On today’s episode of Safety of Work, we discuss how safety professionals “influence”. The challenge all safety professionals face is not only being listened to, but getting others to act on the given information.
We use the following articles to frame our discussion: In Their Profession’s Service and Influencing Organizational Decision-Makers.
“If you survey CEO’s...they want safety practitioners to have these communication skills, ability to build relationships…”
“There is no pattern between these companies and their economic performance and their safety performance…”
“There’s some really good advice there...for safety professionals to think about the long game.”
Daudigeos, T. (2013). In their profession's service: how staff professionals exert influence in their organization. Journal of Management Studies, 50(5), 722-749.
Madigan, C., Way, K., Capra, M., & Johnstone, K. (2020). Influencing organizational decision-makers–What influence tactics are OHS professionals using?. Safety Science, 121, 496-506.
Cialdini, R. B., & Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. Harper Business.
Cohen, A. R., & Bradford, D. L. (2011). Influence without authority. John Wiley & Sons.
Drew: You’re listening to the Safety of Work Podcast episode 23. Today, we’re asking the question how do safety professionals influence? Let’s get started.
Hey everybody, my name’s Drew Rae and I’m here with David Provan and we’re from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University. Welcome to the Safety of Work podcast. If this is your first time listening, then thanks for coming.
The podcast is produced every week and the show notes can be found at safetyofwork.com.
In each episode, we ask an important question in relation to the safety of work or the work of safety, and examine the evidence surrounding it. David, what’s today’s question?
David: The question for this episode is how do safety professionals influence? We mentioned last week when we’re doing the episode on facts and stories, we were talking about influencing attitudes and behaviors of others. This was a very central topic in my PhD research, so I thought it’d be fun to discuss and hopefully relevant for lots of our listeners in their day-to-day role as safety professionals.
A safety professional needs to bring relevant information and be heard by the organization. That’s a line out of a paper by David Woods in 2006. The challenge that we all face in our role as safety professionals is being listened to, being heard, and then other people acting on the advice, and the information that we’re providing.
Some other authors in 2003 suggested that a safety professional’s ability to influence and stimulate others is as important to safety as any formal safety management system in an organization.
We’re going to talk about a paper today, but before we do that, we might dive into a bit more background, Drew, on the safety profession and influence.
I think, at least in my understanding and my experience, safety professionals don’t actually make very many operational and strategic decisions in their organizations. In fact, other than a few things, Drew, maybe like drafting some policies, or specifying some safety training content, or classifying incidents, the safety professional’s role is almost 99% influence.
Drew: Yes. Sometimes we talk about that as having a staff professional role which I think comes out of the military. The idea that there’s a chain of command, but then there’s these functions that sit off on the side that are supposed to advise and provide work and provide services, but they’ve got very little formal authority except through the advice that they offer.
David: Yeah, that term staff professional comes up in the paper that we’re talking about today is being these peripheral, I suppose, experts inside an organization that are trying to advise the people who do the work and the people who make the decisions.
Safety professional’s influence, I suppose, not influence in two ways, but are trying to influence in two types of ways. One way where a safety professional is actually influencing a specific organizational decision or providing a specific piece of advice, doing this sort of in real time. This is when safety people talk about having a seat at the table, being able to be involved in a discussion or a decision as it’s being made.
The second thing that safety professionals do is try to create conditions or a climate in the organization that influences decision-making and action without them needing to be directly involved in that. They do that through systems and communication, setting of organizational priorities, and things like that. The institutional work literature, Drew, talks about these two ways which is the direct influence and the indirect influence, if you like.
Drew: I like that way of dividing it. I think the sort of ideal for a safety person is not needing to be in the room in the knowledge that they have got people socialized and thinking about safety with systems in place so that safety is something that’s just a normal part of decision-making. But the reality is that safety professionals also have expert knowledge, so sometimes for those decisions to be made, they need to be there to offer direct counsel.
David: Yeah, Drew, I think that’s just a sheer practical reality that the safety person can’t be everywhere for every decision, and if every decision relied on them being there, then it’d be a pretty slow, fat, and lazy organization. But, you’re right. We as safety professionals do need to know which rooms we have to be in and which decisions that we actually do have to be there for.
When this doesn’t work, I don’t think I’ve spoken to a single safety professional in my career who hasn’t got a story of difficulty and frustration with not being able to get people in their organizations to do what they think needs to be done.
I put out a few studies that I came across during my PhD where when safety professionals are unable to influence their organization to do certain things, it could lead to really deep sort of guilt and disillusionment. Safety professionals, as a profession, I think we do a lot of complaining, venting, and insulting of managers.
There was one study that was done in France which actually looked at influence of safety professionals and they actually called off the study part right through because they were really, really concerned that something like one in three of participants were in a state of professional distress, which means they’re almost so depressed and anxious about not being able to get stuff done in their organization that they were sort of causing themselves psychological injury so they stopped the study. Then another study in the US ranked the safety professionals as number five on the list of jobs where people hate their bosses.
It can be a doom-and-gloom-type environment in the safety profession, Drew. Have you heard similar stories?
Drew: Yeah. I think it’s the recipe for burnout where you have a sense of responsibility for something, and possibly even have formal accountability for it, but you lack power to directly control and influence it. I think that’s what a lot of safety professionals feel is a deep sense of care and responsibility, but not the ability to make changes directly themselves where they’re constantly trying to work through other people, which means constant frustration.
David: Yeah, that’s a good summary. For me, the only job I’ve ever done in my career, I’ve never been an operations manager or a project manager. I’ve never had control over stuff so it doesn’t seem abnormal for me because it’s sort of the only way I’ve ever worked. I do speak to safety professionals who have come out of operations roles and they do find that it is a very hard adjustment to be responsible for something so important but have no authority to make any decisions.
There was one study that was done that we’d call out. We weren’t going to specifically talk about it in this paper, but there was a study that was done at the University of Queensland last year, Drew, where they surveyed 385 safety professionals to ask them about their influencing tactics and the perceived effectiveness of the different types of influencing tactics.
In that, they used an interorganizational influence theory by Yukl from 2013. I thought it was just worth a mention of this framework. We can put a link to that original paper in the show notes because there was a model or a theory developed around organizational influence; it talks about 11 types of approaches to influence someone. Do you want to run through these 11, Drew? I think it’s really good background information for people to think about.
Drew: Sure. This is basically just a list of different ways that you can get someone to come around to the same point of view as yourself.
The first and most obvious one is rational persuasion. You present a logical argument along with factual evidence to show the benefit of what you’re suggesting. The other person looks at the argument, looks at the evidence, and agrees.
The second really obvious one is some sort of exchange or negotiation. Either explicitly or implicitly you offer a reward if they do what you want. This is the way that we negotiate with our butcher, “Please, can I have a piece of meat?” And they do what we want because we’re offering money.
The third one definitely doesn’t work with your butcher which is the idea of an inspirational appeal, which is that you link your request to their targets, values, hopes, and ideals. So far I was trying that on my butcher would be, “Well, you like selling meat. I like getting meat. Surely, we could come to some sort of arrangement here where you get the pleasure of giving me the meat and I get the pleasure of receiving it, money needs to change hands.” That’s the inspirational appeal.
Legitimating is where you call upon some sort of higher force. They’re a whole range of different forces. They could be formal authority, they could be an external expert. They could be organizational policy and rules. You basically say, “What I’m asking you is something that I have the right to a legitimacy to ask. You should go along with it.”
You could be a little bit more transactional. This one, I’m not familiar with the term called ‘uprising’. Basically saying how this will personally benefit the person that you’re negotiating with. You do this for me because it will actually be really good for you. You join my safety project because being able to show on your performance review that you’ve been part of the safety improvement project will be good for you.
Pressure where we use threats or assertive behavior, which can be really blatant would just be nagging basically. You do this and I’ll shut up about it, or do this or bad things are going to happen. That’s a really nice royal plan you’ve got there. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to it.
Collaboration where we offer assistance and use that assistance as a way of making the request. I see you’ve had trouble with the audit, let me come and help you out with making sure those audit findings are taken care of. What resources do you need to make sure that this is brought up to standard?
Ingratiation where we use compliments, flattery, or praise. That’s a fantastic job you’re doing on this project. I really love the way you’re doing it. Would’ve been nice to add in a few extra safety tasks to the project.
Consultation where we ask for input or suggestions. I’m basically trying to get the other person to suggest for themselves what action they’re going to take.
Personal appeals where you’re drawing on a past interaction using loyalty or friendship, basically an exchange of favors. This isn’t a direct transaction. It’s not you do this for me and I’ll do this for you. It’s more, well, “We’re mates. I help you out when I can. I’ve got a favor to ask of you now.”
Finally, the idea of coalition which is creating a group of people who want the same thing to happen and using that political force of other people having already agreed in order to influence a fellow person.
There’s nothing brand new in any of these. Hopefully they all are familiar, but I think that laying them out as a model like this sort of gives an idea of the range of different tools that are available to us that we all lean on in different times in different ways in order to try to influence other people.
David: Yeah, that study that had used that model in the context of safety professional influence, Drew, they came to a couple of conclusions which are just worth pointing out and I think that’ll surprise our listeners too much. I will specifically focus on influencing upwards so influencing senior management or people-influencing-their-own-manager type of thing.
They found that rational persuasion, a logical factual argument and inspirational appeal which is aligning the change or the decision to the values and the needs of the person were perceived as effective, and legitimating an exchange were perceived as ineffective. Going to a senior manager and saying, “I’ll do something for you if you do this,” is potentially not a useful strategy and going to a senior person saying, “Do this because the board has said,” or something is not necessarily a good strategy either.
Like in this other paper, we’re not going to talk about it again, Drew, but they did say in the organizational context that you could actually get action without conviction. We might call this reluctant compliance. You can get people to do things without actually feeling the need to do them. I think that’s a really important topic for safety professionals and safety because where some of these influencing tactics, particularly some of the harder tactics, you can get action to happen in your organization and decisions to be made, but the sustainability of that is going to be compromised if the person’s not actually onboard with doing what you’re hoping them to do. I think all our listeners in the safety space will have stories of where they’ve got people in the organization to do things for safety reluctantly and it hasn’t had the impact they wanted it to have or it hasn’t been sustainable.
Drew: This may well be something that we come back to later in this episode after we’ve looked at the main paper. There’s definitely lots of complexity when it comes to looking at influencing. This idea that you’re influencing once is very different from influencing over a long period of time is one of the complexities. When you’re negotiating with someone, often you don’t actually want to negotiate them down to the lowest possible price. That’s fantastic if you are only buying one thing right now, but if you’re having a long-term relationship, the fact that you’ve got one over them, is not going to do you any favors in the future.
This whole idea of influence is something that is really vital to safety, but is easy to oversimplify and we simplify it a lot when we’re doing job interviews, or when we’re talking about what safety practitioner’s skills need.
Lots of people will say that soft skills are important for safety or that we need safety practitioners with relationship skills. If you survey CEOs, one of the key things they say is they want safety practitioners to have these communication skills/ability to build relationships.
That’s true really for any person in any job. What we really want to drill down into is specifically what works well in the safety role. What are the particular influencing tactics that are more or less effective for safety practitioners and how do they use those tactics as part of the staff role they have in the organization.
It’s a really hard space to do research. You can’t really just survey people to find out what influencing tactics they use because people aren’t very aware of their own influencing skills and behaviors.
David: Drew, should we move onto the paper we’re going to discuss now? I really appreciate the opportunity to reread this. I really, really like this paper and it was part of the inspiration for the ethnographic research that I did through my own PhD, Drew.
The title of the paper is called In Their Profession Service How Staff Professionals Exert Influence in their Organization. I can’t even remember how I came across it, Drew. It was published in 2013 in the Journal of Management Studies, but it’s not by a safety author. It wasn’t published in a safety journal. It doesn’t have the word ‘safety’ in the paper title. Throughout the paper they refer to the profession as the OSH profession, for occupational safety and health.
This is one of these things that you could do a fairly deliberate database search to try to find and put safety, and OHS, and looking all of the spaces, you would never ever find this paper.
Drew: My recollection is that you only found it because they were adopting a similar theoretical framework to one that you were starting to consider for your own PhD so it showed up in the theory they were using behind it. It just, “Oh, wow. Here’s this paper. Doesn’t even have ‘safety’ in the title, but when we look into it it’s entirely about safety practitioners.”
David: It’s quite a big and involved study. That’s just one thing to think about, Drew, when we talk about systematic literature of use as well there is the potential even no matter how systematic you’re trying to be to miss research, particularly where we’ve talked about safety signs being published in so many different spaces. It could be easy to miss something.
Drew: For any young researchers who are listening, if you try to publish your safety work outside of a safety journal. Please, please put ‘safety’ in the title so the rest of us can find it.
David: That’s a good rule because you actually would want the safety sites community to be reading this type of a paper. Let’s get it on.
The research, there’s only one name on the paper. Thibault Daudigeos, I’m probably not pronouncing that right, but I never studied French at school. He’s in a business and management postgraduate school in Grenoble in France. He’s published a lot of work on organizational institutionalism. He’s on quite a bit of corporate social responsibility, and more recently, some of the changes in organizational dynamics around the sharing economy and things like that. This seems to be a foray into the safety profession.
What he was really interested in was understanding how staff professionals enact this practical agency to maneuver around these formal constraints in their organization. The fact that they don’t have decision-making rights and they’re not part of the structure but they have to sort of apply their agency to influence others in the organization.
That was the initial research aim which was how the staff professionals do this, how do they promote and disrupt organizational and operational practices.
Drew, they’re exploring this idea that’s in the institutional literature called the Embedded Agency Paradox, I’m not sure if you’d come across it. I hadn’t come across it until we started looking at the institutional work thing. It kind of asked the question about how people are able to influence change when their actions, intentions, and rationality are all conditioned by the institution that they’re trying to modify? It’s this insider by so if you’re inside the system, can you really look at the system and change the system that you’re a part of?
Drew: I think this is one of those reasons why safety needs to look outside of the safety literature to get hold of its theories and to get hold of its ways of doing research. This is a problem that safety culture has been stuck on without really knowing it. If you think carefully about safety culture theory, then the people who are trying to change the culture are also part of the culture. How does that work? Where do they even get their vision for how the culture changes? Given that they’re supposedly conditioned and trained to think in using the symbols of the culture.
The institutional work theory has created this idea of embedded agency as a way of trying to explore and resolve this question. This paper is part of why the body of work is trying to attack and understand how things can be stable most of the time? How do people get locked in to their positions and yet institutions do seem to evolve, they do seem to change. Sometimes people are successful in creating transformations of organizations.
David: Yeah, absolutely. I think the question becomes how does that transformation happen? This is specifically trying to look at what’s the role of an individual practitioner or professional in trying to initiate some kind of change, some kind of influence over individual actions or organizational practices. This idea of embedded agency is sort of part of a much broader social psychology theoretical discussion that’s been going on since the enlightenment around structure and agency really about whether a person’s actions are influenced more by their own free will or more by the formal and informal structures of society and organizations.
That’s a whole discipline itself, social psychology, but I think what you said earlier, Drew, about it’s easy to simplify these ideas like I need someone to be able to influence, he’s an ABC model of influence, just going through that, and people will do whatever you ask him to do. It just doesn’t work like that.
Drew, you mentioned staff professionals earlier. Initially, when this research was kicking off I’m not sure that they knew that they were going to do it on safety professionals but they became curious about the safety professionals being one of these types of staff professionals. What was interesting is they got a talk in the paper about the safety profession having this kind of contingent and craft-like knowledge. It’s not like engineering and accounting where there’s kind of like very clear evidence and a standard base to the work that’s being done. I also felt that they’re always a little bit ambiguous.
I felt like the human resources department, and the information technology department kind of have a pretty clear and defined role, but the research is just initially thought the safety is really they couldn’t identify what the knowledge base underpinning the professional role was. They also couldn’t identify what they were sort of embedded within the operation. They weren’t really actually doing their own types of things like some of the other departments and organizations. I think it just got really curious about the profession.
Drew: I think particularly there’s a very defined role for someone like an accountant, who’s also doing a staff role, who’s also sitting slightly outside the formal hierarchy. An accountant mainly goes off and does their own thing. They’re not required to exert this kind of influence that’s expected of safety professionals.
Arguably, that’s true even of most of an HR role is your HR goes and does its thing, then it’s not expected to follow right down through to operations due to the extent that HR gets involved in that it’s on an ad hoc basis, or when a particular dispute happens, or when something like training needs to be arranged. Whereas safety people, there’s a much more nebulous connection.
David: Yeah, I think I’ve said that in a few talks at different times that the safety profession is the only profession that actually needs to know how the work happens. All the other functional roles in an organization can kind of do their job without actually knowing how the person climbs up the ladder and how they actually install a piece of equipment.
Drew: Yeah, that’s a fascinating distinction. I’m trying to think through now. I imagine you could be, well I’m speaking out so I have my limits of competence, I think. I can certainly imagine an accountant not actually needing to know what are the things that are getting bought in and out of the organization and where the money is being spent on, so long as they know how to appropriately count those things now, they know how to appropriately track those things. Actually, how the work happens...
David: I’m not trying to offend anyone and don’t get me wrong. Context is important in every role and the more context the better, I’m sure. The safety risk is created in the operational work that happens in an organization it’s created, it’s shaped, it’s managed. That’s not true of other functional activities so much.
Let’s spark some curiosity. I might just go through the method because I thought the method was pretty interesting, Drew. They got access to one of the world’s largest multinational construction companies, a company called Vinci. It’s a French-owned company that does about €40 billion a year of turnover.
They had an 18-month study period. When they first started, they kind of just went in and did some unstructured interviews. They did some side observations on some construction sites for several days. They looked at the company’s safety documentation. They looked at some broader information about safety in construction more broadly. Then, they formed their research questions. I said they had an aim earlier. They had a broad aim for the research. They sort of narrowed that down a little bit to look at investigating the influencing tactics of safety professionals and identify the source of their legitimacy. If they don’t have formal authority, what is the source of their ability to tell people to do things or get things done.
Do you see that very often, Drew, where people actually do a phase of research to come up with their specific question?
Drew: I don’t actually know the background here, but this looks very much like a PhD project, or at least a PhD-style project that starts with a broad question, goes through a pilot, and then as a result of the pilot has refined a very tight research question. I don’t know how common it is but it’s certainly very good practice when you’re doing a project.
David: Particularly, I think, being from a management school, the researchers didn’t have any experience with the safety profession, didn’t have any experience, not much experience with construction sites and projects that are actually learning themselves. Establishing their own context and getting just information about what they’re going to be investigating.
They created a phase 2 where they got access to eight subsidiaries of this construction organization. They went and did 40 interviews so over 60 hours of data. They just gathered broad information about the work that safety professionals were doing, and how people view their sources of power, if you like, or this idea around legitimacy. They spoke to safety professionals, the top managers in each of those eight subsidiaries. Other functional departments and construction site managers and some site workers.
During this period, they actually had access to a broader research group, Drew, like you said that there were currently three other safety research projects going on with different universities inside this construction company. They had kind of like a research-steering group happening and they got to test their ideas back and forward during this period where they did these 40 interviews.
At the end of all that, they found some interesting findings they didn’t talk too much about in the paper, but you could see and I really like the style of writing, they’re actually just laying out their confusion on the way through, their wonders. One of their initial findings was that they observed that the agency of safety professionals or the ability of the safety professional to influence depended mainly on specific macro-type conditions.
For example, if a business had low economic performance or a business had no money, the safety profession had very little influence to get stuff done because the business had no money. If the safety record was good and there weren’t many accidents, then the safety professional couldn’t really do any new activities. Whereas if the safety record was poor, then all of a sudden the safety professional got a whole lot of extra influence that they possibly normally wouldn’t have.
Drew, I found that kind of interesting and the paper didn’t really go on too much about what the sort of macro contextual factors are and how it then relates to an individual’s ability to influence.
Drew: It’s been a while since I had read this paper. I was really interested to see this when I came back to it because I was sitting in a seminar actually just a couple of days ago with someone looking at leaders within organizations in the safety context. What he said was that every time he found something interesting at the macro level within the organization and tried to trace it, it always went back to the macro how the organization sat with its external stakeholders.
This is a really interesting finding that it’s not about directly the specific tactic you’re using necessarily, although it will come to some patterns in those. The role itself is so heavily situated in the context where the organization is at the moment.
David: Yeah, I think that’s where you mentioned the safety culture literature. That’s what I really like about the way that the institutional logics literature is taking shape over the last 10 years or so because they talk about those logics at different levels of the organization and interconnectedness between the broad organizational logic around we might think about them as priorities or truths or something like that, and then, just how powerful that is over individual actions all the way through the organization and how that interplay works.
Drew: David, it’s probably worth mentioning due to the lead time we have on these episodes that we’re both recording this from home during times of enforced movement lockdown. I’m willing to bet that if we found any safety practitioner working today and asked them what are you doing, they would not be explaining what they’re doing in terms of what sort of safety theories they subscribe to, what they think is generally best for the long-term interest of the organization.
I think that sort of shows in an exaggerated sense to think that safety practitioners are always facing is that the external constraints have the situation drive a lot of what we’re doing, no matter how proactive we try to be.
David: Yeah. Absolutely. There was a third phase in the study and I’ll just get through the method, Drew, and this is what they call their systematic data collection. Now they went, “Right. Okay. We’ve got some context now. We’ve done 60 hours of interviews. We’re pretty sure we’ve got a bit of a model. Now we’re going to go and do some semi-structured interviews.” A semi-structured interview is just one where you would have a series of open questions so that each interview follows a similar type of pattern, but you’re still collecting qualitative data.
Did these 18 semi-structured interviews, they carefully controlled for where they went so they took all 231 subsidiary companies for this overall construction company. They controlled for the variety of work, the geographic location, the size of the unit, they controlled for economic performance and safety performance because of what we mentioned earlier. They also made sure that their safety professional had held their role for more than 12 months.
They actually wanted to make sure that they didn’t go and talk to people and then realized that they found something, they only found it because they’re on a 20-poor-performing projects or 20-tunneling projects or something like that.
Drew: They probably should just jump in here and say that researchers use the term ‘controlled’ a lot to try to convince you that they’ve taken account of various factors. In this case remember we’re doing qualitative research so when we talk about control, we just meant that they were careful to make sure they pick their 18 people from a wide variety of reasonably representative backgrounds.
They’re sampling across the organization, they’re not just picking 18 people with the same views.
David: Exactly. Then they reported all of that data in the paper as well. Sometimes, researchers say that they’ve done certain things and it’s hard to check what they’ve actually done, but all the data tables were there. Just as a spoiler, on the idea that good safety is good business, there is no pattern between these companies, their economic performance, and their safety performance, good or bad or average. For people who say that good safety is good business, I’m not sure that’s what the data says. Anyway, we digress.
That was the method, Drew. Then they ended up with saying that safety people really rely on really two broad things for the basis of their power and their legitimacy in influencing others. The way they describe these two things and the words they probably made it to come up with better labels to get things to stick.
The first was what they’d called relational legitimacy building. The second was a word that’s already in the institutional work literature around the professions which is called unobtrusive influencing tactics.
One was about how they’re kind of relating to others, and then one is more about the specific tactics they’re using.
Drew, we might just rip through these two different categories of findings. Feel free to jump in where you can. Some of these might not be of no surprise to our listeners and some of it might be a new angle on something that they might have been thinking about before.
In the relational legitimacy building, this is all about internal and external networks, using references from outside the different parts of the organization. This is what when a safety person will go, “Ah, well, we’re in the oil and gas industry and Shell does it like this, so, we should do it like that because another company is doing it this way.” Or an industry association or a trade union provides a particular piece of advice, a regulator, or something like that and the safety professional kind of leverages these external data and reference points to legitimate and provide support for their advice. They’re not standing up there on their own and saying, “This is what I think you should do.” They’re saying, “This is what I think you should do because we should do it as well.”
Drew, any thoughts about that external relational legitimacy building?
Drew: I’m very interested in the one thing that’s missing from this list which is using external academics or using gurus. I’m wondering whether that’s because they didn’t see that in the data or because being outside of safety, they didn’t recognize coded references.
I’ve certainly seen myself people who use big names in safety to legitimize what they’re doing within the organization, but they often don’t appeal directly to those people, they appeal directly to the ideas. For example, you see people quoting Woods, or Dekker, or Todd Conklin. They don’t necessarily say, “Todd says, therefore, we should do this,” but they legitimize the things that they’re proposing by using languages from that view of safety. People in behavior-based safety similarly, they use the languages they don’t necessarily directly refer to a class or gala. They appeal to legitimacy by invoking those ideas.
David: Exactly right, Drew. It might’ve been in the data or it might not have been in the coding, but I think definitely this idea that the safety professional is leveraging this external reference point or this external relationship or this external advice and being the voice inside their organization. They have this internal relationship building, this is like having visible relationships with powerful people in the organization. Influencers, powerful managers, and making that visible so people know that this person is going to be supported by this person, so I probably should listen to what they say the first time.
Safety professionals really build these alliances and relationships quite extensively across their organization, including with their own internal network of safety professionals. I don’t think that’ll be a surprise to any listener that thinks that safety professionals are generally, or let’s say, safety professionals that have good ability to influence get stuff done in their organization have a broad, large, and high-quality internal network within their organization.
Drew: It’s interesting. We often talk about this in a negative sense. You’ll never get something done because such-and-such person is in the area. We know that people can have influence and block things happening or can make things happen because they’ve got the year of the right people. We’re expressing in a positive sense here is that having those relationships being able to advise people, have them listening, or being able to speak, and have people assume that you’re speaking with the voice of someone powerful is really effective in getting things done.
David: It looks to others like important people in the organization listen to you and trust you, then it’s a reference point for other people in the organization to maybe give you the benefit of the doubt, listen, and trust you as well.
Beyond these relationships, if you like, these unobtrusive influencing tactics, and I suppose, why I liked the way that this was written is because it was sort of an outsider looking at the safety profession not being a safety researcher or not having any experience. They made some comments which are quite interesting. They said that they found safety professionals to be very shrewd and somewhat creative. They specifically suggested that the actions of a number of safety professionals could be seen as deceptive if their actions were not deceptive or Machiavellian or bad if their actions were not actually aimed at promoting an admirable goal like keeping people safe.
For example where we spoke earlier about government reports, there was a particular material that was being used in a construction job. The safety professional thought that there was a better more expensive material that could be used, the government had just done a report into the safety issues or the chemical exposure issues associated with this particular product. The safety person sort of cherry-picked the information. The government report basically said that we actually don’t have any information that suggests that this is harmful. The safety professional kind of had cherry-picked the information out of that government report, and got a particular site manager to change the product based on saying, “We need to change to this different product because there’s a government report into the health impacts and we need to find a healthier option.”
Drew: You say ‘shrewd’. I say, “lying and deceptive,” “tomato/to-MA-to,” really depends whether the end result is a good result or a bad result; whether that’s a good tactic or bad.
David: I didn’t say shrewd. We had the researchers say shrewd, that’s an indirect quote. Don’t get me wrong, Drew, when we do practical takeaways, I’ve got bold capital letters about being ethical because it’s not a place that the safety profession needs to be to get people to listen to. If that’s where we need to be, then, we’re not very good at our job.
Drew: A couple of examples they used. More often they spoke of safety people deliberately maybe oversimplifying external information in order to make a stronger point than the external reference could make. Removing some of the subtlety from the information in order to hit harder with it.
They also talked about being shrewd in the sense of switching tactics to match the interest of the person they were talking to. If they thought that someone would listen to what the rules were, then, they talk about the rules. If they didn’t, be interested in the financial situation, they’d talk about the financial benefits. If they thought it was someone who’d be influenced by a senior manager, they’d talk about what the senior manager thought. Adopting tactics to match the situation and the person; switching tactics if one tactic wasn’t working.
David: Yeah. They labeled this a bit adaptive framing of issues, Drew, and this is this selective use of managerial, administrative, accounting, legal, technical, moral arguments to promote their safety agenda. You said, Drew, if they would say, “Oh, this is going to be better for the construction process, or this is going to save us some money or this is going to make you look good,” back to shrewd, very creative in the way that they’re able to latch their safety arguments onto other things in the organization.
What they also found was that as soon as the safety professional met with some kind of resistance, they straightaway changed their argument to the risk of legal repercussion. It would go something like this where they would say to a manager, “If we go and change this practice, then it’s going to make the construction process a couple of days faster, it’s going to be good for the project; it’s going to be better for safety,” and if the manager said, “I’m not sure,” then they go, “But we have to do it anyway because the regulation requires us to.” This is a consistent finding with something that Kirsten Olsen found in a study 2012 in New Zealand which is just the default goto influencing tactic for the safety professional was legitimating their advice through the requirements of law.
Drew: What I found interesting was that in the study, it wasn’t necessarily the default. The legal risk was almost expressed as like a fallback position. If one tactic doesn’t work we’ll fall back to another one. If that one doesn’t work, well, we can say it’s the law.
David: Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t a default. It was a safety net, but again, I’d say if that’s your safety net, then I don't know if that’s where the profession wants to be or should be either. I’m sure that our listeners who’ve been in the safety profession for a while, I’ve got lots of stories based on what we’re kind of sharing in these findings.
They also went on, Drew, to talk about the use of symbolic enablers. Gain lots of not simple language, but this is sort of just stories and anecdotes that speak in favor of the practice they’re trying to promote. Actually making what they want to do seem to be something that, to use the framework earlier, is really appealing to the person. We did this on this project, and the world was fantastic. I think safety people do that a lot. In my last organization, we did this and it was excellent so we should do this again here. Find one business unit that you can get something to work in and then sing their praises of what’s going on in that business unit to the whole rest of the organization to get it to spread across the business.
The last bit, Drew, that they spoke about which is, I suppose, a bit more transactional which is this instrumental use of organizational processes. Which is just using the safety management system processes to actually get decisions made and get advice done. You mentioned earlier, Drew, about audit actions. Using audit, using incident investigations, using performance reporting processes, embedding themselves as safety professionals into operational processes like work permitting, site inspections, delivering induction training, and doing design reviews. Just either using the processes that you’ve got or putting yourself into operational processes to be able to influence and change the course the way that the operation’s running.
Drew: David, I’m very interested in your opinion on the, I guess, legitimacy is a little bit of an overloaded word here. On the practicality and ethics of these unobtrusive tactics, because I can absolutely see the strategic advantage if a safety person knows what the right thing to do is and is just having trouble getting it done, then, obviously the ethical thing to do is to try to be a good influencer, to try to persuade people to do the right thing. I think a lot of safety practitioners see that as part of their role.
That’s why we’re going through that list. I was thinking these are all the arguments and all the strategies that people use in the face of evidence to try to avoid decluttering safety. In our safety kind research, when we find an activity doesn’t work, we find all of these tactics are used to try to defend the activity. We see the adaptive framing. People start off with saying, “Oh, we’re doing this because it works.” Then you show them that it doesn’t work and they say, “We have to do it because it’s legally required.” You show them that it isn’t legally required. They say, “Oh, we’re doing it because it makes good sense. We can’t change it because it’s part of the system, and we’d have to change the whole system.”
The adaptive framing is used to defend what the safety practitioner is currently doing. It’s always like a mental defense against changing their mind about what the right thing to do is. I think that’s the danger of slippery influencing tactics. They’re great for persuading others, but they’re really bad for being open to updating your own beliefs in the face of evidence.
David: Yeah, Drew, that’s good. Just for our listeners’ reference, I’m sure Drew is talking again about take fives then. When you went through that process, I think if a safety professional wants to get an outcome, then this is the slide that you jump on because you’re trying to get something done and the ends justify the means, if you like, Drew, the safety professional, at least, in my professional identity research, has such a benevolent agenda around trying to keep people safe that they almost justify any way of getting that outcome in the organization is justified.
I don't know if that should be the safety professional’s primary objective which is getting outcomes. I think if you thought about the primary objective is the safety professional is building better relationships, which is more of a longer-term agenda, but then makes your life easier in the longer-term, then, you wouldn’t jump on the slide at all because you’d be more concerned about asking questions, understanding the position of the person, and working together with people in your organization rather than just I need to force this person to change their mind to do this right now.
Drew: I think that’s a really useful way to look at as these tactics are the right thing if what you’re trying to do is win an argument right now that absolutely has to be won. If you approach every argument like that, then there’s a real long-term cost. I think in terms of relationship building, for example, basically when it comes to drawing on external references for legitimacy, the long-term tactic is if you don’t have the evidence to say so, to say, “Look, I’d like you to do this, but actually honestly, the evidence is fairly weak. I just think it’s a good idea.” Train people when you do say ‘no’ actually, in this case the evidence is slam dunk, we’ve got to do it. Then you’ve trained them into thinking, “Okay, if it’s weak evidence, listen. If it’s no evidence, ignore. If it’s strong evidence, well, you have to listen to the safety practitioner.” That’s not a tactic that wins you every argument because sometimes you just have to admit, “No, I don’t have the evidence for this one,” or, “No, it’s not really strong,” but in the long term, builds the relationship there’s a trust adviser.
David: Yeah, we probably stumbled onto this practical takeaway, Drew, but I think that there is some really good advice there that’s worth reinforcing which is for safety professionals to think about the long game that they’re playing in their organization around their own influence.
A lot of these research papers are looking at individual transactions. The safety professional as being a trusted adviser or trusted authority in the long term in their organization probably needs to think about different transactional tactics to play that long game.
Drew, is there anything else you want to say about this paper and the findings of this paper before we do finish on some practical takeaways? Again, large construction company, three phases, lots of interviews, lots of site observations, came and kind of said safety professionals influenced by building really good relationships and leveraging those both externally and internally and sources of information, and then they’d come and adaptively frame these issues and selectively position their safety advice within other things that they can hook on to. If all that fails, then they can always just say that you’re not going to be delivering your duty of care if you don’t do what I say.
Drew: One other thing that I found interesting that I’m just going to put a pin in, and I think we might come back to in an entire future episode, is this idea that keeps cropping up about the idea of legitimacy. It’s something that comes from both the profession’s literature and from the institution’s literature. The idea that the ability to have power to have agency is linked to the ability to describe what you’re doing as legitimate. The way safety practitioners establish the legitimacy of their roles and of specific things they suggest I think is really key to understanding how the role works and improving the role. We don’t have much directly to say about that from this paper. Maybe we could move specifically onto, I’m not going to even try to pronounce the author’s name. I’ll leave that to you, David, but he provided two specific practical takeaways that I think we can endorse.
David: Yeah, look, and in the context like just diving in in the context of the research findings, he suggested that safety professionals should secure diverse types of endorsement across the organization. Talk about coercive, normative, and cognitive to make up for their lack of formal authority. You need to have the ability to kind of coerce people and guide people. You need to have the ability to tell people what it needs to look like and you need to be able to kind of rationalize, and provide data, and information, and things like that depending on the context and the situation. Also suggested that you need to develop a big and as effective network of flexible connections inside and outside the organization. By flexible, that means connections that you can draw in and out to your own situation as and when you need to.
Drew, I think that’s not rocket science probably for a lot of our listeners to say, “Yeah, I do that. I’ve got a big network of connections, and, yeah, I always position my advice within the context of the situation and the person who I’m talking to.” That’s not maybe usually new and earth-shattering, but I want to talk a bit more broadly about the safety profession now.
Drew: David, I’m going to jump in just quickly before we do. I want to make that coercive, normative, and cognitive a little bit more practical for our listeners because I think that is actually quite a useful one. If you’re going to give advice about something, really in safety there are three things that you could point to. I think it's great to actually think about can I do all three of these?
The coercive is can I point to some external source of authority that says this is the way it should be? Can I point to a regulation? Can I point to a law? Can I point to some sort of standard?
Normative is can I give some evidence that this is the right thing to do? For example, is there evidence that this works? Is this reputably shown to do what I think it can do?
Cognitive, can I explain why it’s a good idea? Can I explain to someone else why it would be expected to work, why it is a good idea. For any particular activity or thing you want to do, you can point to both the authority, it’s the right thing to do, and you can explain why it’s the right thing to do, then you should be fairly secure that what you’ve got is the right thing and you will be very persuasive because you’ll be able to adapt depending on what the person is looking for.
David: I’d sort of glossed over that framework, Drew, but I like the way that you described that. It’s a good simple test if particularly for safety professionals who are going to go into a maybe difficult discussion or they really want to change and disrupt their organization in some way that actually is being prepared through that. Being prepared with those three sorts of angles, if you like, or check some tests, Drew, would be a usual thing for them to prepare themselves around.
I’m just reflecting, I suppose, on the paper, Drew, and my experience in the safety profession and I sort of thought we said that the role is maybe 99% influence. It’s kind of the measure of success and the measure of effectiveness of safety professionals is their ability to influence in their organization.
Another takeaway for our listeners would be to learn about influence. We provided an 11-step framework that we’ll link in the show notes. There’s a lot of books and a lot of studies in influence, and it’s probably the single most important skill that knowledge workers have and it’s becoming even more important every single day with the increasing complexity of our world that we live in and work in.
Drew: There’s a specific book I’ll recommend here that I think every safety practitioner should have on their shelf which is by Cialdini, it’s called Influence the Psychology of Persuasion. If you’re looking across your shelf and you got a book about accidents, books about safety management systems, there really should be something there about how to persuade others as well. I mean I’ll put a negative recommendation to How to Win Friends and Influence People, that’s a book about sales tactics, not about persuasion.
David: Yeah, and I’ll throw a recommendation in there as well, Drew. Cohen and Bradford have written a book called Influence Without Authority that’s now in its third edition and it talks about how to lead people who don’t report to you. It’s specifically focused on the organizational context. The original book was written 20 years ago, but it’s a really, really, really good read. Cohen and Bradord, Influence Without Authority is another great place to start and a good read.
I suppose, Drew, learn a little bit about influence, look at a few different models of influence, and then reflect on your own approach as a practitioner. How do you influence others? What’s your default? What’s your safety net? What’s your approach in different situations? Even if you want, reflect on how you are influenced by others. What are the things that get you to change a decision? Who do you listen to in an organization and why do you listen to them?
Then I’d suggest people just practice different approaches in different contexts. Reflect when you haven’t been successful in influencing and think about why that didn’t go the way that you wanted it to go. You know the usefulness of reflective practice in improving our effectiveness and in learning.
Just to touch on these points that we danced around a little bit. Be deliberate about the style that you promote and what you do in your organization because of the impact that it will have on the safety climate. If the safety department becomes known as the team that would use any argument just to basically get their way, then that can send some strong symbols and signals into the organization about safety and how people think about safety more broadly.
Drew: Model the type of influence that you would like people to be having conversations about when you’re not there. If what you want is people focused on compliance and what the reg say, then use that as your discussion. If you want people to talk about what is defaulting to the safe option, then use that language. If you want people to be thinking in evidence-based, then use evidence yourself as the influencing tactic.
David: The last practical takeaway would be the ends don’t justify the means, so be ethical. Don’t manipulate incident classifications to make a program look more successful than at otherwise would have been, just don’t, I suppose, would be the practical takeaway. If you can’t get someone to listen, keep trying and keep reflecting on your own approach before you go and do something that’s unprofessional or unethical, even if you think it’s with the best of intentions.
Drew: If you don’t want to be ethical for its own sake, don’t misrepresent what another report says because guaranteed the time you misrepresent it is the time that someone else is going to go and read it. There’s your influence lost forever.
David: We usually do invitations for our listeners. I’m really interested, Drew, in understanding if people are actually doing anything with their safety in their own individual learning or with their safety organization about influencing skills for safety professionals? Does anyone have any programs running? Does anyone have any frameworks for the professionals within their organization about how to approach influencing skills? Because my hypothesis would be it’s something that we know is really important, we always talk about but maybe very few organizations are actually trying to do something to understand and enhance it for their safety organization.
Drew: Yeah. I’m very invested in that too.
Today, we asked the question, how do safety professionals exert influence. To make the answer as brief as possible, I think we said that they exert influence through relational legitimacy building, which is your building external networking and references from outside the organization, or internal networks of relationships and influence. And, through unobtrusive influencing tactics. We’re a little on defense there. That was a good or a bad thing.
David: Thanks, Drew. I thought you’re going to throw me to answer that one. I’m happy that you asked and answered the question.
That’s it for this week. We hope you found this episode thought-provoking and ultimately, useful in shaping the safety of work in your own organization. Send any comments, questions or ideas for future episodes to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.