safely,” only then can you dive into the specifics related to how to develop that skill.  Until the employee asks for guidance in a specific area, he or she is not ready to learn something new.

After employees have said they want to improve,the first step to take is to raise their awareness of that ability by asking questions like these:

  • What is important about this ability to you?
  • How will having the ability benefit you?
  • Whom do you know who is particularly good at XYZ ability?
  • What do they currently do differently than you do?
  • How do they think about or approach XYZ?
  • Is there anything you realize they do not do that you are currently doing?
  • What else do you notice about XYZ?
  • When is it useful to stop doing XYZ?

3.  How do you recommend supervisors inspire staff and contractors during their toolbox talks or safety meetings?

Shawn: Know who is in your audience.  What really motivates them?  What is their preferred communication style?  What are they likely feeling as a result of the recent communication between you?  Speak the language of the person you want to influence.  Listen to them to uncover what their hopes, issues and goals really are. Then, create a common goal together that aligns what they want with what you want.  By starting with a "Conversation for Connection" you can then lead into a "Conversation for Creating New Possibilities" and when that begins to happen people feel hopeful (see free downloadable Discussion Guide below).  Inspiration comes from being in a hopeful conversation and identifying what actions you can take to move a project forward.  Read more about improving your toolbox meetings.

4. What techniques do you recommend that supervisors use to make staff more aware of the importance of safety?

Shawn: Help team members to see that safety is in their best interest. Share stories of how focusing on improved safety helped individuals, teams and organizations to succeed (read more about stories in the articles How to find the right stories for your company and How Corporate Story-Telling improves Company Performance).


Developing safety skills takes time.  New starters and young workers need to have a dedicated supervisor or staff member, working with them to coach them on improving their safety skill level.  And for more experienced workers who need to improve their safety skills, you first need to raise awareness of the skill that needs improving. And they have to want to change. You can't fix people, unless they want to be fixed.

Find out more about the right questions to ask when coaching staff by reading Conversations for Creating Star Performers: Inspire Excellence Everyday! Create group discussions among supervisors and managers about developing and improving your team.

Shawn Kent Hayashi, is a communication expert and author of "Conversations for Creating Star Performer", a wonderful new book that offers a roadmap showing how managers can leverage conversations into game-changing moments.  She is an executive coach, trainer, best-selling, author, speaker & CEO of The Professional Development Group LLC.  Currently, she is an executive in residence at Lehigh University.