Expert Commentary

Effective Communication in Construction Safety

Over the years, I have heard many people involved with managing safety (coordinators, professionals, directors, managers, and practitioners) talk about how they go about communicating with the "good people" who are out there doing the work on construction sites. I have heard some refer to how they approach this as coaching, informing, training, shepherding, motivating, guiding, teaching, instructing, and many more descriptive labels. 


Construction Safety
February 2017

Many looked on their effort as saving lives. Their intent is to somehow convince the workers to adhere to what is the safety practitioner's vision of safe work behavior. What the safety practitioner is proposing may be in conflict with how the worker is used to doing the work and, as a result, in the worker's thinking, the suggested method will reduce the amount of work they are expected to complete in the given time, or it is more difficult to do it in the suggested way. The proposed recommended safe behavior may also be contrary to the perception that workers have about their own ability to perform the work safely. So, for the message to even come across, be understood, and accepted, safety practitioners need to understand the circumstances that are driving the perceived unsafe behavior.

If the safety practitioners are sports aficionados, they will approach the situation as if they are coaches talking to team members. The purpose of this interaction is to motivate the individual to focus on safety, pay greater attention to the situation, and adhere to the project's safety requirements or some such goal. The misguided thinking in this approach is that this is not a sports team, on a defined field, participating in a 2-hour engagement. Construction project site work differs considerably from sports games. The situations on the site have greater variability, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, and certainly a different risks. Where sports are all about winning at the expense of the other team losing, construction work is a cooperative process. If it is to be successful, construction requires "win-win" thinking.

If safety practitioners see themselves as enforcers of safety rules on the project or are in the business of "saving lives," they will have to bring this to the attention of workers. The words used, the body language, and the tone of the conversation may be friendly, neutral, or confrontational. The resulting conversation will depend on the situation, the nature of the infraction, and both the workers' as well as the safety practitioners' states of mind. This will determine the workers' reaction to the conversation and the resulting responses and/or behavior. This article addresses the nature of conversations and the impact on getting the message across to foster compliance both in the short term as well as over the long haul.

Four Aspects of Messages

Messages have four features, aspects, or elements: facts, self-revelation, appeal, and relationship. These factors impact the effectiveness of the communication in terms of what is said or transmitted and what is actually received and understood. (See Figure 1.) Each feature can impact the "quality" of the message independent of the others or in combination.

  • The factual feature contains statements that include data, or other information, that are purported or understood to be accurate and true.
  • The appeal feature contains the sender's (speaker's) instructions, advice, desires, etc., which is being conveyed.
  • The self-revelation feature represents the speakers' intended or unintended disclosures about themselves. This could include such things as values, vision, motives, and emotion, to name a few.
  • The relationship feature represents the underlying relationship between the sender and the receiver of the message or how one feels about the other person.
Adaptation of Friedmann Theory - Furst - 2017

Figure 1 – Four Aspects of Messages

An example of this may be a conversation between two types of people regarding safety on the worksite. Safety practitioners see workers engaged in their work and determine that they may get injured if they continue to behave or work in the same manner. So, safety practitioners will typically walk up, greet the workers, and start by telling them what was observed, what the deficiencies involved are, and what the potential negative outcome may be. This is followed by some suggestions of how to modify their behavior to accomplish the work in a safe manner and avoid the possibility of getting injured.

  • If the message is "heard" in the fact area, then the workers will accept that they are behaving in an unsafe manner that may result in injuries and, therefore, change their behavior. The listeners also have to believe that the information is relevant and useful to them in order for them to comply with the request.
  • If the workers interpret the message in the appeals area, then they may interpret it as the wishes or desires of the speaker (safety practitioner) and then make a judgment as to its relevance to what the workers are doing and what they perceive the supervisor expected of them production-wise. The workers also have to believe in the knowledge, expertise, and good intentions of the safety practitioners to comply with the request.
  • If the workers interpret the message in the self-revelation area, then they may look for the speaker's motives or some possible hidden agenda in what was said. Compliance will depend on whether the workers trust the speaker or not.
  • Underlying these three areas is the relationship area that can have minimal to maximal impact depending on various factors. These include whether the listeners determine that the speaker is credible, the information is factual, it is relevant to the situation, and the listeners perceive the speaker as likable, friendly, and having good intentions. But, one important factor to consider from the listener's perspective is how they feel about the message delivered as well as what effect the conversation is having on them emotionally. This may also be affected by how the workers feel about the safety practitioner and the organization in general.

After the message is received, it is filtered through the four aspects to try to understand what is being conveyed. This is then further filtered through the receiver's standards (beliefs, values, norms, etc.) as well as their perceptions and expectations. This then generates a response that is transmitted back to the sender. (See Figure 2.)

Four Aspects of Messages - Furst - 2017

Figure 2 – Four Aspects of Messages

To overcome situations where there may be some resistance to the request by the recipients of the message and getting them to comply would involve employing some of the principles of the theory of influence. People are more apt to respond favorably to requests that employ the principle of reciprocity. The basis of this principle is a common cultural belief that, if one receives something of value, then they are obligated to respond in kind. So, the objective of the conversation is to induce the listener to feel obligated to comply with the request. (See "The Importance of Influence," May 2011.)

The four aspects of conversations are influenced by a number of underlying factors. These factors play a role in how the parties relate to one another and react to what is being said and how it is received. These foundational elements are the following.

  • The personality of the people involved in the exchange
  • Both parties' emotional states
  • The operational objectives and the task requirements may be factors that color worker compliance or rejection of the request. This is going to be influenced by the worker perception of the criticality of the production goals as well as the relationship between the workers and their supervisors.
  • The work climate is a potent underlying consideration due to the fact that workers need to meet production goals, general worksite expectations, and remain in good standing with supervisors. This is colored by the worker's perception, which may or may not be accurate.

Effect of the Participant's Personality

How we act and think in any given situation is influenced by our personality. Personality traits are relatively stable and affect our thoughts and perceptions, which is manifested in our behavior. People tend to characterize our personality by our behavior. It also establishes people's expectations of how others will react in any given situation. This generally leads to how people respond and interact with one another. (See Figure 3.)

Implications of Participant Personality - Furst - 2017

Figure 3 – Implications of the Participant's Personality

The personalities of the people involved will affect the quality of the conversation. Personality plays a role in how the sender formulates the message, the words used, and how it is articulated. The tone of voice and body language also plays a role in how the messages are received, interpreted, and understood. The individual's values, beliefs, experiences, opinions, prejudices, feelings, and personal experiences will play a role in the transmitting and receipt of the message. The recipients of the message will respond more favorably to the message if the sender is deemed likable, knowledgeable, empathic, and/or trustworthy.

The Emotional State of the Participants

Emotions affect our state of mind and shape our behavior. Certainly, our emotional state will be telegraphed to the other person in our voice, gestures, and mannerism. (See "Communication Insights for Supervision," November 2014.) If we are distraught, concerned, empathic, or in any other state of mind, it will color our behavior and affect much of the information the other person "reads" into the message. And they may very well respond to this in kind. (See Figure 4.)

Emotional State Factors - Furst - 2017

Figure 4 – Emotional State Factors

The emotional state of the participants is also going to have some form of impact on the quality of the exchange as well as its possible outcome. We have to be aware of the possible impact the emotional state of the other person and its possible impact on ours. It is a fact that people may be affected by the emotions of others. You may come into work in a happy state, but if all your coworkers are distraught, you will quickly experience a letdown or a change in mood. We need to be cognizant of this so that our exchange with others does not negatively affect what we are trying to convey and diminish its effectiveness and acceptance.

Work Requirement Factors

From the listeners' perspective, operational and task factors come into play when it comes to the worker agreeing to comply with the speaker's request. (See Figure 5.) This area covers a wide range of factors, such as the worker and the safety practitioner assessing the level of risk in a similar (compatible assessment) way. The belief of the workers in their ability to handle the perceived risk, without needing to change anything, also comes into play.

Work Requirement Factors - Furst - 2017

Figure 5 – Work Requirement Factors

The worker's perception of the task's production goals as being critical to the project schedule or the supervisor's needs or commitments may play a role in the outcome. This could be important if achieving the production goal may jeopardize the worker's job. In that case, compliances with the safety practitioner's request may very well fall on deaf ears.

Past conversation between the parties will have some residual impact on the present exchange. This impact can have minimal to maximal impact depending on various factors. These include whether the listener determined that the speaker was credible in the past, if the information was factual, if it was relevant to the situation, if there was some perceived hidden agenda behind the conversation, and if the listener perceived the speaker as likable, warm, friendly, and having good intentions. But, one important factor to consider from the listener's perspective is how they feel about the message delivered as well as what effect the conversation is having on them emotionally.

The Work Climate

The culture of the organization and the way leadership interacts with the employees and others creates the atmosphere of the worksite as felt by the employees as well as others. This atmosphere is known as the psychological climate of the organization or the worksite. The work climate is going to shape the perception of the participants, which will be reflected in their behavior. That behavior may involve risk-taking or not. If the worker gets a sense that risk-taking is an acceptable way to go about getting the job done, then more than likely the worker will proceed in that fashion. (See figure 6.)

Impact of Work Climate - Furst - 2017

Figure 6 – Impact of the Work Climate

Organizations can create different climates, such as an ethical climate, entrepreneurial climate, innovative climate, people-oriented climate, or rule-oriented climate, to name a few. The people working for the organization will generally factor this into every decision they make. Since climate is shaped by leadership, leaders can rather easily exert influence and modify it for the better. They have to first identify what sort of climate exists and why, then they have to determine what sort of climate they want. And, with forethought, they have to implement practices that will foster the desired climate. They will also have to make a concerted effort to show the workforce that they, in fact, are serious about the change and that the organization—as well as the workforce—will benefit from it.

The structure of the organization will come into play in this regard. If the organization manages safety as a separate function that deals with worker safety while work production is managed by a foreman or superintendent, then the workers are going to be placed in a potentially untenable position where there may be cases where they will have to choose between what the superintendent expects them to do (meet production goals) as opposed to what the safety practitioner wants them to do. In a production-focused climate, the safety practitioner is going to find it difficult to get compliance when such a situation exists. In any communication, the work climate is going to shape the perception of the participants when they engage in conversations. It will affect both the creating of the message and how it is received by the other party.

Conclusion

Workers' personality, emotional state, their task requirements, and the work climate may make meaningful conversations easier or more difficult. The situation in which our communication takes place may influence its outcome as well as its level of effectiveness. The person making a request must be aware of this and factor these elements into their approach to another person. This is especially true for a safety practitioner working in production-driven climates. They will have to make adjustments to the four features of the message they are trying to convey so as to improve their effectiveness in achieving their goal in getting compliance.

They will not only have to be cognizant of the work factors but also have a good understanding of the people with whom they are conversing. Many conversations may be conducted in stressful situations, which may very well impede understanding and affect compliance. This will play a role in the success or failure of the conversation. For the message to get across, it has to be clear, concise, and coherent. The information has to be "solid" and correct. It also has to be made in a courteous and considerate way.

An important element of successful conversations is active listening. People respond more favorably to those they deem are truly listening and trying to understand their concerns and circumstances. By making it a practice to better understand the other person's circumstance as well as actively listen to them, the safety practitioner will soon become known as someone who is empathic and can be trusted.

But, more importantly, safety practitioners may be much more effective if they try to use their communication abilities to change the system, rather than the worker, and to structurally change the way the work is planned and executed, with greater attention to potential risk of harm and eliminate it or diminish its potential outcome, before the worker is assigned to the task and asked to "deal" with the risks involved!


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