Relationship Based Safety: Effective Communication Re-examined

Why is it important for leaders to walk through their facilities and engage in conversations? Conversation and dialogue are essential management tools to manage performance. It is the primary activity to ensure employees are receiving the intended communications and to gather important information that will inform our perception of what’s going on. With proper training, these perceptions become more in tune with reality, resulting in better decisions and outcomes.

We say that our perceptions must be in tune with reality to result in better decisions because most of us see what we expect to see, and attribute our own meaning to other people’s intentions (Argyris 1999). It is human nature to do so, which is why observation skills training and interactive dialogue with others are an important part of safety leadership development. To assist in this arena this article will focus on:

  • Supervisor’s Role
  • Characteristics of effective safety communication

Supervisor’s Role

Research has shown us that supervisors are the most important link to employee engagement. In safety, they are the primary communicator and reinforcement for safety related priorities.  They cannot fulfill this important role effectively if they don’t understand or believe in the importance of trust, conversation, and relationship building (Therkelsen, et. al. 2003, Brim 2009). The research asserts that employee loyalty lies not to the organization itself but with the work unit – especially the immediate supervisor.

I have found supervisors are open to the idea that they can contribute to safety awareness by engaging more with their teams, however, they point out that the biggest obstacle to implementing these practices is the administrative burden that they often carry. If management is unwilling to reduce paperwork and train supervisors in communication skills, nothing is likely to change.

Let us assume that management is willing to invest in leveraging the supervisor’s influence.  Where should they focus?

Characteristics of Effective Safety Communication

In our previous article we talked about the application of complexity theory to accident prevention. One of the principles is that establishing a relationship is necessary to giving and receiving critical information.  Another important principle is that the environment is constantly changing, which means that for communication to be accurate, both assessment and conversation have to be continual. This leads to three characteristics of effective safety communication:

  • Perpetual assessment
  • Continual reinforcement—Conversation as a tool
  • Repeated communication

Perpetual Assessment: The Need to Be in the Present

Loss of communication, focus or misinterpretation of events can occur at any time (Schulman, 2004). That is why highly reliable organizations (HROs) are continuously monitoring and measuring their systems. Mechanical parts will eventually wear out, people become desensitized to risks and failures happen. Given the reality of a constantly changing environment where many of the changes are not visible, a constant state of awareness and assessment is necessary. Karl Weick (1999) refers to this as mindfulness.

Planning meetings and tailgates are helpful, but they cannot address the unforeseen, nor can they compete with the ongoing power, political, and financial pressures that drive decision-making in most organizations. Senior management needs to integrate the communication of safety goals into the work system to identify influences that might place schedule or cost ahead of safety as well as address deficiencies in real time and on a continuous basis. An example is an observation process that includes conversation during the walk through and after as necessary to make sense of the observations would help create a common understanding around hazards, risks, and potential solutions.

Continual Reinforcement: Conversation as a Tool for Reinforcement 

If we wish for safety goals to influence decision making they must be continually reinforced.  Other pressures and competing demands are constantly present, thus it is naïve to believe that periodic statements that safety is important will be equal to other more pressing demands. In our previous article we made reference to David Rock’s brain research that found people’s brains responded with equal intensity when faced with the threat of ostracism as they did to their fear of losing food and shelter. The implications for management are that for the most part people will not confront authority or risk violating their group’s expectations because relationship or belonging is hard wired into the brain as fundamental to survival.

Relationship psychology as explained in our previous blog establishes that we can only be influenced by those we trust. Thus, conversations in which divergent perspectives are heard and result in correct action are not only the result of established protocols but also of a culture that breeds trust. This level of communication requires the investment of time, good listening skills and openness to different perspectives. Leaders who do not invest the time to have 1-on-1 conversations and understand the work and contributions of employees do not build trust relationships.

The content of these conversations require skills training and understanding of why they are important to sensemaking, a term introduced by Karl Weick, et. al. (2005) in high hazard environments as a way to explain why some organizations perform better than others. Simply stated, it is a process of people getting together to make sense of complex problems and getting people on the same page. The understanding is that all perspectives are valid and all questions are welcome. Calling it sensemaking puts everyone on alert that this is a different kind of conversation: no blame, none of us has a monopoly on the truth, and everyone brings an important perspective.

These agreements are meant to address the barriers often present to trust and open communication such as hierarchy, fear of losing face, or a manager’s feeling that s/he has to have the answers or has more credibility than someone in the line of fire. It helps if the management team has shared goals for the outcomes of these conversations, which might be to help people agree on how to manage safety in the context of the work that must get done.

Repeated Communication

The challenge of communicating the same message across the organization is enormous because multiple subcultures exist, each with its own language and assumptions (Schein, 2010). At times, a manager may feel s/he has been clear on what should be done only to learn later that the requests have not been fulfilled. Ineffective reactions include withdrawal, anger or attempts to exert tighter control over people who are not complying.

Reinforcing safety as a primary outcome is a constant, two-way communication effort. A leader cannot decide priorities in isolation. As Magnusson (2010) noted, “Other factors, such as the commitment and willingness from employees to accept and understand which factor should be in first hand between safety and production, are also seen as determinants of the safety success in the company” (p. 22).

This approach faces some challenges because the content and outcome of conversations cannot be fully controlled. People tend to believe that they can set a clear direction, then everyone executes from the same page. More time spent in conversation or questioning priorities can be viewed as inefficient, especially if it leads to changing the plan. In reality, however, both the environment and people’s understanding of the situation constantly shift. Instituting the expectation that the plan can be and should be revisited opens the gate for important preventive information.


Building relationships through conversation is the foundation of organizational effectiveness because:

  • We construct (sensemake) our interpretation of reality in interaction with others
  • The social and political pressures may not be overtly stated, but are assumed in our own minds.
  • Interaction between relationships is the means for transmission of information between humans—ideas will not be adopted without relationship.
  • The human need to belong is as strong a motivator as their need for food and shelter.
  • We create within a web of relationships that provide identity, purpose and meaning


Argyris, C. (1999). On organizational learning. Oxford, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

David J. Therkelsen, Christina L. Fiebich, (2003) "The supervisor: The linchpin of employee relations", Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 8 Iss: 2, pp.120 – 129.

Brim, Brian. 2009. “Driving engagement by focusing on strengths.” Gallup Management Journal. Downloaded 8/31/2013

Schein, E. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schulman, P.R. (2004). General attributes of safe organizations. Quality and Safety in Healthcare, 13, ii39- ii44.

Weick, K.E. (1999). Organizing for high reliability: Processes of collective mindfulness. Research in Organizational Behavior, 81-125.

Weick, K. & Sutcliffe, K. (2001). Managing the unexpected. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Boss.

Weick, K.E., Sutcliffe, K.M. & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4), 409-421.


Rosa Carrillo

Written by Rosa Carrillo

Rosa Carrillo, President of Carrillo & Associates, is a thought leader in transformational leadership for environment, safety and health. She brings 20 years of industry experience with all levels of the organization. Her results and many publications create instant credibility with leadership and the workforce. She is fluent in English and Spanish and is at ease working across many cultures. For more information, please visit her website:

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