Soft Skills Training for Leaders: An Investment in Your Culture
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
Soft skills training is needed at all leadership levels to improve communication, listening skills, and empathy. It also involves increasing the quality and quantity of safety recognition which is often found to be one of the lower scoring items on our safety culture survey. Increasing recognition improves safety culture and increases the probability of safe work practices in the future. This reduces the risk of serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs).
Leaders should also promote psychological safety so that employees feel comfortable speaking up. Creating an open culture encourages field level communication which helps leaders better understand and resolve system weaknesses. People also appreciate working in environments where open and honest discussions are the norm and not the exception.
Soft-skills training should also focus on leaders emphasizing genuine caring over “the numbers” and quality conversations over goals and quotas (e.g., losing bonuses if certain quotas aren’t met.) This includes spending more time in the field interacting with employees and setting the right safety examples. It also involves better information sharing with employees about lessons learned from close calls and incidents to prevent them in the future. This information needs to be shared in an open, learning environment without fear or blame.
Another major component of this training should be better balancing safety and production. Many survey respondents report that production is valued more than safety and that time pressure may lead to rushing and safety shortcuts. This includes stressing the importance of stopping a job when a hazard is identified and encouraging employees to speak up with each other for safety.
Here are tips for leaders to improve their soft-skills coaching and communication:
• Active Caring: Show authentic caring for employees beyond just safety and business requirements. Ask about their well-being beyond physical safety and if there extenuating circumstances to be aware of. Building relationships during this difficult time will also pay dividends after the pandemic is contained. People will remember your compassion.
• Psychological Safety: Foster an open environment where employees are comfortable raising issues and asking questions. Setting up one-on-one touchpoints via phone (or in person) helps establish and maintain good rapport. It also keeps you locked in with any “stucks” employees may have.
• Interactive Discussions: Ask open-ended questions to promote in-depth, collaborative discussions. This provides you with an opportunity to update employees on key issues they need to be aware of. It also provides an opportunity to recognize and appreciate their efforts and accomplishments.
• Active Listening: Demonstrate effective listening skills. This is more important now than ever. It’s also more challenging when face-to-face interactions aren’t possible. Video chats should be used as much as possible with an emphasis on employees’ feedback more than your own comments.
• Follow Up: Capture all learnings from these interactions with employees. Respond quickly and effectively to any concerns. Closing the loop with employees’ issues demonstrates that you value their opinion and are committed to making their lives better.